This is my first trip to Mississippi since Katrina struck, and I must admit to being taken aback by how hard hit the area remains.
The White House press corps flew ahead of the President to Bay St. Louis where, later today, the President will speak about the recovery effort here and throughout the Gulf coast. We drove through Waveland before reaching Bay St. Louis and the area remains a virtual ghost town. Convenience stores and gas stations are gutted, a local strip mall with a Blockbuster and McDonalds looks like a dumping ground for all the debris the storm left behind.
Bay St. Louis neighborhood, photo by: NBC News Producer Antoine Sanfuentes
I talked to an advisor to the mayor here and asked him why so much of the debris remains. Bay St. Louis contracted with the Army Corps of Engineers for the cleanup, he said, but the real problem is that there is just so much to clean up. I'm working out of St. Stanislaus College which sits a half block from the bay. This area was subjected to a 30 foot storm surge and the debris field in this neighborhood, if you can believe it, stretches two to three city blocks.
The biggest problem here, as in New Orleans, is that so many residents have left and it's unclear whether they will return. Bay St. Louis, a town of 8200, has lost 30 percent of its population. Among those who remain there is a 23 percent unemployment rate. A big employer, the local casino, remains shut down. The mayor's advisor told me things are so dire here even the local Burger King is offering a $1000 dollar bonus to workers who will return.
What the storm zone faces is the fundamental question of whether people are willing to return to rebuild their homes and their lives. The President can only offer a little bit of hope by saying the federal government is prepared to pay the hefty bill.
By the way, it's clear today that White House advisers will steer clear of the angry reaction in New Orleans to the rebuilding commission's recommendations for essentially shrinking the size of the city. They want officials in New Orleans to settle differences themselves before the President takes up the task lobbying congress - particularly wary conservatives - for all the money the recovery effort will require.