On the Forgotten Coast

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On the far western edge of the Mississippi coast, where Katrina lifted the ocean up and deposited barges in the middle of neighborhoods, every police car is gone. The towns of Bay St. Louis and Waveland are all but wiped off the map. Every government building in Hancock County has been destroyed. Half of the local work force has no house to go home to. A firefighter who had recovered remains from the World Trade Center crater told me picking through the 12-foot-high piles of flotsam stacked a quarter mile inland along the Mississippi coast is like working at ground zero, "only this is 80 miles long."

While New Orleans has been the focus of national attention after Katrina hit, this ill-starred coastline has waited for more help to arrive. A family that watched the water surround their home and survived hadn't seen a relief worker in over a week after the storm and decided to spray paint on a shed that had floated into their yard their sentiment: "THE LAND THE NATION FORGOT."

Before Katrina this area was hardly forgotten. The Mississippi Coast had experienced an economic boom in the past several years. Real estate values were skyrocketing and major casino chains from Las Vegas were building resorts along the water. All of that is gone. The rich white vacationers from New Orleans have left. What remains is a desperate population of working class folk trying to piece their lives back together.

The relief and recovery effort is still slow in coming, but not for lack of volunteers. Two firefighters from Ohio were sent by the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency the day after the storm with dogs that can locate humans buried in a pile of rubble had to sit for two critical days in Gulfport because the feds said their paperwork was not in order. The men found a team of firemen on their own and started working anyway even though the official permissions still haven't come through two weeks later. They expect to be going through the debris for months. And the National Guard has run a razor wire fence along the railroad tracks, a half-mile inland along to keep looters and the curious away from what has become both an arduous recovery effort and a health hazard. In the wreckage over the weekend, the bodies of a woman and her baby were recovered, the child still strapped to her chest. Helicopters shuttle back and forth along the beaches, spotting bodies that float up on shore, over a week after Katrina's swells first pulled them out to sea.

But the feds haven't totally forgotten this stretch of coastline. On a recent day, a lone piece of paper weighed down by a brick flapped in the Gulf breezes on one of the concrete slabs that had been swept clean by the storm surge. Printed large in the upper left corner of the page was the seal of the Department of Homeland Security. The letter, addressed to the owner Gladis Miskell, read: "I visited your home today to perform an inspection of the damages to your home and personal property caused by the recent disaster. Since you were not here, I was unable to complete the inspection. Your application for temporary Housing Assistance and the Individual and Family Grant Program cannot be processed until the inspection is completed. It is very important that you contact us as soon as possible."