Driving around the streets of Biloxi two-plus years after Hurricane Katrina swept across this metropolitan area, it's easy to get lulled into thinking everything is well on the way back to normal.
Sure, there are still wrecked buildings like the souvenir shop you see above on the coastal highway -- U.S. 90. Sure, you can still see boards on some houses and empty lots where other houses used to be. But just before we arrived in Biloxi, the massive new bridge between Biloxi and Ocean Springs opened, replacing the one ripped apart by the hurricane. The neon lights of casinos fill the night sky, and these resort centers are making record profits. The main building at Back Bay Mission is all fixed up and looks beautiful.
Rev. Shari Prestemon, the executive director of Back Bay, offered us a view of the scenes not so immediately evident when she talked to our work camp group Monday afternoon. Of the 450,000 people living in the metro area of Biloxi, Gulfport and Ocean Springs, 40 percent earn less than 80 percent of the median household income. And what is the median household income in these parts, you ask. It's $48,000. That means that 80 percent of the families live on less than $38,500. That does give them much to work with for fixing up a house or buying a place to live.
That's the big issue, Shari told us. Land values are skyrocketing as people hold out hope that casinos will buy their land. That has frozen the market for new housing. Insurance costs have escalated beyond what many people can afford, often exceeding the value of mortgage payments in housing escrow accounts. Many people are choosing to live without any homeowner's insurance. "The insurance is a real mess," Shari said.
So while the glitter of Biloxi is returning for tourists, here's what Shari and her crew see on the back streets.
* Emergency assistance given out since Katrina by Back Bay -- which was already helping the poorest people here before the storm -- has increased by 500 percent. In 2006, Back Bay provided assistance to 3,300 people.
* About 11,000 people are still living in FEMA trailers.
* Many other people are still living doubled up with family or friends.
* An influx of Latino workers brought in by contractors and casinos has added to the housing crunch, with employers sometimes stuffing a dozen people into a small house.
* Homelessness continues to be a big issue, with people living in their cars, on the streets, under bridges. There is only one small homeless shelter, and that serves victims of domestic violence.
As we work on building a house for three families struggling to go on after the hurricane, as we paint the exterior of one house and rebuild the interior of another, our group from Memorial is making just a small dent in a huge crisis of affordable housing here. In the process, we are learning up close the pervasiveness of poverty and the on-going impact of this region's largest natural disaster.