Monday, January 7, 2008

Biloxi, Day 1

Today was our first day working with the Mississippi Center for Justice in Biloxi. We caravaned from Pass Christian and met the staff at MCJ headquarters for orientation at 9am. I was surprised at the number of volunteers helping at the MCJ this week. In addition to our 22 volunteers, there was a group from the University of Texas and a few law students from Columbia. Our first project for this week is a community surveying project designed by masters students at NYU's public service school. For this project, we are walking around two historic neighborhoods in Gulfport, Soria City and The Quarters, in order to assess the need for federal funding in the area and to get a sense of the historic value of the neighborhoods. On the drive to Biloxi in the morning and the drive to Soria City in the afternoon, it was sobering to realize that in some ways, little has changed since the days immediately following Katrina. While pristine new casinos have sprouted up along the coast, there are still structures that lay in complete ruin and piles of rubble along the highway. One MCJ attorney told us that the route we were driving down used to be a densely populated commercial area. It's hard to believe seeing it now - with only some chain establishments popping up along the highway.

After a few hiccups in our transportation situation, we started began walking around Soria City in the late afternoon. We had to observe property damage, take notes on the architectural style of the buildings on the property and note any other potentially unique or historic characteristics of the property. My partner and I began our surveying property along a road paralleling railroad tracks that separated Soria City from a wealthier area of Gulfport. The contrast in the reconstruction of the two areas was striking. Most of the houses on the south side of the tracks had been repaired or rebuilt, while there are still houses and churches in Soria City that look like they haven't been touched since the storm. Some have been abandoned and some are missing their roofs and windows completely. As we walked around, we ran into a few residents of the neighborhood. Most were friendly and waved as we walked by. One resident stopped to ask if we were doing the survey, and was more than happy to let us observe her property. I'm sure we were provoking curiosity walking around with clipboards in our business clothes. We'll see how things go tomorrow when we get to walk around in our civies...

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