Hurricane Katrina left a sizeable legacy of death and destruction in New Orleans, but some of its most frightening damage occurred to the east in Mississippi. New Orleans flooded largely because of levee breaches. The Mississippi Gulf Coast suffered the direct onslaught of nature as storm surges approaching 30 feet in height simply overwhelmed coastal development in cities like Biloxi, Gulfport, and Pass Christian. The graphic results were nationally broadcast scenes of neighborhoods buried in debris, stripped of housing, with floating casinos cast adrift and deposited inland atop destroyed buildings.
I am close to losing track of the number of times I have visited New Orleans in the intervening years, following many previous visits for reasons not tied to disaster recovery. Twice I have been to Galveston because of Hurricane Ike, which occurred in 2008. But until the first week of November, when I was a guest speaker of the American Planning Association's Mississippi chapter at its annual conference, I had not visited Mississippi Gulf Coast communities. The conference took place in Ocean Springs, just east of Biloxi.
The two towns are not just next door. Along the coast, a high-level bridge separates Ocean Springs, which seems to have a thriving downtown and cultural life and a vibrant, ambitious mayor (Connie Moran), from Biloxi. In the latter, badly battered by the storm surge, whole streets still seem devoid of housing, yet the main roads seem designed more to link huge, insular, multistory casinos than to connect neighborhoods to a vibrant center, which, frankly, does not exist. Mitchell Silver, APA's president-elect, and I traveled with Kimberly Miller, formerly with Oxfam and now with a regional consulting firm called Eco-Systems. We got the distinct impression that the casinos were the primary beneficiaries of economic development attention from the city. This is generally a sign that other local economic life is either struggling to survive or nearly nonexistent. But gambling is no remedy, whatever short-term tax revenues it may bestow. The casinos by nature have little interest in encouraging their clientele to leave these self-contained environments; the goal is to keep people rolling the dice and buying on premises. There is almost no organic relationship with the community itself, a fact easily betrayed by the lack of retail or other establishments anywhere near them. They are castles surrounded, more often than not, by blight. The blight, in turn, reinforces the tendency of gamblers to stay inside once they arrive. It is not clear to me how Biloxi will break out of this cycle. There are remnant industries. Shrimp plants still process the catch of boats that still ply the Gulf, in spite of the added damage of the recent BP oil spill. They clearly do not dominate local economic activity, however. There are five processing plants left, about half of the number that existed pre-Katrina. Similar numbers apply to other aspects of the seafood business, such as shrimp boats in operation. Domestic markets lost in the post-Katrina confusion to overseas shrimp farms have not been, and may never be, regained. In turn, blue-collar jobs are lost, and casinos just do not provide the same sense or pride of productivity.
It is hard to compare Ocean Springs and Biloxi, however. In some ways, they are as different as Berkeley and Oakland, two other neighbors with very different local histories. Ocean Springs does not draw its charm from an academic environment, however. Its downtown consists of small, somewhat idiosyncratic restaurants, bars, and modest cultural attractions. Ocean Springs seems able to tap some of the cultural history of the area that dates back more than 200 years to early French explorers. In downtown Biloxi, it is no longer clear where to find this heritage. Moreover, despite efforts to build beaches along the shoreline, the state transportation department has essentially isolated the beach from the community with a highway that parallels the coast and denies pedestrians access to the shore unless they wish to take their lives in their hands by running through traffic.
Telling the entire story of the Mississippi Gulf Coast would require more space here and more time to visit than I was able spend. What I offer here is a mere snapshot, lacking in subtlety or detail, but it is a clue to issues that need deeper exploration as cities like Biloxi struggle to create viable places for residents to live. It is clear that much more civic imagination and creative leadership may be required than has been apparent to date. Much work lies ahead for federal, state, and local officials, but also for whatever civic leaders Mississippi's Gulf Coast has to offer.