Mississippi Gulf Coast takes steps on long road to recovery

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GULFPORT, Miss. -- The devastation of Hurricane Katrina on the Mississippi coast alone could have qualified as the worst natural disaster in U.S. history.

Out of 150,000 buildings, 50,000 are gone and 85,000 are damaged, said Stephen Richer, executive director of the Gulf Coast Convention and Visitors Bureau.

Some of the areas casino barges were destroyed.

The headquarters of Mississippis Gulf Coast Convention and Visitors Bureau, which oversees tourism marketing for Gulfport, Biloxi, Long Beach, Ocean Springs and Waveland, was one of those buildings blown away by Katrina.

But three months into the rebuilding, Richer is optimistic. His optimism is being driven primarily by two developments: a commission organized by Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour to create a full-range plan for the recovery of the Gulf Coast, and a law passed by the Mississippi legislature Oct. 17 that makes it legal to build casinos on land.

The Governors Commission on Recovery, Rebuilding and Renewal plans to release a report Dec. 9 on the state of the recovery with recommendations on how to proceed.

Tourism plays a central role in the plans, with five subcommittees looking at different aspects of the tourism economy.

My expectation is a very aggressive goal set in terms of the destination, Richer said. There is an extremely high amount of public and private investment coming in largely because of the change in the law.

The law allows casinos to be built within 800 feet of the water in approved sites in the Gulf Coast area. Previously, they were required to be in the water.

This gives a message to Wall Street and to the insurance industry that we can rebuild something safer, Richer said. It will be the catalyst that will change the investment climate.

Of the three counties affected by the hurricane, the farther west they were the more destruction they had.

In Jackson County, Richer said, 61% of the rooms are open. In Harrison County, which includes Gulfport and Biloxi, 21% of the rooms are open. In Hancock County, 8% of the rooms are open.

Most everything is OK on Interstate 10, Richer said. On the beachfront there is pretty much nothing.

Wilma Harvey, manager of tourism marketing for the Gulf Coast Convention and Visitors Bureau, said she lost everything but the clothes on her back to Katrina.

If you had $10 million in your pocket, it didnt mean anything, she said. You couldnt buy anything with it. There were no stores, no gas stations.

Its a challenge for the CVB to decide on a message, Richer said.

On one hand, we want to say Come on back. On the other hand, people are hungry and cold. The messages are in conflict.

Three casinos that suffered limited damage are slated to open around the new year. The Palace and the Isle of Capri casino barges were both destroyed. Both are moving their casinos into their meeting spaces, courtesy of the new law.

The Imperial Palace will reopen with its casino on the barge where it was before Katrina. Most of the rooms are already reserved by the Federal Emergency Management Agency and other emergency workers and insurance adjusters, Richer said. Few rooms will be available until later in 2006.

It will be a year or two before everybody is back, Richer said.

Harvey and her neighbors on the Gulf Coast found they had survival instincts they never knew they had.

They just kick in, she said. You bathe in cold water. You brush your teeth with bottled water. You cook outside. You do a lot of things to survive.

To contact reporter David Cogswell, send e-mail to [email protected].

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