SID SALTER: Five years later, Gulf Coast moving forward with new realities

By Sid Salter

What took Mississippians so long to process after Hurricane Katrina slammed the Gulf Coast five years ago was the simple fact that the place would in great measure never be the same as it was on Aug. 28, 2005 – the day before the storm made landfall near Waveland.
That is not to say that the Gulf Coast would not recover. Five years later, the region has made remarkable progress that is a testament to the grit and determination of the people and to the efforts of state and local government to maximize the opportunities to parlay the billions spent by the federal government on relief, recovery and renewal in the smartest way possible.
For those who lived through Katrina, the progress over the last five years is obvious and a source of lasting pride. For those, like me, who bore witness to the totality of the devastation as an observer who had the luxury of coming to it and then leaving it behind, the progress is all the more stunning in light of the odds against it.
But the Gulf Coast that now lives in our memories – the one built back after Hurricane Camille destroyed the coast in 1969 in much the same manner that it existed prior to the benchmark storm – is simply not going to be rebuilt.
The Gulf Coast that lives in our memories is an eclectic mix of fine old homes and small cottages built near the water and co-existing in old ethnic neighborhoods. That was the pre-casino Gulf Coast that featured mostly convention hotels, vacation motels, kitschy tourist attractions and a chance to visit the artists’ colonies of Ocean Springs and Bay St. Louis. Fine old homes with giant live oaks shading the yards were interspersed on Hwy. 90 with cottages, small homes and small businesses. A convenience store here, a church there, a souvenir stand next to a venerable seafood restaurant and all of that – all of it – built on the premise that if it withstood Camille, it would withstand anything Nature could throw at it.
Such notions were blown away, washed away on Aug. 29, 2005. Camille was no longer the benchmark storm it had been – and the post-casino era development that had brightened the lights and fiscal fortunes in the long interim since Katrina made those lessons all the more stark and brutal.
Not only were the old neighborhoods, the fine old homes and the cottages alike washed away, but the massive casino complexes and convention hotels alike – and with them washed away jobs for tens of thousands. When Katrina claimed those jobs, the storm also washed a significant portion of the population away as well.
The 4th Congressional District lost between 3.5 to 3.75 percent of its total population over the last decade. The three coastal counties – Harrison, Hancock and Jackson counties – saw population declines ranging between 5 and 12 percent, according to preliminary Census results.
There was a window of opportunity open after Katrina in which the political table was set to rebuild the Gulf Coast into something better than it was the day prior to Katrina. In terms of infrastructure, the foundation for much of that goal has been laid. But internecine political feuds, philosophical disagreements and community competitions made some of those goals as yet unattainable.
A gnawing global recession, catastrophic oil spill in the Gulf and the Katrina damage that has not been fixed – the affordable insurance crisis – have all conspired to make the Gulf Coast’s recovery from Katrina slower and more complex. The redevelopment that was underway prior to the recession stalled. The casinos hunkered down to ride out the recession. Real estate development essentially ground to a halt on the Coast has it did elsewhere in the state.
And on April 20, 2010, a new kind of ecological storm assaulted Mississippi from the Gulf. Five years later, the dichotomy is obvious – so much has been done and yet so much remains still to do. But the old Gulf Coast of our memories isn’t coming back.
Perhaps the new one that’s emerging still can be better.

Sid Salter is Perspective editor at The Clarion-Ledger and a syndicated columnist. Contact him at (601) 961-7084 or ssalter@jackson.gannett.com.