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Katrina Ninth Anniversary: 'We Had To Start Over'

By Mary Perez, The Sun Herald
McClatchy-Tribune Information Services

Aug. 29--The ninth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina is remembered today as a time of unimaginable loss of life and property -- and the starting point to building a stronger South Mississippi.

When the next hurricane hits the Coast, experts say, South Mississippi will be better prepared and will bounce back faster.

It took a long time for the Coast to return after Hurricane Camille in 1969, and South Mississippi didn't build back any better, said Robert Latham Jr., who was director of the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency when Katrina hit and returned to the job in 2012 after a stint in the private sector.

Katrina provided $3.2 billion in federal money for Mississippi's recovery and an opportunity that doesn't come often.

"We really had to start over in many places," he said.

The memories

David Staehling, then-director of administration for Biloxi, was at home near the beach when the water gushed in and the walls started heaving Aug. 29, 2005.

"We lost everything," he said. Putting his personal loss aside, he and other city leaders met at City Hall the next day and launched the city's comeback.

Biloxi activated a debris contract that was already in place. "That was big," he said, as major roads could be quickly opened for first responders. Donations and

volunteers quickly followed. "I've never seen anything like that in my life," he said of the outpouring of money and workers.

"We thought we were ready," said Pam Meinzinger, manager of Prime Outlets, now Gulfport Premium Outlets. Two security officers had volunteered to stay on the property off U.S. 49 in Gulfport and she was in contact with them from a hotel in Destin, Fla., where she'd evacuated with her family.

"I don't think I have a shopping center to go back to," she thought when she saw the devastation on television the next day. One of the national networks broadcast photographs of the cupola on top of the outlets' food court tilted at 45 degrees. A representative of the company that built the cupolas saw the same pictures and called Meinzinger to ask if she wanted it replaced. "Start building," she said.

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The recovery

"The air-conditioning unit rolled onto the roof kind of like dice on a craps table," Meinzinger said. With the roof ripped off, rain poured into most of the outlet stores. Contractors brought building materials with them from across the country and lived in the parking lot. Employees chipped in.

"People were just strong, strong. They came to work when they didn't have a house," she said. Ninety days later, 40 of the outlet's tenants reopened the day after Thanksgiving. "It was the best Black Friday we ever had," she said, because residents had to replace everything they owned. "Manufacturers sent in the most and absolute best merchandise that they had."

Work continues

Biloxi Mayor A.J. Holloway angered people when he said early on the Katrina recovery would take 10 years. He couldn't have known at the time the worst natural disaster in U.S. history would be followed by soaring insurance rates, a lingering national recession and the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

Ten years won't be time enough to complete the recovery. Of the $537 million in as-yet-unspent FEMA funds, more than $300 million will be used to tear up water and sewer lines damaged by Katrina and lay down new curbs, gutters and pavement throughout East Biloxi and the length of U.S. 90 from DeBuys Road to Point Cadet. When complete, Biloxi, along with the other Coast cities that completed similar projects, will have new systems that cities worldwide will envy.

MEMA's Latham said close to 87 percent of the federal money was spent to rebuild, and what remains are some of the complex projects.

"The money's going to be spent. We're just not going to leave any money on the table," he said.

The billions in federal money paid for elevating homes, buying up low-lying property and building hurricane shelters that are out of the storm surge.

"People are reluctant to evacuate too far from home," Latham said, and most of the emergency shelters are in South Mississippi. Because people base their decision to evacuate on being able to take their pets, some of the shelters are pet-friendly, he said.

Earl Etheridge, director of emergency services in Jackson County, said the three shelters in Vancleave, St. Martin and Hurley are ready, and he predicted more people will have a home to return to after the next storm. "The building codes are a lot more stringent since Katrina," he said.

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Communications also have been improved, with more than $300 million spent to build Mississippi Wireless Information Network and a statewide system of towers to link first responders throughout the state. "Now if jurisdictions are coming in to help on the Gulf Coast they'll be able to communicate," Latham said.

C Spire fared pretty well in 2005, said Dave Miller, senior manager of media relations, and the company allowed customers from other carriers that saw severe damage to use its network. To prepare for the next storm, C Spire has added backup power and redundancy and introduced a higher-priority connection for first responders.

"If anything, there's even more reliance on wireless devices now," he said.

Going forward

Nine years after the storm hotels, restaurants and a few houses are going up on the beaches of South Mississippi.

It's been an unbelievable nine years, said Waveland Alderman LiLi Stahler. The city rebuilt the pier destroyed by Hurricane Katrina and it was open for one week before the oil spill hit and the beach was deserted for the whole summer.

"That would have been our bust-out summer. It turned out a bust, that's for sure," she said.

She helped organize and open Waveland'sGround Zero Hurricane Museum last year on the eighth anniversary of Katrina and said more people from out of state are now coming to tour the museum. "We're not considering this a gloom-and-doom museum," she said, but a tribute to the resiliency of the Coast and the volunteers who flooded in after the storm.

"I thought it would be all back together and it's not," she said of South Mississippi. "There's a lot of empty land."

Despite the challenges Waveland has endured from the recession and the loss of ad valorem tax, Stahler said, "we're managing as a small town. I see a bright future."


(c)2014 The Sun Herald (Biloxi, Miss.)

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Distributed by MCT Information Services


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