Reporters Discuss Katrina and Recovery in the Gulf
MICHEL MARTIN, host:
And as we've noticed, the effects of Hurricane Katrina had been so far beyond New Orleans. In fact, the eye of the storm actually made final landfall on the Mississippi border. The devastation stretched nearly 90 miles along the coast. Joining me to talk about recovery efforts in Mississippi is Chris Joyner, a reporter with the Clarion-Ledger. He's on assignment in Gulfport, Mississippi and he joins me on the phone. And as we were discussing earlier, Katrina forced half the residents of New Orleans out of the city. Nearly 100,000 are believed to have remained in Houston. Houston Chronicle reporter Mike Snyder joins me. I'll talk more about that part of the story. He's with me on the phone from his office in Houston. Welcome, gentlemen, to the program.
MIKE SNYDER (Reporter, Houston Chronicle): Hello.
CHRIS JOYNER (Reporter, Clarion-Ledger): Hi.
MARTIN: Chris Joyner, if we could start with you. What was the scope of the destruction in Mississippi?
Mr. JOYNER: Well, in some communities it was pretty much total, and you can still see that today. Small towns like Long Beach and Waveland, Pass Christian and Bay Saint Louis, there are large stretches of beach front property that are just vacant. They were completely wiped off the map by the storm surge because this was ground zero for the storm. And you don't see that much has changed since then.
MARTIN: And as, of course, I'm sure you know that the story of the New Orleans' recovery is very often a story of people complaining that progress has just been too slow. There are too many people still living in trailers, too many people who still feel that their lives are in limbo. How are people in Mississippi feeling? Is there a similar complain?
Mr. JOYNER: Yes. And it's almost a total mirror image to what you see in New Orleans. There's just not as many news cameras in Mississippi. What I hear a lot - and the narrative's a little different in Mississippi in that there's a sort of internal pride, that they're sort of a bootstrap sort of people. But, you know, I heard it today that these folks were - feel they've been forgotten to a great extent by the Federal government.
MARTIN: Forgotten by who? By the Federal government. Well, the story in New Orleans is - it's two-fold. One is that there are complaints about the way insurance companies have treated New Orleans homeowners. And the second complaint is that Federal monies have either been too slow to come or that they're too tied up in bureaucracy, and that some people feel that Mississippi has been treated differently because there's a Republican governor, for example, with close ties to the Bush White House.
Mr. JOYNER: Yeah. And I think that's properly a fair assumption to some degree. Certainly the Homeowner Grant Program seems to be more successful here than it has been in Louisiana. But I can't say that's really improved dispositions a lot down here. There are lots of people who are - I mean, tens of thousands of people who are still in FEMA trailers still waiting on their grants, still arguing with their insurance companies. It's a similar story around here.
MARTIN: And before the hurricane, there was a quite a bit of development along the coast, particularly casinos and hotels. And I wondered, is that development continuing? Are those businesses coming back, and is that perceived as a good thing?
Mr. JOYNER: Yeah. If anything, the recovery's been paced a lot by the casino industry. Unlike some areas, the casino's provided employment almost immediately after the storm. And now, although we're still, I think, one casino down from where we were prior to the storm, they're setting record revenues. So that part of the recovery's been very good. But these are, you know, blue-collar wages that the casinos pay, and there's no place for these people to live. So at shift change, you can see people streaming out back to FEMA trailer parks, or in some cases, just driving many miles into other counties where they're living with family.
MARTIN: Is there any talk about developing more affordable housing for the people who work in the casinos, as opposed to the hotels for the tourists who would visit them?
Mr. JOYNER: There's plenty of talk about it, and it certainly is what everyone agrees is the big issue that's holding up recovery here is affordable housing. The progress on that is extremely slow. I mean, it's mostly at the talking stage. We are seeing, however, large new condo developments that there are, you know, million, million-and-a-half dollar condos that are already in the pipeline and have broken ground.
MARTIN: And who would be living in those condos? Are those perceived the second homes?
Mr. JOYNER: For the most part, yeah. They would be vacation homes, or they'd be investment properties.
MARTIN: Okay. Let's go Houston. And Chris, if you'll standby, we'll come back to you. But Mike, you've been writing a number of articles about Katrina evacuees in Houston, and there was a term you used - and I'm not sure I can pronounce it. Is it…
Mr. SNYDER: Houstorleanian. And I can't…
Mr. SNYDER: …take credit for it. It was part of a comment made by one of the gentleman that I interviewed for an article that was published in July. And it was his way of expressing the kind of transitional state that he and many of his fellow evacuees considered themselves to be in, sort of one foot in both worlds kind of thing.
MARTIN: I think many people have an image of the evacuees who came to Houston from New Orleans, perhaps based on images from the Astrodome where many people were housed for a time and of them in very dire straits when they came. But I wonder if that really is the full picture. Is there - do you think that there's an image that many people have of the evacuees here in Houston, and is it different from the reality?
Mr. SNYDER: I do, and I think it's not necessarily an inaccurate image. It's just that it's not the whole picture. It is true that there've been studies done specifically of the evacuees who received Federal housing assistance which show that they are predominantly low-income people with limited educational attainment, and work histories typically involving work in hotels and the tourism industry in New Orleans. On the other hand, there are also entrepreneurs and professionals of all stripes, people from all different kinds of background and with all different kinds of life experiences that were in the mix of the folks who ended up here.
MARTIN: If you're just joining us, we're talking about the effects of Hurricane Katrina two years later. And I'm joined by Houston Chronicle reporter Mike Snyder and Chris Joyner, a reporter with the Clarion-Ledger in Mississippi. Mike, I think if people think about Katrina evacuees in Houston, they think about - on one hand, they think incredible acts of generosity by the people of Houston. I mean, just remarkable. I mean, I was at the Astrodome and I to this day remember the things that I saw: people bringing clothes, people bringing people into their own homes who they did not know, people sitting there for hours trying to help people locate relatives - remarkable.
And then, there's the other narrative, which is these folks came here and they're acting up, you know? I think there's a lot of stories about whether evacuees have contributed to an increase in crime in Houston. And can you shed any light on whether there's any truth to that impression?
Mr. SNYDER: The fact of the matter is that there's truth in both of those storylines. Houston did open its arms to the evacuees. In terms of the local leadership, Mayor White and County Judge Eckels really unprecedented crisis that the city had to more or less invent a housing agency from scratch and gear it up in a remarkably short amount of time and find safe and secure housing for 150,000 people.
At the same time, this is a community that places a large value on self-reliance, personal responsibility. And there was a sense that, you know, it was time for more of these folks to take responsibility for their own lives.
MARTIN: But what about the crime issue? You hear that one of the complaints -whether it's expressed openly or not - is that the crime rate has increased. Is that accurate?
Mr. SNYDER: It is accurate that some evacuees have been involved in crimes, either as victims or perpetrators, specifically homicides. Last year, evacuees were suspects in 27 of Houston's 376 homicides, and were victims in 30. So, it's not insignificant, but it's certainly not as if the evacuees were single-handedly turning Houston into, you know, a dangerous place.
MARTIN: It occurs to me that some of the discussion about the Katrina evacuees in Houston kind of mirrors the discussion other communities are having about immigration, even though these immigrants from within the country. You know, on the one hand, there are people who say the reception that we give these folks reflects our best sort of values. On the other hand, some people say, well, what's the cost benefit analysis? Is this hospitality costing us more than we're getting?
Mr. SNYDER: Yeah. I haven't heard it framed quite that way. And, in fact, I've heard a number of people defending the evacuees and the idea of continuing to assist them, make the point, you know, these are Americans, almost as if they were drawing a distinction between an immigrant, particularly an illegal immigrant.
MARTIN: But I guess what I'm saying is on the one hand, people talk about, you know, crime and the money that's being spent on public services. On the other hand, the newcomers say, well, look about what I'm contributing.
Mr. SNYDER: Right. And, you know, both of those things are true. And frankly, it's really more of a gut-level. People are offended at the idea that someone professes to need help for such a long period of time.
Mr. JOYNER: And Michel, if I could, actually…
MARTIN: Sure. Sure.
Mr. JOYNER: …and even here in Mississippi, we're dealing mainly with people who haven't even left their communities, there is a reaction among local governments against the FEMA trailer parks in their communities. Pascagoula, Mississippi - one of the communities that's right on the coast - has attempted to pull the permits for several FEMA trailer parks because they want them to sunset. They want them gone.
And, you see, the Gulf Port fighting the placement of some subsidized housing, which would obviously go towards people who are in FEMA trailers right now. So it's not necessarily, it's not an issue of outsiders coming into communities, or - these are these people's own people.
MARTIN: On the other hand, there - you remember there were Barbara Bush's famous comments after she visit the Astrodome, saying, you know what? This is a pretty good deal for some of these folks. And at the time, you know, a lot of people were upset by the comments. They were deemed insensitive. But I wonder, is there a sense on the part of some of the evacuees that there are aspects of life in New Orleans that are best left behind?
Mr. SNYDER: There are certain aspects of the local culture that they're finding just kind of basic things like, you know, well-equipped public schools, where the kids don't have to bring their own toilet paper and pencils, which apparently was the case with some of the schools in New Orleans.
On the other hand, you know, they can't find the music and food and even more intangibly, you know, the sense of community, extended family living close by and those kinds of things that they left behind in New Orleans. So those are the things that they miss.
MARTIN: Chris, final though from you. How do you think people on the Mississippi Gulf feel about - do they feel a sense of progress going forward? Do they still feel stuck in some ways?
Mr. JOYNER: Yeah. I think that people look in some frustration at the second anniversary is being not too much different from the first. There is less debris around them, but the progress is so incremental that it's frustrating. I mean, in some cases, I think they've stop holding out hope that there's going to be some large scale fix to the situation here.
MARTIN: Chris Joyner is a reporter with the Clarion-Ledger based in Jackson, Mississippi. He is on assignment, and he joined us on the phone. We were also joined by Houston Chronicle reporter Mike Snyder. He joined us on the phone from his office in Houston. Gentlemen, thank you both so much for speaking with us.
Mr. SNYDER: My pleasure.
Mr. JOYNER: You're welcome.
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