Mississippi Town Sees Daily Reminders of Hurricane Katrina in Recovery
LONG BEACH, Miss. – Hurricane Katrina left only concrete slabs where houses once stood on blocks and blocks of beachfront streets in Long Beach on U.S. 90, just west of the storm-battered Mississippi Gulf casinos now staging a comeback.
"Seems like two months ago," Long Beach Mayor Billy Skellie said.
As the first anniversary of Katrina nears Aug. 29, at least Skellie doesn't have to attend the 6 a.m. crisis meetings held during weeks immediately after Katrina struck. But there are still regular meetings to sort through the disaster relief programs.
"We've already borrowed $3 million," the 59-year-old first-term mayor said.
Skellie has daily reminders of Katrina as he drives down city streets — some deserted and battered — others have neat yards and new roofs.
"We're coming back," he said.
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On July 26, Skellie joined some 40 other city and county officials around a table at the Mississippi Coast Coliseum in Biloxi to hear Mike Womack, the governor's disaster representative, go over the painful process of getting FEMA reimbursements for Katrina costs.
"FEMA will look at cost overruns," Womack said.
But he warned them to expect accountants later to double-check what local officials are spending. And they are spending millions on major recovery and rebuilding projects all along the Mississippi coastline.
Lingering problems: Repairing roads, removing mountains of concrete, and cutting dying trees — damaged by saltwater and bark ripped off by winds — that pose a fire hazard.six trailers installed next to the Fire Department.
After the hour-long Womack briefing, Skellie and Fire Chief George Bass headed for lunch at the crowded Harbor View Cafe, newly opened in a Long Beach shopping center.
"They moved from Pass Christian," Skellie said, grateful for having another business in operation.
Cafe co-owner Dana Hirsch said the cafe no longer has a harbor view, but they kept the name because customers recognize it. Katrina claimed the Pass Christian location.
"We only had a single spoon left," Hirsch said.
Skellie and Bass waited about 10 minutes for a table, standing at the exit door shaking hands with familiar customers. The mayor also walked over to several tables and greeted several people.
"How are things going?" several asked.
Skellie reassured them. He said people are "just being nice" when they inquire about storm recovery.
"I tell them it's just like building a house. You go out on a piece of dirt and start working on the foundation. That's what we're doing, working on the foundation," Skellie said.
Once seated, Skellie is served tuna salad. After the first few bites, he takes a cell phone call. A diner stops by to ask Skellie when City Hall will be repaired. "They aren't done with the electrical," Skellie said.
Skellie said Long Beach, a city with a post-Katrina population of about 16,000 calls itself "The Friendly City." It was growing before the hurricane. Incorporated in 1905, Long Beach got its name in 1882 because of its long sloping beaches of glistening white sand, according to historians.
"We're a bedroom community," Skellie said, recalling his biggest challenges before Katrina included dealing with growth.
Now with its beachfront neighborhoods demolished, the city, which had a $17 million budget last year, is projecting a 25 percent drop in revenue for 2007. The lost tax base includes some retirees who have moved away, unable to cope with storm damage. At least 1,000 residents left — some for good.
Skellie, a lifelong Long Beach resident, was a city alderman for nearly eight years before becoming mayor in a 2004 special election. He had retired in 2002 after 35 years as a technician with BellSouth.
Skellie said he doesn't know how much the city will be reimbursed by FEMA for Katrina. The city's new debts will be passed on to the next generation, he lamented, just as the Hurricane Camille debt was handed down and only now being paid off.
Camille struck Aug. 17, 1969. Skellie's father was mayor back then.
After lunch, Skellie stopped by his trailer office for a map, stepping around boxes of donated office supplies. He drew a line with a yellow marker across the map to show Katrina's flood line, which moved a little further into the city than Camille.
Soon he was back in the city's candy-apple red Ford Explorer and off to a Gulfport hotel to complete details on a grant application.
By 4 p.m., Skellie was driving back to Long Beach with Long Beach alderman Richard Bennett, stopping on U.S. 90 to inspect the Katrina-wrecked St. Thomas the Apostle Catholic Church.
Soon Skellie and Bennett were serving as a Katrina tour guides. Jay Everly and several friends got out of their vehicle with questions about the church, with its steel structure exposed and gulf winds whipping across the concrete foundation.
Everly, who lives near Philadelphia, Penn., said another St. Thomas parish in Brigantine, N.J., had sent disaster aid to the church.
"I've got to get a picture for the people back home," he said.
"The school used to be back there," Skellie said, pointing to an area behind the church ruins.
As a Catholic child, Skellie attended classes at the elementary school.
About a dozen photos of the church interior had been posted in the ruins. All but one photo remained, said Bennett, who attends St. Thomas, which plans to rebuild on the same spot.
Mass has been held in the ruins three times since Katrina, immediately after the storm, Easter and Thanksgiving.
"People have gone there and gotten married and been baptized there," Bennett said.
The congregation relocated to a converted roller skating rink until the new church is built.
Skellie and Bennett got back into the Explorer and stopped again on a spot where a condominium once stood in Long Beach.
"We had some good high rises," Skellie said, hopeful some new large-scale project will emerge from Katrina's runs.
It's been a year of crowded schedules for Skellie and his staff.
Since Katrina, Skellie, a grandfather and Baptist deacon, said he's taken three days off to go duck hunting in the Mississippi Delta.
That, he said, was his "Katrina vacation."