Residents still wait for help in Mississippi

Life in FEMA trailers frustrates community

Hurricane Katrina

One Year Later

August 27, 2006|By Gail Gibson | Gail Gibson,sun reporter

GULFPORT, Miss. -- She lived in this house for 35 years before Hurricane Katrina banished Mary Spinks Thigpen to a government-issued trailer in the front yard and left the salvaged pieces of her old life - the wedding photos, the holiday cards, the church song books - crammed in plastic bins stacked along the porch, threatened again each time it rains.

Across the street, Charles and Virginia James are living in the driveway of the home they moved to in 1969. Through the windows of their trailer, another on loan from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the couple watch the slow restoration of the house where they raised five children and used to linger on the back porch after she finished her morning route as a school bus driver.

By most counts, Mississippi's comeback from Hurricane Katrina has been swifter and smoother than the rebuilding effort in Louisiana, with casinos and condominium projects rising along the ravaged Mississippi coastline and some $15 billion in federal aid headed to the state.

But the 200-home neighborhood of Forest Heights, created four decades ago as a model for promoting African-American homeownership, stands as stark reminder of the uneven pace of recovery.

"This whole thing about the strength and resilience of the Mississippian compared to the incompetency of the Louisianian is really wearing thin around here," said Derrick C. Evans, who heads a nonprofit community organization in nearby Turkey Creek, a historic Gulfport neighborhood founded by freed slaves. "These people, they need help, and they're not getting it."

A year after the storm surge from Hurricane Katrina sent water flooding four feet high into Forest Heights homes more than a mile north of the coast, a FEMA trailer still sits in almost every yard, roofs are still dotted by blue tarps, piles of debris still sit by the streets.

Many of the homes were underinsured or uninsured, and most were without flood insurance, leaving homeowners without funds to rebuild or unable to seek government assistance.

That means residents here are still relying heavily on volunteers and donations to restore their neighborhood - and not every offer of help has gone as planned, including a home-building promise made this year by the Baltimore-based NAACP.

The national civil rights organization announced in February that it would work with Habitat for Humanity International to build 25 homes in Mississippi and Texas for families left homeless by the storm. The first house was going to be located in Turkey Creek. Nineteen homes were expected to be built in Forest Heights, a nod to neighborhood roots that trace to the National Council of Negro Women.

But that plan has stalled. With few vacant lots in Forest Heights and concerns about repeat flooding, the groups now are looking for building sites elsewhere, said Derrick Johnson, state president of the Mississippi NAACP. The first house touted in the partnership, a pale yellow bungalow that sits along a row of other homes developed by the local Habitat chapter, is not located in the historic black community of Turkey Creek.

And in both neighborhoods, the offer of new housing is not needed so much as help repairing existing homes.

"We went to Forest Heights to scout out land and found out there are only three available lots. So that kind of slowed us down," Johnson said in a recent interview from his office in Jackson, Miss. The program with Habitat will still go forward, he said, but more slowly than expected.

"So now we're looking at additional, suitable lots to build on in the North Gulfport area. ... I would suspect we would begin to move forward in late September, early October. The whole rebuilding effort has been very frustrating."

The need for affordable housing is acute. At a recent Habitat for Humanity event for Harrison County, which includes Gulfport and Biloxi, some 300 people applied for assistance, said the local chapter's president, retired banker Sidney L. Rushing. Hurricane Katrina has been blamed for destroying 68,000 houses and damaging another 55,000 in the state. More than 100,000 residents along the Mississippi coastline are still living in FEMA trailers, while land prices have risen by as much as 50 percent in the past year.

The local Habitat chapter has ambitious plans to build 500 houses over the next two years. But as Rushing surveyed the group's main construction site on a steamy morning this month, he said there has been little activity on the NAACP initiative since it was announced in February amid a flurry of media attention.

"We are looking for other land, and we are doing it on a night and day basis," Rushing said. "I don't know what they [the NAACP] are doing. I have no idea."

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