A Silver Lining in Rebuilding Biloxi?

The Mississippi coastal city of Biloxi took a direct hit from Hurricane Katrina and nearly all the businesses, especially the casinos, are shut. Many workers say they aren't sure how long they'll keep getting paychecks. But some people see a silver lining — they say Biloxi will have a chance to rebuild bigger and better, without the usual disputes over zoning and land use.

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While much of the focus has been on the catastrophe in New Orleans, Mississippi's coastal towns are also struggling to right themselves after Hurricane Katrina. Many people are still seeking food, water and shelter. The damage extends far inland where the eye of the storm moved ashore, but the coast took the brunt of the blow. If you drive along Highway 10 in Biloxi these days, you will come across a remarkable sight: two casino boats as big as office buildings lie tattered and twisted on the far side of the road where the floodwaters of Katrina deposited them. Casinos have been the mainstay of the Biloxi economy since they were approved in the early 1990s. Now all of them are shut down indefinitely and residents are wondering how Biloxi will recover. NPR's Jim Zarroli reports.

(Soundbite of voices)

JIM ZARROLI reporting:

Patty Landry(ph) has come to a small garbage-strewn parking lot near Biloxi's beach to pass out shoes and clothes to hurricane victims. Landry is spending her time volunteering these days because the big casino where she works as a dealer is closed and she doesn't know when it will reopen. But Landry is still being paid for now and she has faith that she'll be back at work eventually.

Ms. PATTY LANDRY (Casino Worker): It's going to be a while beyond--but they're getting there. And they're trying to help all the people. They're really great like that.

ZARROLI: Landry says she likes the casinos and thinks they've been good for the city and a lot of people in Biloxi agree. Before gambling was legalized in Mississippi, Biloxi was a sleepy beach town popular with military retirees, a place where high school graduates often had to leave home to find work. But the casinos brought good jobs with benefits to the town. William Lanham is Biloxi's comptroller.

Mr. WILLIAM LANHAM (Comptroller, Biloxi, Mississippi): Well, I would think that in the last 10 years, the economy here has probably doubled because of it just in terms of any type of measurement: sales tax collections, property tax collections, jobs.

ZARROLI: By Mississippi law, the casinos had to be on water, which means they were built on boats attached to big hotels, but being on water also may have made them especially vulnerable to big storms as Katrina vividly illustrated.

Mr. WILLIAM YATES(ph) (President, Construction Company): The casinos are devastated. You know, the damage, the--just the unbelievable devastation.

ZARROLI: William Yates is president of a large commercial construction company that helped build some of the casinos. His office was virtually destroyed by the storm, but by this weekend, he and his staff were back at work using a generator for power in a building literally without walls. Only now, instead of building casinos, they've got contracts for cleaning up some of the mountains of debris that line Biloxi streets.

Mr. YATES: Maybe some of the casinos can be up and running in a year, but it's hard to tell even at this point because we're still assessing damage.

ZARROLI: Yates' is one of the only offices still operating in Biloxi these days, that and the police station and the local hospital. Nearly every other store, office or restaurant remains boarded up. One of the first to try to reopen was Her Majesty's Coiffures run by Audrey Crawley(ph) for 40 years. Crawley's shop was spared a lot of damage. She thinks it's because the giant Beau Rivage Casino nearby acted as a kind of windbreak. But some water came in her roof and she spent the weekend sweeping out her store. Like a lot of people in Biloxi, she thinks the state should repeal the law that restricts casinos to riverboats.

Ms. AUDREY CRAWLEY (Shop Owner): Yeah, I think it should go land-based because they have their hotels. They can move the machines into the hotels. Our economy depends on them.

ZARROLI: Many people in town even suggest that Katrina could one day be seen as a blessing in disguise. There used to be frequent disputes over land use and the casinos were sometimes thwarted in their efforts to expand. But with so many buildings destroyed, they say, Biloxi now has a chance to rebuild bigger and better than it was before. Jim Zarroli, NPR News, Biloxi, Mississippi.

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