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Biloxi's Luck

Michael May

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Betty Davis in her FEMA trailer.
(Michael May)
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Friday was the third anniversary of one of the nation's worst disasters: Hurricane Katrina. The damage to flooding and botched response to the flooding in New Orleans has gotten the most attention. But it was actually Mississippi that received the full brunt of Katrina's 120 mile-per-hour wind and 27-foot storm surge.. In Biloxi, Mississippi, the casinos that sat on huge barges in the bay were washed inland and destroyed. But the coastal casinos are now making record profits, more than $1 billion in revenue last year. As part of our summer travel series, Weekend America's Michael May left his home in Austin: Biloxi or bust. He headed to the craps tables to roll some bones, and see if Biloxi is really as lucky as some would have you believe.


My brother Daniel and I inch along in bumper-to-bumper traffic along Coastal Highway 90 heading into Biloxi. The tourists are here, but the white sand beaches are as empty as the Sahara. It's unbearably hot and humid outside, but it's always cool in the beachfront casinos. The Hard Rock is sold out, so my brother Daniel and I head to the Imperial Palace, an older casino that's rebranded itself as simply IP. As soon as we get to the room, Daniel starts plotting. "I think our strategy tonight," he says, "is to drink as many free drinks as possible while losing as little as possible."

We hit the craps table, and Daniel starts rolling strong. But three hours later, we're back in the room, $200 lighter.

"Damn," he says.

"They just kept losing," I reply.

"Well," he says. "I figure this is my contribution to the hurricane recovery fund. You know, I just wanted to help them get back on their feet."

Daniel's being sarcastic, but it's closer than you might think to the official story of Biloxi's recovery. After Katrina, the city legalized gambling on land, so the casinos wouldn't have to sit on barges in the sea. They started buying up property and expanding, and are now making more money then before the storm. But I wonder what life's like away from all these blinking lights and spinning wheels.

Katrina's 30-foot storm surge destroyed almost everything within a half mile of the gulf. Now new hotels and condos dot the coast. But as soon as you turn off the main thoroughfare, you find streets pockmarked with empty lots and boarded up houses. In East Biloxi, I meet Betty Davis, who rolls around her FEMA trailer in a wheelchair. "Here we are," she says. "Almost three years later. Still waiting."

Betty lives on the lot where her home once stood, but attempts to rebuild have been, Kafkaesque. She and her husband had insurance, but the company said it didn't cover flood damage. "You have flashbacks of what was," she says. "You look back where your house used to be. It's a sinking feeling. I don't like to talk about it too much because I start to cry, and I don't want to do that."

A representative from the nonprofit East Biloxi Hope Center heard about Betty's situation, and started to wade through the red tape for her. She's hoping to move in to a new home by Thanksgiving. "I can't wait. I can't wait," she says. "I'm going to go out on the porch and drink my coffee in the afternoon. Yeah."

In the afternoon, I drive west, and came across a FEMA trailer park just a short walk from the beach. I meet Hazel Raley who used to live in East Biloxi. Inside her trailer, cockroaches crawl on every surface, and a bucket sits on the floor to catch water leaking through the roof. "I wouldn't know where to go to start over again," she says. "For young kids in their 20s, they would enjoy it. But I've got so many aches and pains. I'm here until I die."

Congress gave Mississippi $3 billion for housing, and put Republican Governor Haley Barbour in charge of distributing the funds. Casinos and hotels took advantage of post-Katrina tax breaks, while the money designated to help low-income residents like Hazel is still being parceled out. She says it's been an eye-opening experience. "Well, it's made more aware of city and state leaders," she says. "I have no use for this mayor. If you don't own a casino, then he doesn't care. And the governor has put the money that was supposed to help us out into a rainy day fund? Excuse me, the rainy day is here."

While we're talking, a friend from the trailer park named Kathleen Lepner drops by. She was renting an apartment before the storm, and things have gone from bad to horrible. She says she was kicked out her apartment so they could raise the rates. Almost all of the help offered by the state is going to homeowners, while rents have almost doubled since the hurricane. She says she ended up in a leaky FEMA trailer full of toxic black mold with her 14-year-old daughter. "I'm going to put my little girl in with friends or family," she says. "I'm not sure what I'm going to do. But as long as she's safe, that's all that matters."

I headed inland towards the highway. On the way, I passed the IP casino on the back bay and thought of all that money I'd tossed on the craps table. Then I headed west on Interstate 10. It's the fastest way back home.

  • Music Bridge:
    Artist: Tape
    CD: Luminarium (Hapna)


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