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Short- and long-term impact assessment of damage underway

The Day Mississippi Disappeared

To the world outside the Magnolia State, Mississippi disappeared during the waning dog days of August.

For days after Hurricane Katrina smashed into the Gulf Coast August 29, arguably the most destructive and costly hurricane in the nation’s history cut a nasty swath of devastation through the heart and soul of the Gulf Coast, severing communication lines — and families — throughout Mississippi. For an agonizing 48-plus hours, only a scant number of people could be reached by landline or cell phone. Had loved ones survived? Whose homes had been demolished? Were businesses crushed?

“This is a calamity for the Coast,” said Gov. Haley Barbour. “Devastation … more than anyone could imagine. It’s literally indescribable.”

If road closures made traveling to hard-hit areas impractical, the scarcity of gasoline made it impossible. If the journey could be made south of Jackson, the destination likely had no electricity, water or phone service. The heat index hovered between 107 and 110 degrees. The price for peace of mind was high.

“I received a call today from a blood drive sponsor who shared with me that he has not heard from his sister since Saturday,” said Kristi Brown of the American Red Cross. “She lives approximately 50 miles from Biloxi. Other family members, including a pregnant member, were going to this lady’s house. Five of those going were children. He called me, not knowing what to do because he cannot physically arrive to that town due to the devastation and he is mentally exhausted from worry. I can tell you I sat in my car with tears in my eyes wanting to help, but knowing I could do very little.”

The Category 4 storm packing sustained winds of 140 miles per hour left nearly five million Southern residences without power since the hurricane began sweeping through the Gulf of Mexico a week earlier. In Mississippi, nearly a million homes and businesses were without power. Extensive flooding, the availability of line crews and the unprecedented scope of the destruction were quashing restoration efforts.

“Seventy-four percent of Entergy’s service area is without power,” texted Entergy spokesperson Checky Herrington. “Major devastation. Gonna be weeks.”

Brunt of the storm

Initially during the aftermath of the hurricane, the national media’s attention focused almost entirely on New Orleans and Mobile, Ala., with scant coverage of the Mississippi Gulf Coast. But when aerial video began being released to national news networks late in the afternoon of August 30, the horrifying images made the message clear: not only had Mississippi’s economy been crippled, but so had embattled Mississippians.

“Mississippi south of us has been obliterated,” said Jackson attorney Mark Chinn. “No way to fathom it. In Jackson on Monday, we had winds of 70 miles an hour continuously for six hours. I sat out on the front porch in it for several hours. It was really something to see. We are 150 miles from shore. No way to comprehend what 100 mph-plus wind is like for that length of time.”

Economists predict the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina could have an impact more devastating than the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

The state budget, which legislators patched together with rainy day funds just before the new fiscal year began, is fraying quickly with the loss of about $500,000 a day in taxes because of casinos being closed on the Gulf Coast.

If casinos don’t ask the Mississippi Legislature for a variance to construct permanent facilities “I’ll be flabbergasted,” said Nolan Canon, a member of the Mississippi Gaming Commission. “It’s pretty damn obvious now that the method we chose (floating casinos) has a huge flaw. The law was recently amended to allow pilings over water, and they may need to revisit that piece of legislation, too.”

Rumblings about casinos abandoning the Gulf Coast are premature, said Canon.

“I think everyone’s still in a state of shock,” he said. “They’re worried about getting to the site, the cleanup, and figuring out how fast things can be restored. Some of the major companies can probably survive and have said they intend to rebuild. Harrah’s has already told their employees they intend to pay them for at least 90 days. That’s a huge gesture, and a sign they’re dedicated to their employees and want to stay there.”

Taking a heavy toll

The hurricane’s impact has taken a toll on the state’s tourism industry.

“The Mississippi Gulf Coast is the state’s largest casino market, and taking these revenue-producing casinos completely out of the mix for an indefinite amount of time will have a significant impact on the economic well-being of the state,” said state tourism director Craig Ray.

Carnival’s Conquest, which sailed from the Port of New Orleans August 21, docked in the Port of Galveston and “went straight into dry dock,” said Vance Gulliksen, spokesperson for Carnival Cruise Lines. “The next two Sensation voyages will depart from Galveston (instead of New Orleans). We’re returning the Holiday to Mobile, where it operates. Anything beyond that has not been determined.”

Mississippi Insurance Commissioner George Dale said he couldn’t guesstimate the financial toll caused by Hurricane Katrina, but he has already talked to insurance companies about their financial solvency.

“I always feared that if some major disaster ever hit the Mississippi Gulf Coast, with its new developments, it would create a major problem,” he said. “These companies feel confident they’ll be able to meet their financial obligations. They feel like the insurance industry can respond to the tune of $36 billion for a loss such as this. I had an e-mail from the CEO of Lloyd’s of London, who said that, based on modeling in anticipation of a disaster of this magnitude, the financial aspect will be manageable. There will probably be some companies that will have financial difficulties. There always is. But as a whole, these companies will be able to meet their financial responsibilities.”

Dale said he’s concerned that some Mississippians may be surprised to learn that they do not have flood insurance coverage.

“Only between 10% to 20% of Mississippians eligible for flood insurance bought it,” he said.

Brought to a standstill

Jackson attorney John Mooney, who received a phone call during this interview from a sobbing Gulfport attorney needing to reschedule an upcoming deposition because she “lost everything,” said the catastrophe “has crippled Mississippi’s justice system.”

“It has brought to a standstill the electronic filing of documents in both the Northern and Southern Districts of Mississippi because it is my understanding the system originates in New Orleans,” he said. A trial scheduled to begin September 6 was postponed, “for one reason because of the inability of the court to send notification to potential jurors for the trial,” said Mooney.

Mike Sermons, service center manager for Overnight Transportation Company in Pearl, said the post-hurricane business “is running at about 50%.”

“At the same time, we’re holding freight for a lot of customers,” he said. “And we’re in a pinch with fuel. Back in the 1970s, we had our own tanker fleet, so the company has brought back those tankers and they’re delivering fuel again to our facilities to keep us going. I think that fuel is coming from South Carolina.”

Lowe’s spokesperson Karen Cobb said 23 stores in Mississippi, Alabama and Louisiana were closed during the height of the storm.

“We’ve been able to open all of those stores except five, and there’s a possibility one of those may be opening up right now,” she said. “Of the ones that remain closed, three in Louisiana are located in an area closest to New Orleans that’s inaccessible. One in Gautier is closed. We’re abiding by the recommendations and mandates of local authorities, so we have a few stores operating with reduced schedules because of curfews and a few are operating with generators.”

On Wednesday before the storm, Lowe’s executives activated an emergency plan to expedite high demand supplies — bottled water, generators, gas cans, portable grills, propane tanks, charcoal and lighter fluid, flashlights, batteries, rakes, tarps, portable fans, window air conditioners, dehumidifiers, bleach, cleaning supplies, mosquito repellent, felt, roofing and fencing materials and extension cords — to stores in areas with the greatest demand.

“Lowe’s stores across the U.S. are serving as official cash donation sites to benefit the American Red Cross Disaster Relief Fund, and Lowe’s is matching contributions made in their stores, up to $1 million,” said Cobb.

The vast cleanup is expected to take years, with a question mark about whether residents and companies will choose to rebuild.

“It’s a horrifically bad scenario for business in this state,” said Canon. “This was the storm from hell, no doubt. We’ll be dealing with this for quite some time.”

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


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