Dollars & Sense co-editor Chris Sturr wrote to me today to let me know that "Gone to Mississippi," the feature I wrote about my trip to the Gulf Coast, is now online. This is the opening section:
"You have to come here... you just can't understand unless you see it... please come," Gayle Tart said to me. Kermit Moore, an organizer from the Mississippi Workers' Center for Human Rights, had referred me to Tart, an African-American attorney in Gulfport, for a perspective on Hurricane Katrina's impact in Mississippi.
Her urgency was persuasive. In late January, after I had traveled around the Gulf Coast region for a week, I met Tart in a private home in Gulfport. "Now we can talk," she said. "Until you saw what I saw, I couldn't talk to you. You had no way of understanding."
Tart was right.
Two things I could not understand from where I sat in Boston were the true extent of Katrina's geographic reach in Mississippi, Louisiana, and Alabama—wiping out an entire region of the country—and the scale of human costs, compounded by government policies, local, state, and federal.
Even before the trip, I knew something wasn't right about the media's coverage of Mississippi. I heard entire towns were wiped out, but I didn't hear anything about African American communities, even though Mississippi has the highest concentration of African Americans in the United States. Even along the Gulf Coast, one of the whitest parts of the state, there are many heavily African-American areas. For instance, Gulfport, the second largest city in the state, is one-third African American; parts of the city are over 90% African American. But Katrina's impact on African-American communities on the Mississippi coast was virtually absent from the news.
On October 11, Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour announced the formation of his Commission on Recovery, Rebuilding and Renewal. "The Coast and South Mississippi will decide their own destiny," Barbour said, "but with strong support from the Commission, our Congressional delegation, state officials and many others."
But whom, exactly, will government support? "It took some seven weeks after that commission was convened to even have a committee on housing, even though housing was the main thing the goddamn storm knocked out," noted Derrick Evans, founder and director of Turkey Creek Community Initiatives, an innovative nonprofit community development corporation in the historic African-American settlement, now part of Gulfport. "They quickly fast-tracked legislation to allow the casinos to be rebuilt on land so that the casino companies and operators wouldn't abandon the Gulf Coast. An opportunity was missed to also require those folks, when they rebuild, to pay into an affordable housing trust fund, like the hotels do in Boston."
To travel through the Gulf Coast region is to move through a twilight zone where thousands of people are in limbo, with no sense of their future. In contrast to the damage Katrina brought in New Orleans, the storm was largely color-blind in its immediate destruction of Mississippi. Like New Orleans, however, there are racial and economic dimensions to everything in the aftermath—from the availability of resources for relief and cleanup to reconstruction plans.
"On September 29, 2005, four weeks after the storm, after weeks of begging FEMA and a visit to Washington, D.C., to get congressional support, a FEMA Disaster Recovery Center finally arrived in East Biloxi," said Ward 2 City Councilor Bill Stallworth, speaking before Congress last December. "That same week, the Red Cross set up an assistance center."
"In emergency room triage, you attend to the person with their arm hanging off, not the one with the splinter," Stallworth continued. "The Red Cross and FEMA seem to have a different mindset. The areas of Biloxi that were not as hard hit received a rapid response, while a good three and half weeks past the storm, we were still awaiting assistance."
"We could see other areas with lights, and we didn't have lights," recalled an African-American accountant in Gulfport, Sam Arnold, who is currently a community organizer with International Relief and Development. "We were like two or three weeks in, and we could see the main highway , since our community is only two blocks off the highway. The businesses on 49 had lights, and we didn't have lights. And you know, you really can't function without electricity."
The immediate housing crisis for storm survivors is translating into land grabs in low-income neighborhoods. Most widely at risk are African-American neighborhoods, many of them of historic significance, though not widely recognized as such.
(Read the rest.)
The online version is currently no-frills, without any of the images that appear in the magazine. I've uploaded a PDF of the magazine version [2.2 MB], in case you'd like to see it.
The image, above, appears on the opening pages of my article. Go here to see it large.
It was dumbfounding to drive along the coast in Biloxi and find the Grand Casino on the north side of Highway 90. Before Katrina, the casino was on a barge, docked off the beach, south of the highway. The storm surge lifted the casino barge out of the water, over the beach and over the highway. If you stand at the western end of the barge and look east, you can see the yellow and blue neon sign, a half mile down the road, where the barge originally sat. The same thing happened to two other casino barges—the President Casino in Biloxi, which landed on top of a Holiday Inn, and the Gulfport Grand Casino.