David Schaper, NPR
Michael Kovalsovich's home on East Howard Avenue is one of the last structures remaining in the Point Cadet neighborhood of East Biloxi. He put up a "water line" sign marking how high Katrina’s storm surge rose.
Michael Kovalsovich's home on East Howard Avenue is one of the last structures remaining in the Point Cadet neighborhood of East Biloxi. He put up a "water line" sign marking how high Katrina’s storm surge rose. David Schaper, NPR
David Schaper, NPR
Michael Kovalsovich stands next to a huge oak tree in his yard. The tree's low branches caught a neighbor's house as it floated past with two occupants clinging for their lives. The tree kept the house from floating into Kovalsovich’s and allowed him to rescue his neighbors.
Michael Kovalsovich stands next to a huge oak tree in his yard. The tree's low branches caught a neighbor's house as it floated past with two occupants clinging for their lives. The tree kept the house from floating into Kovalsovich’s and allowed him to rescue his neighbors. David Schaper, NPR
David Schaper, NPR
On the block across from Michael Kovalsovich's home, a FEMA trailer stands amid "for sale" signs. The towering Palace Casino Resort is in the distance.
On the block across from Michael Kovalsovich's home, a FEMA trailer stands amid "for sale" signs. The towering Palace Casino Resort is in the distance. David Schaper, NPR
Many people in Biloxi, Miss., seem to feel a little torn about their city's future these days. Over the past 15 years, they've come to embrace the casinos and the resort hotels that soar from the shoreline around the peninsula known as Point Cadet. After all, they've been a boon to the city's economy.
"When gaming came in here, everybody got a raise," says Biloxi Mayor A.J. Holloway. "It's the tide that lifts all boats."
Holloway and others say that when the casinos came into the area in the early to mid-1990s, the projects provided new economic development where there had been little else. And other employers in the area, from local banks to city government, had to raise salaries to compete with the wages being offered by the casinos.
"It's the engine that's pulling the train," says Holloway of the casinos' impact on the Gulf Coast economy.
In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the casinos are racing to rebuild and expand their gaming facilities on land and into bigger, better-quality casinos and resorts, with new spas, restaurants, lounges and entertainment. New high-rise condominium buildings are going up alongside them.
Some Biloxi residents worry they might lose many of the city's poorest residents and a big part of the city's past in the process.
"That's my biggest fear," says Ward 2 Biloxi City Councilman Bill Stallworth, "that people won't be able to make it back and this neighborhood will quickly lose the character and the people and consequently migrating into something totally different — a bunch of high-rise condos and casinos and businesses, and the people are going to be pushed out.
"The complexion of Biloxi would change dramatically," Stallworth says. "This area is the most diverse area in the city. The bulk of the minority population and the poor population reside in East Biloxi. Pushing them out would totally displace a number of communities and, unfortunately, there aren't a lot of places for people to go."
If you head east on Howard Avenue in the Point Cadet neighborhood, most of the debris from the devastation caused by Katrina is now gone. What's left is mostly vacant lots, some with FEMA trailers, but most without; and scores of "for sale" signs.
"This here is Old Biloxi. This is where a lot of the old families have been since the 1800s," says Michael Kovalsovich. His house, built by his grandfather in 1948, was the last one left standing in this part of Point Cadet when Katrina's storm surge receded a year ago.
"It's the only house left down here ... because we're the highest point. See how much higher we are?" Kovalsovich asks, pointing to the rest of the lower-lying neighborhood.
"The house sits about 18 feet above sea level and the water got up about 10 feet... so it was about 28 feet right here," he says, pointing to the spot just below the roofline over his front porch. He has marked it with a sign that says, '"water line."
"We started with nine (people) and ended up with 30 (staying in his house). We went and got all our neighbors. Their houses were crumbling, so we went and got 'em and brought them in here."
"We got at least seven feet of water in our house, and everything's gone downstairs. We had a lot of antiques and nice furniture and we've got pictures of it floating out the windows. It makes you think, you know, what's important."
What's important to Kovalsovich is seeing to it that the home he grew up in is rebuilt. "It won't be long until we move back in it."
But he isn't so sure about his neighbors.
"I know we're staying. The people on the side's building back and three people across the street's building back."
He says he's been told one of the casinos, the Biloxi Grand, owned by Harrah's, could expand to just across Howard Avenue from his home. And others reportedly have been eyeing the now mostly vacant land in the neighborhood for new or expanded casinos.
"I think what's going on is people just put 'for sale' signs up to see what they would get offered. A lot of them have been offered something and they laugh at 'em," Kovalsovich says.
"The people believe the land's valuable. The casinos all say, 'You want too much for it,' Kovalsovich says. "The way we look at it is, why should we sell cheap to casinos for them to make millions a year off of it, you know?"
But Kovalsovich also recognizes the reality that, for many of his neighbors — most of whom were poor, elderly or both — rebuilding to new elevation levels required by FEMA may be too expensive. Most were uninsured or under-insured, and the state and federal aid that has been promised may still fall far short of what it would cost to build a new house.
Mayor Holloway recognizes the problem, too.
"I don't know if you can see affordable housing here," Holloway says. "The land in this area of time is just gold, better than oil. A lot of the casinos are buying property right now for expansions or whatever they want to do."
Councilman Stallworth is urging the mayor and his colleagues to require developers — as they build new condos, resorts and higher-priced housing — to set aside some units as affordable housing, or pay to create affordable housing nearby.
"This area is too dependent upon the casino industry," Stallworth says. "We got a lot of glamorous buildings, but in terms of what's being taken out of the community, in terms of dollars (spent by locals at the casinos)... the casinos argue they're putting in back in salaries. Well, at this point, they need to step up even more and put more back in terms of housing and other redevelopment to try to get people stabilized."
Stallworth would also like the city to attract other kinds of businesses to better diversify the economy.
"I learned a long time ago, never put all your eggs in one basket because things can go horribly wrong," he says.
But attracting other kinds of businesses to the Mississippi Gulf Coast may not be realistic, according to Denise von Herrmann, a political scientist at the University of Southern Mississippi and an expert on the casino industry.
"There really are few options. It's not like the Gulf Coast of Mississippi has had great success in attracting construction or manufacturing industry previously," says von Hermmann, author of The Big Gamble. "Tourism was the last resort for that portion of Mississippi in the middle 1990s and early '90s when the area really was economically depressed."
Even the seafood industry is a shell of what it once was in Biloxi, and Katrina damaged its factories and shrimp boats even more.
Kovalsovich thinks the casinos have been great for his hometown.
"Everybody moved up a step and Biloxi was on the verge of bustin' open," he says. "We just want them to realize we were here before them and they're the ones who need to fit in with us, even though they're the ones bringing in all the money right now. You know what I mean? They got to give a little bit."
"I mean, this is home. This was where everybody was born and raised," Kovalsovich says.
But does that mean he thinks locals will be able to return?
"I'm hoping, (but) I don't know, you know? " Kovalsovich says. "If somebody throws big money at 'em. I guess it depends on what's big money to some people."