Cover Story

Dark to daylight

The one-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina finds pockets of progress mingled with miles of destruction. "This isn't about nails and hammers, it's about families that need to go home"

Issue: "Katrina: One year later," Aug. 26, 2006

NEW ORLEANS - On a sweltering August morning in downtown New Orleans, Harrah's Casino is doing brisk business. It's only 11 a.m. on a Tuesday, but already dozens of gamblers are sipping tiny cocktails and pushing blue chips across green poker tables. On the casino's south end, rows of patrons sit under glittering lights holding cold beers and pulling silver levers on gaudy slot machines with names like "Money to Burn."

Across the street in a gutted office with brown shag carpeting, Tobey Pitman doesn't have money to burn, but he does have scores of people to help. Pitman operated a Southern Baptist homeless shelter in New Orleans for nearly 30 years until Hurricane Katrina largely dispersed the city's chronically homeless population last year (see "Storm shelter," April 15, 2006).

The shelter has since closed, but Pitman now heads the denomination's recovery and rebuilding efforts for what he calls "the new homeless" in a city that-on its first anniversary of Hurricane Katrina-finds little to celebrate. "New Orleans is still crippled," he says.

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One year after Hurricane Katrina ripped into the Gulf Coast on Aug. 29, 2005, bringing one of the worst natural disasters in U.S. history, the rest of the region is still crippled as well. Pockets of progress mingle with miles of destruction in both Louisiana and Mississippi, while thousands wait and wonder if they'll ever go home.

Along Mississippi's ransacked coastline, empty lots stretch for miles where hundreds of homes once stood. Statewide, Katrina destroyed some 68,000 houses and significantly damaged another 55,000. In most areas, little debris is left: FEMA has spent more than $1 billion to haul away nearly 45 million cubic yards of debris in the state, and the removal project is 97 percent complete.

That project has left Mississippi's coastal regions remarkably cleaner, but painfully barren. Some areas look as if they were never inhabited. In smaller towns like Pass Christian only a handful of gas stations and markets have re-opened. Libraries and schools remain abandoned. Century-old tombstones lie broken and toppled in weed-infested cemeteries. Beaches remain empty and closed for swimming, with signs warning of remaining storm debris in the water.

Larger cities like Biloxi and Gulfport have seen more progress: Businesses are rebuilding, and local officials say developers from across the country are interested in investing in the coast's revival. Five of the region's 12 casinos have reopened. The state has allocated $600 million to replace major bridges washed out in the Bay St. Louis and Biloxi bays, and work is scheduled to begin soon.

At a recent "Governor's Recovery Expo" in Gulfport, Gov. Haley Barbour called the region's progress "incredible. . . . And the difference between August the 30th of 2005 and today is literally the difference between daylight and dark."

But more than 100,000 Mississippians are stuck in twilight, displaced and living in government trailers, according to FEMA. Some are clustered in parks on barren patches of land or vacant parking lots. Some units sit on homeowners' empty property next to mini-shrines made from small remnants of their homes: a bathtub here, a small portion of a staircase there.

Even for homeowners who have the money to rebuild, severe labor shortages have left many waiting on contractors and electricians for months. Others are unsure about new building codes and the rising cost of insurance. Thousands more don't have the resources to rebuild and are still waiting to find out how much help they'll receive.

Congress recently approved a grant program that will award homeowners up to $150,000 to rebuild their homes in Louisiana and Mississippi. (Award amounts are based on each home's pre-Katrina value and the damage sustained.) Most eligible Mississippians should receive checks by the end of the month, according to the governor. Louisiana residents may have to wait months while their state agency processes applications.

Insurance settlements have been less certain. Scores of homeowners didn't have flood insurance, and some agencies aren't paying for large portions of damage they say were flood-induced. Homeowners have argued that wind caused most of the damage to their property, and many are taking their cases to court.

Similar insurance headaches also plague residents of Louisiana, along with a dizzying set of other dire problems. If large swaths of Mississippi look painfully barren a year later, large swaths of New Orleans look painfully the same.

In New Orleans workers have hauled off abandoned cars and restored electricity to most of the city, but the hardest-hit areas of town remain largely untouched. The smell of mold lingers in the Ninth Ward, where residents are still gutting their homes. Miles of houses in the Lower Ninth lie crumpled and rotting. Power lines crisscross barren streets and many traffic lights remain dead-exactly as they were a year ago. The National Guard even patrols some uninhabited areas as it did just after the storm.

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