Bake Sales for Biloxi

Out of the media spotlight that New Orleans enjoys, Mississippi's Gulf Coast towns depend on fragile private efforts to come back from Katrina -- five years later.

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"People are looking at this as, 'This is year five and we're done,' but an important slug that's missing is housing," says Reilly Morse, an attorney for the Mississippi Center for Justice. "There is an awful lot of media pressure and public relations pressure to tie this up in a bow and say it's done, but the information out there says that the best-case scenario is that this will take at least another year."

Money for Housing Taken Away

One of the more controversial financial decisions of the state came when Governor Haley Barbour decided in 2007 to pull more than $600 million from housing allocations -- with the U.S. Housing and Urban Development agency's blessing -- to put into a port-expansion project. This frustrated housing advocates, especially those working on behalf of families who were still out a home. The state went on to pull another $200 million from housing for an economic-development project.

The demand for affordable housing got so bad that the state's business community wrote a letter to the governor telling him that he had to fund places for their workers to live. A Gulf Coast housing czar was appointed in 2008 to get the state back on track, and since then, spending on housing has improved but still pales in comparison with non-housing spending.

"I understand that port expansion and economic development are supposed to bring jobs, but the job to produce housing is still left undone," says Bill Stallworth, Biloxi's lone African-American city councilman, and one of just three in the city's history. "The money came down with full gubernatorial discretion, and the understanding was that he could cut through the red tape and get money straight to the people more quickly. It didn't happen that way."

"If it had not been for the faith-based organizations, the Gulf Coast would not be at the level of recovery that it currently is," says Dr. Alice Graham, executive director of the Mississippi Interfaith Disaster Task Force. "The churches are still the first place that many go to for help, so church budgets have been strained."

A lack of media coverage has also affected the recovery by leaving the impression that there's been no urgent need here. This slight has not escaped Mississippi advocates' attentions. "We've had to fight to get the recognition that this was ground zero, just 30 miles from where Katrina hit in Bay St. Louis," says James Crowley, president of the Biloxi NAACP. "The worst of what those winds did was in Biloxi, and we had no Red Cross here. FEMA was out in west Biloxi, where little damage occurred. Here, where people lost homes, cars, family members -- there was nothing."

While there's been no HBO drama series like Treme that tells Mississippians' stories, director Spike Lee did travel here to film for his new documentary, If God Is Willing and Da Creek Don't Rise, a sequel to his first Katrina documentary, When the Levees Broke. However, there is a fear that if non-New Orleans communities don't secure more resources and attention now, they'll soon be forgotten altogether.

"It's the fifth anniversary of Katrina, and people are sick of hearing about it," says Stallworth. "People in government are sick of talking about it, and everyone wants to move on. The problem is that there are a whole bunch of people who can't move on, and so as the press moves on and the government closes the door, there are plenty of folk here who will be left out in the cold."

Brentin Mock, a frequent contributor to The Root, is based in New Orleans.