Washington Post: ‘Good bet on Biloxi’

Following is a column that appeared under the headline “Good bet on Biloxi” on the Washington Post op-ed page on Tuesday, Jan. 17, 2005.

By Eugene Robinson

Tuesday, January 17, 2006; A17

BILOXI, Miss. — An hour’s drive west of here, the City Formerly Known as New Orleans wasn’t destroyed by Hurricane Katrina. New Orleans was on the storm’s weak side, relatively speaking, where the force of wind and water was terrible but not apocalyptic. The city would have had only moderate flooding if the levees had held, and those faulty levees were designed — poorly designed, it turned out — by people, not nature.

It was the Mississippi coast that felt Katrina’s full, unmitigated wrath.

The hurricane’s strongest winds and an unprecedented wall-of-water surge simply erased a 70-mile stretch of coastline. The place looks as though a giant toddler threw a tantrum and ran up and down the beach demolishing everything in his path. The surge lifted one giant casino barge, carried it across a four-lane highway and smashed it down on top of a historic mansion. Another casino barge was tossed across that same highway and came to rest atop a Holiday Inn. An advertisement on a well-anchored bench directs you to a McDonald’s, but when you get there all you see is a skeleton of bare girders. It’s like that for mile after mile.

Katrina caused significant damage to two-thirds of all the housing units along the coast. For scores of miles inland, the high winds wrecked homes and businesses and snapped trees like kindling. Many Mississippians feel that with all the attention the media have focused on New Orleans, Mississippi’s suffering has been overlooked — that, as the regional Sun Herald newspaper said in an editorial last month, “the Mississippi Coast has become invisible and forgotten to most Americans.”

That may well be true. But also overlooked is that Mississippi, especially this hard-hit resort town, seems poised to rebound much more quickly than the famed Crescent City down the road. It’s hard to envision a bigger and better New Orleans five years from now. A bigger, better Biloxi, however, looks like a pretty good bet.

The key difference lies in that word “bet.” The major force in the economy here is casino gambling, and casino operators have taken the disaster as an opportunity to expand. State officials have obliged by getting rid of the requirement that casinos operate on barges rather than dry land. Biloxi’s mayor told the Sun Herald last week that the gambling giant Harrah’s Entertainment plans to spend $1 billion to build two new casinos in Biloxi. Another firm has already begun assembling land on devastated Point Cadet for a new Golden Nugget Casino and a Biloxi Boardwalk.

New Orleans faces painful decisions about whether to rehabilitate tens of thousands of buildings that were flooded but remain structurally intact. In Biloxi, there’s no need to spend a lot of time scratching your head over what to do with a pile of smashed-up boards and bricks, or with an empty lot where a building once stood. You just clear away the debris and get on with it.

That’s not to minimize the hardships that residents of this community still face. Lucille Bennett, a Head Start teacher who volunteers at a help center for low-income Biloxians, saw her home severely damaged by Katrina. She finally found housing in a local apartment complex, but the owners want to evict the tenants to turn the property into condominiums.

Low- and moderate-income housing is one important issue that hasn’t been settled — if Biloxi is going to be turned into a little waterfront Vegas, what will happen to all the people of modest means? But the gambling companies will need thousands of people to work in those shiny new casinos, so it’s safe to assume that one way or another, affordable housing will get built.

What Bennett really wants is a Federal Emergency Management Agency trailer to park in her driveway while she rehabilitates her home, but her trailer hasn’t come through. She said she calls FEMA and spends hours on hold before getting to talk to a human being who has no news for her. I heard similar stories from other people, but I also talked with Biloxians who already have their FEMA trailers and are busy stripping their homes of moldy drywall and warped floorboards. There is a sense of progress here, and even amid the suffering it’s possible to discern a certain optimism.

Does it hurt that Mississippi’s governor and two senators — Haley Barbour, Thad Cochran and Trent Lott — are three of the best-connected Republicans in the country? No it doesn’t, and their skills and Rolodexes will be needed to bring back the devastated little south Mississippi towns that aren’t lucky enough to have casinos.

Biloxi, though, already has some pretty good cards to play.


© 2006 The Washington Post Company