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Hope and heartache on the Gulf Coast

'Some days we feel like we only take backward steps'

By Jeff Green
In late February 2006, Loc Nguyen and brother Vu work to repair a shrimp boat damaged by Katrina.


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Hurricane Katrina

(CNN) -- When Hurricane Camille struck the Gulf Coast in 1969, Kay Kell had to swim to higher ground in Waveland, Mississippi, with her two children -- a 3-month-old and an 18-month-old -- in tow.

Now the city manager in Pascagoula, Mississippi, Kell weathered Hurricane Katrina six months ago at City Hall with her eldest child, who brought her husband and her own four kids from Waveland for safety.

Their home, closer to the eye of the nation's most destructive storm, was one of 65,000 to be lost in Mississippi, where more than 220 people died.

"Personally, it's been very, very difficult," Kell said.

She has yet to move back to her home, one of the 95 percent of the city's livable properties she said were swamped by the storm in the low-lying county seat near the Alabama line.

"That shocked even us," Kell said of the total. Since then, she said, the cleanup has been hampered by "an incredible bureaucracy."

"It is hard to believe that we work so hard, and some days we feel like we only take backward steps," she said.

Pascagoula is one of many communities along the Gulf Coast that are working to get the storm's damage cleaned up and planning for what will one day replace the mountains of debris.

"You just can't even imagine the destruction; it's unfathomable until you see it," said Connie Moran, the mayor of Ocean Springs, which was spared some of the worst damage because of its higher elevation.

Almost 100,000 people across Mississippi are still living in nearly 37,000 travel trailers and mobile homes provided by FEMA. About 42,500 FEMA trailers are across Louisiana and 2,300 in Alabama.

Getting back to normal is a struggle, particularly in Mississippi's Hancock County, where a massive storm surge left 95 percent of Bay St. Louis underwater. Seventy percent of the businesses there remain closed. (Katrina, time take toll on Bay St. Louis)

Fueling frustration are battles with insurance companies over how much of the storm damage will be covered, and even United States senators can't escape the wrangling.

Sen. Trent Lott lost a $750,000 Pascagoula home to Katrina, and is suing his insurance company. State Farm contended that it was not wind but storm surge that caused the damage. Lott did not have flood insurance.

Although Gulf Coast residents praised volunteers and faith-based organizations for helping them get through the difficult weeks after Katrina, it's the billions in federal dollars on which local officials pin their long-term hopes.

"If we actually get everything that we're being told we'll get, we won't be in horrible shape," Kell said.

Determining how to use those funds and incorporate lessons learned from Katrina was part of the task undertaken by the Governor's Commission on Recovery, Rebuilding and Renewal in Mississippi. The group's report contains more than 200 recommendations, including adopting stricter building codes; changing zoning to promote pedestrian-friendly "smart growth;" and moving a CSX railway farther north to make way for a light rail line.

Gulfport Mayor Brent Warr said recently that his city's rebuilding "will capture the best we have to offer, both past and future."

"We have opportunities now we would never have had without Katrina," he said. "We have a unique opportunity to work together and build the community we want to call home -- places to work, lovely places to live and beautiful harbors and parks to take our children and grandchildren."

The governor's plan is now largely in the hands of the local governments, and already there is friction between some communities.

Activist Derrick Evans expressed fear that the rush to rebuild could overwhelm his tiny community of Turkey Creek in some ways more than Katrina did.

Evans heads the Turkey Creek Community Initiatives, a nonprofit group fighting to preserve and revitalize the largely low-income neighborhood, which is deeply rooted in African-American history and was annexed by Gulfport in 1994. (Turkey Creek feels abandoned)

Debris remains piled up in Waveland, Mississippi, six months after Katrina demolished the small town.

Evans said he has not been encouraged by some early signs in Turkey Creek since the storm, including the opening of a new used-car lot, the erection of a massive billboard and the loss of perhaps more trees than were downed by Katrina.

After helping with the relief effort and spending $20,000 of his own money immediately after the storm, the Boston College professor said he's kept his focus on "implementing a plan for the long-term revitalization of this community."

"If not, other people's talk about a bigger and better Gulf Coast was going to spell what that has always spelled for Turkey Creek, and that is a lesser and more diminished Turkey Creek Community and watershed," he said.

Gulfport and Mississippi's other cities face a March 15 deadline, after which they and the state will each have to cover 5 percent of the cost for demolition and cleanup, rather than be fully reimbursed by the federal government.

More than 30 million cubic yards of debris - about three-fourths of the total -- have been removed from the state's six southernmost counties, and crews work daily on the quarter that remains. (A million cubic yards would equal about 10 football fields piled 50 feet high.) About 34 million cubic yards of debris have been cleaned up in Louisiana, and Alabama has cleared around 3 million.

Ocean Springs' Moran said she will ask Gov. Haley Barbour to request that President Bush extend the deadline "at least to as far as Louisiana has it, which is June 30."

Waveland Mayor Tommy Longo said he gets angry about the pace of the cleanup by the Army Corps of Engineers in his hard-hit community, saying residents are resilient -- "but emotionally, you know, they're getting fragile."

With the deadline looming, Kell expressed frustration with an "impossible situation" -- a cleanup process slowed by multiple subcontractors, dealings with utilities and problems getting right-of-entry agreements from private landowners.

"Our big push right now is trying to get the housing that is not repairable moved away so people can rebuild," Kell said. "We're afraid the longer that takes, the more discouraged people are getting."

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