Editor's note: Ron wrote this post one week ago, but the first story is scheduled to air tonight, so I'm elevating it in the blog for those who missed it.
PASS CHRISTIAN, Miss. -- As we've done in New Orleans on Fillmore Avenue, we decided to adopt a road in neighboring Mississippi to chronicle how one community there continues to cope with the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
We eventually settled on U.S. Highway 90, a 25-mile-long stretch (give or take a couple) of concrete and asphalt coursing from Pass Christian on the West, to Biloxi on the east. Long Beach. It's aptly named Beach Boulevard for much of this run. But in Biloxi they know it as "Casino Row."
Rather than focus on the rebuilding efforts of the casino industry, which are critically important for the future of the Mississippi coast, we're concentrating on three families: the Bryants, the Sheffields and the Nguyens.
I'll tell you a bit more about them later. But first, I want to share a few details of our scouting trip.
Traveling down this highway projects two conflicting images -- separated by the road itself. Beachside, we saw glimpses that life has returned to normal. Some were running on the sand, exercising in the hot sun while taking in the soothing sounds of waves lapping. Others tried to steady the uncoordinated moves of their toddlers, learning to walk on such a shifty surface. Still others cast lines in the water from one of the damaged piers, looking to hook dinner... or a great tale.
On the other side of all this sits block after block of empty slabs. Some have those familiar small white FEMA travel trailers near them. Most don't, which is quite a lonely sight. In some ways it resembles a place where people once lived but was abandoned after something tragic happened. I immediately think of the community surrounding the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in Ukraine, where a radioactive meltdown contaminated the air and forced hundreds of thousands to be moved out of their homes. It's not that desolate along Highway 90, don't get me wrong. There's just a stark lack of rebuilding activity, especially of the single-family homes that were washed away.
We passed First Presbyterian Church in Biloxi, which survived Katrina with mostly superficial wounds. Workers were busy going in and out of the building. Further down, though, there are shells of structures still standing that once served as houses of worship. The First Baptist Church of Gulfport is a hulk of a brick building that looks virtually untouched from the way I remember first seeing it the day after Katrina. The façade is essentially wiped out up to the roof line, and you can see inside. The second-floor balcony seats appear undisturbed as you drive down the road.
What we did see plenty of was commercial construction. Many of the hotels and motels that lined the road are actively working toward reopening, obviously in an effort to get in on the bang-up business the three currently operating casinos are doing in Biloxi. As we made our way further westward, we began to see more "for sale" signs from homeowners apparently looking to cash in.
And then there was something that may be the biggest fear of the people committed to rebuilding their homes on Highway 90, but perhaps simply a sign of the times. In Long Beach, there's a large sign advertising 11 acres for sale, clearly indicating: "Zoned for Condos."
That brings me to Lee and ChiChi Bryant, in Gulfport. In their own way they're trying to counter invitations for densely populated, high-rise living with one of their own, posting in their front yard a sign that boasts the reconstruction of their single-family as the "Hallway to Rebuilding the Miss. Coast.
Lee tells me his is the only home being built from the slab up.
We also stopped by Joyce and Charles Sheffield's trailer. The nice Jaguar sedan parked next to it really caught my eye. It seemed to be the only sign of life on that block. They were happy to step out into the hot, humid air to let us know just how difficult it was living in such small quarters.
For eight months they were taken in by various relatives. Only a month or so ago did their FEMA trailer arrive, they say. And they've already had enough. So, they bought another house to live in while waiting to start rebuilding. They closed on that house on June 13.
Joyce told me the next day how happy they were to be out of the trailer and that they were busy buying bedroom furniture.
Our third family was found out on the water, coming in from another hard day's work on their shrimp boat. Shrimping season started June 7, and Tra Van Nguyen was at the command of the "T.C." as usual. His wife, Chi Thi, was with him as always.
What was different is that his son, Duong, was with him, and not out on his own boat. Duong says low shrimp prices, high gas prices and the lack of ice (facilities were destroyed) have made it too hard. He wants to give up the business that he says is his father's life. In fact, Duong's father built both their boats.
Tra Van expressed his frustrations to me in broken English, but nevertheless offered a hearty smile. His son said his father remains optimistic, despite losing his house to Katrina.
He cared more about the boats, Duong said. Fishing is his dad's livelihood.