GULFPORT, Miss.—Residents of Mississippi's Gulf Coast have been victimized more than twice in a year. First, it was Hurricanes Katrina and Rita doing the damage. And for the past year, most of the public attention stemming from the natural disaster has been centered on New Orleans, relegating residents here to second-class status.
Just as Pluto has had its planet membership revoked, many residents in this area feel they, too, have been kicked out of the universe.
That became clear to me over the weekend when I was invited to moderate a town hall meeting in Gulfport sponsored by the Mississippi State NAACP Conference and Oxfam America, a human rights group.
One by one, people thanked me for visiting the Gulf and expressed disappointment —sometimes anger — that their needs are not receiving as much attention as displaced residents from New Orleans.
NAACP National President Bruce Gordon, actor Danny Glover and other activists were taken on a tour of East Biloxi, a poor community within the shadows of the state's thriving casinos. Hurricane Katrina left behind a calling card — missing roofs, rows of uprooted houses, blocks of empty land that once constituted neighborhoods — and a string of deaths.
A report issued jointly by the state NAACP and the Mississippi Institutions of Higher Learning's Center for Policy Research and Planning shows that 21 percent of owner-occupied housing units in the state suffered at least some minor damage from Katrina. Approximately 22 percent of renter-occupied units suffered a similar fate.
Unlike Louisiana, where the Democratic mayor and Democratic governor have been roundly criticized for being inept, Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour has been able to project a different image. The former chair of the National Republican Committee has President George W. Bush's ear and has projected himself as effectively responding to Hurricane Katrina.
But a report by Oxfam titled, "Forgotten Communities, Unmet Promises: An Unfolding Tragedy On the Gulf Coast," paints a different picture.
"Almost $17 billion in the form of Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) funds were designated this year for long-term housing recovery. It took Congress and the president four months to make the first appropriation; they made a second in June 2006. Eleven months after Katrina ... not one house in Mississippi or Louisiana had been rebuilt with those funds."
The governor has received a series of waivers from the Department of Housing and Urban Development, lowering the number of units that must be set aside for low-income residents. He has also set it up so that his administration, not the Legislature, will have the final say over how most of those funds will be spent.
A doughnut of casinos surrounds East Biloxi, a community that has an equal proportion of Whites and Blacks (39 percent), along with growing numbers of Hispanics and Asians. And as new casinos are constructed and others are allowed to build farther back from the shore, that hole in the middle is getting dangerously smaller.
There were nine casinos operating in the area pre-Katrina. Mayor A.J. Holloway has predicted more than twice that many will be operational by 2010. Gaming officials expect revenue to rise from $1.2 billion before the storm to $4 billion by 2010.
Before casinos were built in Biloxi, there were the usual boasts about how casinos would hire mostly form the local labor force. That hasn't turned out to be true.
According to one 2003 survey, only 16 percent of employed East Biloxi residents worked in casino-related occupations. Another study said an even larger percentage lived in more distant counties and commuted to work. Even when they find work, the average salary for a hotel worker in Mississippi is approximately $20,000 a year.
This week, the eyes of the nation are focused mostly on New Orleans. While honoring the deceased in neighboring Louisiana, it is equally important to uplift the memories of those who died in Gulfport, Biloxi and surrounding communities. Their lives are just as valuable as those being honored in New Orleans.
George E. Curry is editor-in-chief of the NNPA News Service and BlackPressUSA.com.