The following is an article published in the Star-Banner by Joe Vanhoose.
The original can be found here.
Marion Habitat volunteers ready to reshape Biloxi landscape
BILOXI, MS – Slabs where houses used to be, signs with no businesses behind them, parking lots with no stores, stairs to nowhere.
“It’s bareness,” said Christina Garcia of Ocala, who will build a house in Biloxi with Habitat for Humanity of Marion County as part of a Hurricane Katrina relief effort. “I can’t believe the area is this bad still. It’s just … It’s tough.”
Many in the group have done relief work before, but they were still taken aback, because 2 years after the storm pummeled the Gulf Coast, there are still places that look like the storm roared through just yesterday.
Along U.S. 90 from Gulfport, slabs mark the spot where Victorian homes and million-dollar mansions stood, some of them for a hundred years or more. Only rusted-out signs and broken gates serve as a reminder of what used to be. Churches, restaurants, bars, hotels, homes, casinos and surf shops were washed away. Only a few have been rebuilt.
“If you’re not familiar with the coast, or even if you are, you can’t really tell what was there before,” said Rosemary Poukear, who has lived in Gulfport for eight years. She, her husband and two children lost most of their home during the hurricane. They recently moved back in after spending two years in a recreational vehicle.
“Some of the area is still completely devastated,” she said. “You can go to some areas and still see the lines on the houses where the water came up.”
Many who lost their homes moved into trailers provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Today, there are still about 12,000 of the trailers in the area.
Susan, a nurse who wished not to give her last name, lost everything but her car when Katrina’s storm surge gutted her beachside apartment. After taking 60 of her patients to Tuscaloosa, Ala., during the storm, she ended up in a small travel trailer that hasn’t moved out of the FEMA compound in Gulfport.
Tucked off the main highway, hundreds of the FEMA trailers mix in with single-wides along gravel roads enclosed by razor-wire fences.
This has been Susan’s neighborhood for the last two years, a neighborhood she says is overrun with crime and drug deals.
“Until I moved here, I had never lived in fear before,” she said. “My trailer’s been broken into. Police are out here all the time, but they can only do so much. I went out and bought my first gun.”
“I look for land, houses, apartments, anything I can find every Sunday. The problem is prices have gone up so much, it’s hard to afford anything.”
According to the Salvation Army, only about 15 percent of the homes lost during Hurricane Katrina have been rebuilt. Local real estate salesman Cliff Randall says the demand for housing is high, but skyrocketing insurance costs keep many former locals from returning.
“Home prices are up 30 to 40 percent, but insurance costs are up 100 percent,” Randall said. “The sales market is good, but the problem is finding affordable insurance.”
Habitat for Humanity and the Salvation Army established a permanent headquarters to help residents who can’t afford to buy or rebuild. To date, groups of about 130 each week have built more than 100 homes in Biloxi and another 1,000 along the coast.
“Our efforts have really caught fire,” said Wanda Niles, the Habitat for Humanity Village manager. “We’ve got people who come here and come back five or six times.
“Once people come and work here, they get what we call ‘infectious habititas.'”
This week, a group of 14 from Ocala will add to that total.
“We saw a lot of devastation here, and we know the efforts to rebuild are just starting,” said Mike Mills, the director of finance for Habitat for Humanity of Marion County who is leading the Ocala group this week. “I know we’re ready to get our hands on building these houses.
“There’s a lot of work to be done.” Poukear has seen hundreds of groups come in to help. She still can’t believe how large the response has been to the disaster from groups like the one from Ocala.
“We’ve had so many people come out to help us, it just shows the giving hand of this country,” she said. “The people have been so giving, we’ve been blessed.”