Hurricane Katrina

Being 'in between' can wear you down

It's hard to say where we are a year after Hurricane Katrina, but for most people it's in between.

Dick and Nola Dickens of Long Beach are in between a travel trailer and their home. They've posted a sign that proclaims "We're baaack smaller n poorer."

"We've raided our savings and wore out our credit cards," Dick Dickens said.

"We're hoping for the state grant to beat the credit-card bills in," Nola Dickens added.

They, along with more than 16,000 other Coast families who did not live in flood zones but lost their houses to the hurricane's storm surge, have applied for assistance through the Hurricane Katrina Homeowner Grant Program.

Billions of federal dollars for that program and others have been allocated for recovery. Retail sales are spiking. Banks are flush with cash. Architects are designing casino palaces. Developers are building new subdivisions. The Coast is on its way back and the future is bright, according to national news reports and political leaders.

But the money hasn't trickled down yet, and people are stressed out. They're in between homes, in between jobs and in between decisions. People are sinking into depression, seeking comfort in food and drink, and lashing out at the ones they love. There's just too much to be decided and debated. For instance, some Coast leaders can't even agree on how to build a bridge.

Being in between can wear you down.

Wendy Bailey, public relations manager for Project Recovery, said the despair after a disaster can be worse than the immediate anguish.

"Immediately after the hurricane, our call staff and outreach workers were bombarded with questions about how to get food or how to get trees off houses," she said. "Then time passes. I think more of the psychological and emotional reactions kick in. After a hurricane, you're in survival mode in the beginning. Now, it's sinking in. There's a lot of frustration, anger and anxiety."

She expects those feelings to increase because of Katrina's anniversary and the peak period of hurricane season. Bailey recommends that people talk about their feelings and allow the anniversary date to be part of the healing process.

Debris mostly gone

It's been a long, hard year since the hurricane struck. And though many people are frustrated with the pace of recovery, a great deal has been accomplished.

Beach Boulevard may appear desolate, but it doesn't look like a war zone anymore. The washed-out hulls of buildings have been demolished, the millions of tons of rubble trucked away.

The Live oaks appear to be holding their own despite being deluged by saltwater, battered by storm-tossed objects and withered by months of drought. Dozens of the majestic trees never got that chance. A contractor for the Mississippi Department of Transportation improperly jerked them out of the ground about two weeks after the storm.

The state agency had more than 130 small trees planted to replace them. The city of Gulfport has watered the trees regularly, and almost all have taken root.

The hurricane made the beachfront of all the Coast cities look the same, but it affected them in different ways. Biloxi is building back its tourism economy with casino resorts and high-rise condominiums. Gulfport's retail base is delivering sales-tax money to city coffers. Other cities are struggling.

"We've seen a huge increase in retail sales in some areas of the Coast," said Brian Richard, research director at the University of Southern Mississippi's Economic Development Resource Center. "Gautier is up 70 to 80 percent in the months from March to June compared to last year. Gulfport is over 50 to 60 percent. Ocean Springs is up 40 percent. People are replacing furniture and appliances they lost. They are also buying building materials."

On the western end of the Coast, retail sales are down sharply. Pass Christian's sales have gone down 60 to 70 percent for the same period, Richard said.

Ocean Springs and Biloxi are old cities that could be double-first cousins. Families have lived on both sides of the bay that divides the cities for generations, but the places have very different identities. For Biloxi, heavy traffic on U.S. 90 is the lifeblood of the economy. For Ocean Springs, it's like a stampede through town.

Disagreements between the two mayors over how the bridge should look and how wide the highway should be may continue, but the bridge will be rebuilt.

Jobs coming back

The bridges across the Biloxi Bay and the Bay of St. Louis are critical to the Coast's recovery. So is housing people can afford.

"We lost 15 or 20 percent of the housing for lower-income families, under $35,000 a year per household," Richard said.

The high unemployment rate and the multitude of help-wanted signs is due to a "disconnect," he said. People are in between jobs.

"There's a mismatch between the skills of the people that are available to work and the types of work that are available," Richard said. "People are holding out until their jobs in the casinos or whatever sector they were in come back."

The opening of Beau Rivage this month and plans by other casino companies to build back bigger will put thousands back to work, he said.

The commercial sector is rebounding more slowly than the residential sector, said Dave Dennis, a board member of the New Orleans branch of the Federal Reserve Bank. The high wind-coverage insurance rates for businesses is one reason. However, he said he expects the pace to pick up because of federal tax incentives in the Gulf Opportunity Zone Act of 2005.

"We're still in a major planning mode," Dennis said. "The projects that are going to come out of the ground are pretty much in planning right now. Another factor that's going to accelerate the building phase is the GO Zone activity. That's for the big players. The GO Zone has a sunset of December 2008. That's, at this point, 28 months out. It's still an incentive to get going. It's going to cause things to accelerate. Once they start, it's going to start almost a building freeze unless the GO Zone sunset deadlines are extended, at least in the Coast areas."

Neighbors from afar

The groups most responsible for getting people back in their homes didn't do it because of a financial incentive. They're the faith-based organizations.

Dick and Nola Dickens were in between moving to Alaska, where they once lived, and staying in Long Beach, their home for more than 20 years, until they met a Baptist man from North Carolina. Rob Harrell with Adventures in Missions helped the couple rebuild.

"I'm not particularly religious," said Dick Dickens. "I sat here and said, 'Lord, show me what to do.' I don't think He showed me what to do. He showed somebody else what to do. I don't know what we've done to deserve all this help."