Poplarville has one of South Mississippi’s most charming and vibrant main streets. Things are normally slow paced in the small town that doesn’t even have one stoplight. But since August 29 when the population nearly doubled with Katrina evacuees and workers, stoplights would have come in handy.
“The traffic since Katrina is horrendous here,” says Meloney Talbot-Adams, owner of Nature’s Path Health Food Store and Adams Sign Company. “The state took away our traffic lights because they said we didn’t have enough traffic. Now that our traffic is doubled, I sure hope the state reconsiders and puts traffic lights back up.”
Talbot-Adams had roof damage at her stores and didn’t reopen for a month. But she says Poplarville in general didn’t get hit nearly as hard as the coastal areas to the South.
While Katrina has brought in lots of newcomers and more business, it can be stressful for store owners.
“People come in and say, ‘We lost everything,’” Talbot-Adams said. “It is difficult to hear that again and again. A lady came in the other day who has terminal cancer and lost her home to Katrina. Her insurance had been cancelled before the storm. What do you say to someone like that?”
Making the best of it
Despite the hardships, the attitude of many of the newcomers is to make the best of things. Donna Bankston, president of the Poplarville Chamber of Commerce and owner of the Printing and Sign Shop on Main Street, said people are surprisingly upbeat.
“They have a good attitude,” Bankston said. “Sometimes they can’t believe how good their attitude is when they have lost their house and business. I tell them all the time: ‘I hope you do stay.’ We look forward to growing. We were growing before the hurricane, and this has really spurred the growth on.”
Downtown businesses were without power about a week, but some used generators or even flashlights to open earlier than that to serve customers with vital goods such as medicines and food. While there was roof damage and downed trees, there were few buildings totally destroyed. That put Poplarville in good shape to serve as home to thousands of people displaced by Katrina, and to thousands more people who came to the area to help with recovery operations.
The result has been a major increase for businesses like grocery stores, restaurants and others.
“Our businesses here have been going gangbusters,” Bankston said. “Business has been really good. All businesses are extremely busy. I haven’t heard one business tell me they are slower than they were before. Our town doubled in size basically overnight. We have all these new workers in town. They have the same needs here that they had at home. They have to eat. So the restaurants are doing way better than ever before. In fact, at first they had trouble getting enough food. UPS wouldn’t run into hurricane- affected areas for several weeks after the hurricane. That put a halt on some of the goods coming through.”
Some retailers reported higher sales in September and October than they normally see even during the busy Christmas season. Bankston saw a big increase with her sign and printing business.
“We have been very busy since we reopened,” Bankston said. “We had to print extra enrollment forms for the schools because they had so many new students. And all the out-of-town contractors needed magnetic signs to go on their trucks, business cards and invoices. The city and country required that contractor vehicles be identified. The police had a list of who bought a permit to do business. So when the police see trucks out working at houses, they compare names on trucks to the list. They are trying to protect homeowners to make sure they are hiring licensed contractors.”
Many of the new residents are city folks accustomed to life in a big city. But there appear to be few cultural clashes.
“Everyone is very positive and accepting of people coming here from other places,” Bankston said. “A lot of the Katrina evacuees moved their families here because they had been coming here so long. Many people from South Louisiana had second homes up here before the hurricane because this is a nice easy place for them to get on the interstate to come out to the country on weekends. A lot of those families may move up permanently. We welcome them.”
Traffic and housing
Traffic has been the main problem. A trip to the bank that used to take five minutes now might take 15. But Bankston believes that a lot of the people are only temporary residents here for the Katrina work. Traffic ought to ease then.
Peggy Smith, director of the Poplarville Area Chamber of Commerce, said it is too early to know how many of the new residents will end up sticking around. And possibly more would locate permanently in the area — except there is now a dearth of available housing.
“Housing is hard to find,” Smith said. “Houses that were on the market before the storm are mostly gone now. And there are no rentals at all.”
Labor shortages are an issue for businesses. Smith said there are different reasons for that. Some people are commuting to higher-paying jobs on the Coast and in New Orleans doing cleanup and rebuilding.
“Just about everywhere we go in the surrounding area we see ‘help wanted’ signs,” Smith said.
Contact MBJ contributing writer Becky Gillette at firstname.lastname@example.org.