Minding Mississippi

Disaster | Volunteers and locals continue the long, slow, and unheralded process of rebuilding after Katrina

Issue: "Who's laughing now?," April 8, 2006

BILOXI and PASS CHRISTIAN, Miss.-At 81 years old, all Felicia O'Connor wants is "a clean place to sleep and somewhere to make my coffee." For the past four months, Mrs. O'Connor has been sleeping and making coffee in a tiny FEMA travel trailer on a narrow lot behind her small, water-logged home in Biloxi, Miss. Hurricane Katrina filled the one-story house with 6 feet of sea water, destroying everything inside and leaving it uninhabitable.

The trailer is cramped, but Mrs. O'Connor considers herself fortunate: It's much better than the screened-in front porch where she lived for over two months before FEMA delivered the emergency unit. Like many life-long Biloxi residents, Mrs. O'Connor, a widow for 41 years, wanted to stay close to her home after the storm, even if it meant sleeping outside. She has family in other states, but "I couldn't stay away," she told WORLD from the small doorway of her tidy camper.

Scores of other Mississippians couldn't stay away, either. Mrs. O'Connor is one of some 100,000 people in the state living in FEMA trailers, and thousands more are on a waiting list. Clean-up has been steady along the 70 miles of devastated Mississippi coastline, but more than six months after Katrina's landfall, a first-time visitor to Biloxi might think a hurricane struck yesterday: Empty slabs, hollowed-out homes, crumbling hotels, and piles of rubble stretch for miles. Hand-made signs lean against dilapidated houses revealing a range of homeowner sentiments: "Stay away," "Coming back," "Not worth trying for."

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Mississippi governor Haley Barbour thinks the devastated region is "worth trying for" and has aggressively pursued redeveloping the private sector first, and working with urban planners on long-term redevelopment, saying, "This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to rebuild this state the right way."

Mississippi also will receive a major boost from the federal government-$5.1 billion of an $11.5 billion appropriation for hurricane recovery, and $368 million for Medicaid costs. That's all money the state desperately needs, according to Mr. Barbour, who is "1,000 percent unapologetic" for Mississippi's slice of the large aid package.

Mr. Barbour is also unapologetic about calling the amount of attention New Orleans has received since the hurricane disproportionate. "I think the good stories about Mississippi are not as newsworthy in people's minds," he recently told the Associated Press.

Mrs. O'Connor considers herself one of Mississippi's good stories. Cinching her bright blue housecoat on a crisp morning, she cranes her head around the corner of her trailer to survey the 11 workers renovating her house. These workers aren't paid-Mrs. O'Connor lives in one of Biloxi's poorest neighborhoods and has no insurance-they're volunteers from the North Carolina--based Christian ministry Samaritan's Purse.

"These people have been wonderful," says Mrs. O'Connor, who remembers when a Samaritan's Purse volunteer first stopped to check on her. "We had a word of prayer, and he told me he'd be back," she says, "but I thought I'd never see him again. . . . How I was wrong." The volunteer did return, bringing a work crew and supplies to gut, clean, drywall, and re-frame the house.

On this morning, volunteers from California and Florida are sanding freshly hung sheet rock. The group will also lay a new floor to replace the buckling hardwoods that are full of holes. "They've done everything they said they were going to do, and that's rare," says Mrs. O'Connor, who struggles with frail health. "I'll be so happy if I can get in my house just one more time before I go to glory."

Mrs. O'Connor is one of some 2,400 people that Samaritan's Purse has helped in Biloxi since last September. Biloxi site manager Ken Sides says more than 1,600 volunteers from all over the country have taken vacations, spring breaks, and unpaid leaves to help with the Gulf Coast project. "They're the backbone of what we do," Mr. Sides said from a makeshift office at the group's seashore campsite. Samaritan's Purse will stay in Biloxi "indefinitely," he said. "This is going to take years and years."

Lee Owens is glad it won't take years to get back into his house. The 82-year-old Biloxi resident has lived in a low-income neighborhood less than 2 miles from the beach for 44 years. The hurricane flooded his home, "but being blind, I couldn't see none of it, anyway," he says from the small stoop of his FEMA trailer. Mr. Owens' blindness has made life after the storm even more complicated. His son Jerald says his father has trouble maneuvering through the small trailer: "He's fallen down in there and hit his head a couple of times."


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