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Surviving Hurricane Katrina

Story of the year?

It was the worst natural disaster in the nation’s history.
On the morning of August 29, Hurricane Katrina struck Mississippi a grievous blow. Even though the 30-mile-wide eye of the Category 4 storm made landfall at the Mississippi-Louisiana line, the hurricane completely devastated the Mississippi Gulf Coast, from Pearlington to Pascagoula. Its impact extended more than 200 miles inland with hurricane force winds.

“The miles upon miles of utter destruction is unimaginable, except to those who have witnessed it with their own eyes, on the ground,” said Gov. Haley Barbour. “In her wake, Katrina left literally tens of thousands of uninhabitable, often obliterated homes; thousands of small businesses in shambles; dozens of schools and public buildings ruined and unusable; highways, ports and railroads, water and sewer systems, all destroyed.”

As of November 21, insurance companies had paid more than $5 billion in Hurricane Katrina-related claims to Mississippians, with thousands of claims pending. Some reports predicted those claims would surpass $30 billion nationwide.

One hundred days after the storm, more than 21 million cubic yards of debris had been removed in Mississippi, with much more remaining.

Temporary housing had been installed at a record pace, with more than 24,000 temporary housing units occupied by 65,000 Mississippians. At press time, 10,000 more units were needed.

Employment declined nearly 57,000 jobs in September, the same month individual income tax withholdings dropped 9.4%. The Mississippi Gulf Coast’s 12 casinos, plus the new Hard Rock Hotel & Casino scheduled to open the following week, suffered catastrophic damage, putting an immediate halt to gaming tax revenues of $500,000 per day. Three casinos are expected to re-open by year’s end.

As of December 5, nearly half of all Mississippi Gulf Coast healthcare centers remained closed.

“We found ourselves having to scramble, adjust, innovate, make do,” Barbour told a bipartisan House subcommittee, pleading for federal assistance ironically on December 7, the 54th-anniversary of Pearl Harbor and the beginning of U.S. involvement in World War II. “Our efforts weren’t perfect either, not by any means. But the spirit of our people pulled us through. Our people are strong, resilient, self-reliant. They’re not whiners. They’re not into victim hood. From day one, they hitched up their britches and did what had to be done: they helped themselves and their neighbors. Their spirit has been an inspiration to me, and it was and is the key to relief, recovery, rebuilding and renewal.”

By September 8, Barbour had tapped business magnate Jim Barksdale to chair the newly-created Governor’s Commission on Recovery, Rebuilding and Renewal. The daunting task called for Barksdale to produce a final report by the end of 2005, summarizing the best ideas for rebuilding those communities and presenting a broad vision for renewal.

As part of the commission’s information-gathering assignment, Mississippi Gulf Coast charrettes were held in October, in a weeklong series of workshops dubbed the Mississippi Renewal Forum. Organized by the Chicago-based Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU) and led by Miami architect-planner Andres Duany, teams of highly qualified local and out-of-state professionals worked with community leaders to design and plan for rebuilding the hurricane-affected areas.

“I was delighted with the charrettes, mainly because the people here were delighted,” said Barksdale. “It was 24 hours of non-stop idea generation, like architects on steroids. That place was humming. This plan is going to be a marvelous rebirth with places of historical significance intermingled with bold, new ideas people have dreamed about down here.”
Northop Grumman Corporation (NYSE:NOC), Mississippi’s largest private employer, suffered significant damage at its Gulf Coast properties. After touring facilities in Pascagoula and Gulfport on Friday following the storm, and seeing more than 700 Northrop Grumman Ship Systems sector shipbuilders responding to the call for clean up and to bring the shipyards back into production, corporate vice president and Ship Systems president Philip Teel said he was “so proud of our shipbuilders and their sacrifices in the midst of this unprecedented national crisis. This is like a city coming back to life.”

By mid-October, Northrop Grumman was providing temporary housing to more than 1,000 coastal employees, and roughly 12,500 of the Ship Systems’ workforce of nearly 20,000 had reported to work full time.

On September 9, Oreck Corporation was the first Gulfport-area plant to re-open, putting 500 people back to work. For its employees, the company acquired new mobile housing units; contracted for food, water and supplies; and purchased generators and storage tanks and thousands of gallons of diesel fuel.

“If they were an Oreck employee before the hurricane, they still have a job,” said Oreck president and CEO Tom Oreck.

Federal aid is trickling into the state. The Federal Highway Administration recently announced an advancement of $20 million to repair or rebuild highways and bridges damaged by Hurricane Katrina. But “recovery and renewal efforts are stalled because of inaction in Washington, D.C., and the delay has created uncertainty that is having very negative effects on our recovery and rebuilding,” said Barbour. “It is taking the starch out of people who’ve worked so hard to help themselves and their neighbors.”

Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne W. Jeter at lwjeter@yahoo.com.

About Lynne W. Jeter

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