Mississippi Rebuilds Bridge Damaged by Katrina

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Traffic is flowing again in Biloxi, Miss. Two lanes of the U.S. Highway 90 bridge over Biloxi Bay reopened last month, replacing a crucial artery destroyed by Hurricane Katrina. The new bridge is helping boost an economic recovery along Biloxi's beachfront that is well ahead of other Gulf Coast communities.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Traffic is flowing again, maybe not where you are at this moment, but in Biloxi, Mississippi. Two lanes of the U.S. Highway 90 Bridge over Biloxi Bay reopened last month, putting back into use a crucial artery destroyed by Hurricane Katrina. The new bridge is helping boost an economic recovery along Biloxi's beachfront that's well ahead of other Gulf Coast communities, though it hasn't fixed all of the problems there, as NPR's David Schaper reports.

DAVID SCHAPER: The new Biloxi Bay Bridge is more than a mile and a half long. At its highest point, which I'm driving over now, it's 95 feet above the water. The bridge connects the quaint, artsy bedroom community of Ocean Springs behind me with the bright and loud neon lights of Biloxi's waterfront casinos ahead of me.

For the two and a half years or so since Katrina destroyed this bridge, residents say it would take sometimes 45 minutes or longer to drive inland and around the bay. So even though it's being rebuilt surprisingly fast, in less time that it takes to plan most bridges, it couldn't reopen fast enough for Biloxi Mayor A.J. Holloway.

Mayor A.J. HOLLOWAY (Republican, Biloxi, Mississippi): The casinos are the lifeblood of Biloxi. That's our - our industry is the hospitality industry.

SCHAPER: Standing at the foot of the bridge and at the start of casino row, Mayor Holloway says the 11 casinos that have rebuilt since Katrina now account for close to half of the city's revenue. The casinos put thousands of Gulf Coast Mississippians back to work after the hurricane and opened up the rest of the city's beachfront to new development opportunities.

Mr. MICHAEL CAVANAUGH (Attorney): This is South Beach. It's a R.W.(ph) development project. It's a - this tower is a condominium project.

SCHAPER: Michael Cavanaugh is a local attorney representing casino and condo developers. He says the post-Katrina Biloxi is booming. The numbers are eye-popping. The city has just topped the billion dollar mark in post-Katrina construction permits. The mayor says the city went from 3,000 condo units planned before the storm to close to 18,000 condo units in the pipeline now.

Some see it as a welcome change from the pawnshops, fast food joints and '50s and '60s era motels that lined the beachfront before Katrina wiped them away. But some Gulf Coast residents cautioned that Biloxi's beachfront building boom doesn't tell the whole story.

Mr. REILLY MORSE (Senior Attorney, Mississippi Center for Justice): There's one storm but there's two recoveries.

SCHAPER: Reilly Morse is a senior attorney with the Mississippi Center for Justice. He says the beachfront casinos and condos are thriving.

Mr. MORSE: But the interior, which is where the historically African-American and immigrant and minority communities resides, remains vacant, undeveloped and really not much different than two years ago.

SCHAPER: Some of those still vacant neighborhoods are represented by Biloxi's First Ward city councilman George Lawrence.

Mr. GEORGE LAWRENCE (City Councilman, Ward 1, Biloxi, Mississippi): My home's completely gone - lot was clean.

SCHAPER: Lawrence is standing outside his FEMA trailer, which itself stands alone in the midst of block after block of weed-strewn lots.

Mr. LAWRENCE: ...Had homes all through here. We had two or three there, about four or five along there on the beach. What you see is all empty land now, you know.

SCHAPER: Empty land in the shadow of the towering rebuilt Isle of Capri and other casinos going up all around it.

Mr. LAWRENCE: You know, my thing is you always build a town from day one from small businesses. And right now we're doing the opposite with condominiums and casinos.

SCHAPER: Lawrence says two plus years after Katrina, he now knows most of his East Biloxi neighbors won't be coming back. Many were older on fixed incomes. For them, rebuilding and insurance costs are too high. Many are still living in FEMA trailers or with relatives. Or because of a critical shortage of affordable housing along the Gulf, some of those who used to live in East Biloxi are part of a significant population shift further inland.

Mr. DAVE WALDRUP (Realtor): This is Palm Ridge Subdivision. It's in D'Iberville, Mississippi, which is...

SCHAPER: Dave Waldrup(ph) is a realtor working out of a trailer in one of several new subdivisions popping up out of the pine force and rural landscape about seven or eight miles north of the Gulf waterfront.

Mr. WALDRUP: And the land prices since the storm have gone up quite a bit. The developments are all moving north. You know, no one wants to build on the coast south of I-10 because of insurance rates.

SCHAPER: But Waldrup says sales for these mid-range homes starting in the 150s are slow. It's partly because of the cool real estate market nationwide. But also because many homeowners are still paying off mortgages on homes destroyed or damaged by Katrina. They haven't received much government aid or insurance money and those properties are tough to sell.

Meantime, there's little affordable rental housing available on the Mississippi coast and little effort to create more. There's a $260 million program that is supposed to help owners of small rental houses and apartments rebuild, but none of it has been spent yet. A new tax credit was supposed to spur construction of nearly 6,000 new affordable apartments, but less than a fifth of them have been built so far.

Many Mississippians who watched government speed resources to reconstruct the Biloxi Bay Bridge and boost the casino and condo recovery are calling in state and federal officials to now bridge the Gulf Coast critical housing gap.

David Schaper, NPR News.

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