A Hard Fight For A Political Voice In Biloxi, Miss. When Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast five years ago, it sent a 30-foot-high wall of water ashore the coast of Mississippi. Sharon Hanshaw, who lost her home and beauty shop in Biloxi, says she's fighting for equitable development for her impoverished community.

A Hard Fight For A Political Voice In Biloxi, Miss.

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This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.


And I'm Melissa Block.

Five years ago today a tropical depression formed over part of the Bahamas. Not unusual for the Atlantic hurricane season but this storm was exceptional. Eventually it became one of the deadliest in U.S. history.

SIEGEL: That tropical depression became Hurricane Katrina. It hit Florida first and then it made its way across the Gulf of Mexico to Louisiana. In Mississippi, Governor Haley Barbour described the devastation.

Governor HALEY BARBOUR (Republican, Mississippi): I would say 90 percent of the structures between the beach and the railroad in Biloxi, Gulfport, Long Beach and Pass Christian are totally destroyed. They're not severely damaged, they're simply not there.

SIEGEL: In New Orleans, at first there was relief. It seemed the city had avoided the worst. But then the storm surge broke through the city's levee system.

Mr. JAMES ACKERSON, JR.: We desperately need help in the Lower Ninth Ward. Please help them.

SIEGEL: James Ackerson, Jr. was living in the city's Lower Ninth Ward.

Mr. ACKERSON: There's people on rooftops and some people still in their home. We rescued a young lady that - she was in the house, she couldn't get in the attic. And I don't know how she survived, but she made it. We had to get her through the side of the house and put her in a boat.

BLOCK: This week we're marking the fifth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. In a few minutes we'll hear how the population of New Orleans has changed. But, first, we'll go to Mississippi. We're going to hear what happened in Biloxi and how one woman, Sharon Hanshaw, has been working to bring her neighborhood back.

NPR's Debbie Elliott has her story.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT: Sharon Hanshaw can be a bit defensive when it comes to what her state went through when Katrina sent a 30-foot-high wall of water ashore, destroying nearly everything in its path.

Ms. SHARON HANSHAW: The people leave Mississippi out. And that's the untold story that needs to be told all over the world. You know when they have the Katrina books, but you never - the stories that I'm collecting, they're not in those books. So who's telling the stories?

ELLIOTT: Hanshaw's story�begins with a drive to where she once lived.

(Soundbite of car starting)

ELLIOTT: We're in East Biloxi, a narrow peninsula about 10 blocks wide. She turns into a gravel parking lot across the street from one of the high-rise casinos that line the waterfront here. We park under a sprawling oak.

Ms. HANSHAW: My mailbox sat on this street. So this right here was my front porch, this was a driveway where you went all the way to the back. This was the yard and the house and the shop right here.

ELLIOTT: The shop was Sharon's�Unlimited, a beauty salon. Katrina took it all, leaving her with no home, no car and no way to make a living. Like everyone else on the block, her landlord sold the property to the casino rather than rebuild.

This part of Biloxi suffered near complete devastation. It was a severe blow to the largely minority neighborhood where most of city's low-income residents live. Hanshaw remembers gathering with a group of women after the storm in one of the only buildings left standing - a funeral home.

Ms. HANSHAW: And these women were meeting, discussing what can we do to come back stronger, to get our houses, to get our jobs back, to be sustainable? And so I said, oh wow, this is what I want to be a part of. We're going to get ourselves together, right?

ELLIOTT: She was empowered and helped found Coastal Women for Change to be a political voice for the neighborhood. It's a personal fight for Hanshaw, now 56 years old. She grew up in an East Biloxi housing project.

She points to the uneven recovery on the coast. Some neighborhoods are doing fine. But hers is still struggling to come back.

Ms. HANSHAW: And if you noticed, you know, you still have a house that's done, a house that's not, a house that's done, land, land, house, empty. That's what really going on. And you don't have your neighbors. If you don't have your neighbors, you don't breathe, you know?

ELLIOTT: Even where homes have come back, that doesn't mean the community is back.

Resident Alma Alexander says something's missing.

Ms. ALMA ALEXANDER: Well, we don't have no stores, you know. We don't have no dress shop. Everybody's mostly building banks and everything everywhere else, but, you know, they're not building nothing around here at all.

ELLIOTT: Hanshaw believes they're being squeezed out.

Ms. HANSHAW: What I see is development going up all around us. And we're that part in the middle, the little people of color in the middle. But this is the most expensive property. They want it.

ELLIOTT: Since Katrina, Hanshaw has not been able to find a house she can afford in East Biloxi, and now lives on the west side of town, separated from her friends. She looks out over her old block, now filled with pickups and cars.

Ms. HANSHAW: There's no life here - a casino. And we understand that you need businesses in to bring money into the city.

ELLIOTT: But she feels like casinos have been put ahead of people.

City Councilman Bill Stallworth says the priority was to crank the economic engine by getting the casinos back in business. But he says there's much more to be done.

Mr. BILL STALLWORTH (City Councilman, Biloxi): Governments do a lot of things sometimes well. They do streets, they do drainage, they may do some economic development. But they don't do people at all. And unfortunately, that's what needed to be done right after Katrina.

ELLIOTT: The recovery has been slower in East Biloxi, he says, because the devastation was so great and the resources so slim. He formed a nonprofit development company to help. Initially, the state used federal relief funds for business redevelopment and homeowner programs. Help for low income renters didn't come until three years after the storm.

A�new report from the Mississippi Center for Justice�shows a two-track recovery on the coast, with the largest clusters of unmet housing needs concentrated in low-income and minority communities, including East Biloxi. Reilly Morse is co-director of the center's housing campaign.

Mr. REILLY MORSE (Co-director, Mississippi Center for Justice Housing Campaign): There is a strong pressure at the state and at the national level to call this Katrina story over. What Sharon is pointing out to you is that people have not returned to what had been a vibrant community. When that's the case, we do not have a healed community.

ELLIOTT: It's a message Hanshaw has taken abroad as part of a tour called Climate Wise Women. She's no environmentalist, she says, but knows her story reveals how vulnerable impoverished communities are.

Ms. HANSHAW: Things are so big the people don't know how to handle something like this. It's worldwide. This is not a state thing. This is a world problem.

ELLIOTT: Lying down is not an option, she says. Her motto: If you're living, you gotta keep moving.

Debbie Elliott, NPR News, Biloxi, Mississippi.

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