Sunday, January 13, 2008

Mississippi Gulf Coast-Land of Contrasts

From the moment we arrived in Biloxi, I noticed the contrasts. From the multi-million dollar fighter jets flying over neighborhoods (from the local airforce base) still rampant with FEMA trailers and damaged homes to the abandoned houses in the shadow of the Las Vegas-style Beau Rivage casino, I was struck by the level of destruction that still remains over 17 months since Hurricane Katrina. While New Orleans was flooded as a result of the levees that broke, the eye of the storm actually passed through Pearlington, a rural area about an hour from Biloxi. Many of the folks I encountered on the streets during our survey of two neighborhoods in Biloxi and our legal clinic expressed their frustration that New Orleans had received all of the attention, while Mississippi was neglected when that was where the hurricane had actually hit. I have witnessed the destruction in both states and I think both deserve all of the attention of our nation to this day.

I think the most evident contrast I witnessed was the amazingly positive attitude of folks still going through terrible times as compared with the attitudes of those I encounter in my everyday life where every little thing seems to be a big deal. For example, we met a 73 year old woman and her 43 year old daughter at the house we were staying in whom had been invited over for dinner by the great lady who owned our house. Mrs. J and Ms. A had been living in 2 FEMA trailers along with Mr. J, and Ms. A's two daughters since the storm destroyed their homes. Mrs. J's husband is disabled and they were not able to get an ADA-compliant trailer until 1 year after the storm. Ms. A is a 5th grade teacher who was living in a "regular" FEMA trailer with her 2 daughters and their dog. They were kind enough to invite us over and I was absolutely shocked by the size of these trailers. They were TINY! Each had 1 "bedroom" which was essentially 4 walls with a bed and the other "bedroom" was 2 shelves with a curtain in front of it and people were expected to sleep on these shelves with mattresses on them. Ms. A's 11-year-old daughter could not even fit in there. Yet, these folks were so welcoming to us and had such positive attitudes that I began to reflect on the little things in my life that I let bother me and realize how silly I have been.

I mentioned their situation to one of the attorneys were were working with and she advised me to do an intake with Ms. A in order to help her get a MEMA cottage. A MEMA (Mississippi Emergency Management) cottage is a house without a foundation (on cinder blocks). You can qualify for this if you have a plot of land to put the cottage on. In addition, you have to have this land in an area that has not passed an ordinance banning MEMA cottages, which is now becoming more prevelant. Ms. A had such a spot because she owned her house that was destroyed in the storm. Her town, Pass Christian, does not have an ordinance banning the cottages. In addition, her family owned the land she had her FEMA trailer on. I did the intake and hopefully the attorney can help her cut through the red tape. She had been waiting for MEMA to call her since the storm, but never received any information from them until 12.28.07!

Reflecting on Ms. A's situation also reminds me of 2 additional contrasts. First, Ms. A lived just a street away from the house we stayed in, a beautiful 17-bedroom home run by a bishop and a woman with a doctorate in religious studies. Surrounding this home are also large homes built by folks who had received large insurance settlements after the storm. Ms. A received an insurance settlement and another grant from the state, but this money was only enough to pay off her mortgage on her destroyed home, not enough to rebuild. Finally, Mrs. J and her husband are now having their home rebuilt by a church located in Georgia. Their home will be finished in 3 months. Without the help of faith-based organizations, so much of the work in the Gulf Coast would not be done. As such, I guess the final contrast is that between the government and faith-based organizations and what each can accomplish.

Alicia Welch, 3L

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