2006 CPEO Brownfields List Archive

From: Lenny Siegel <lsiegel@cpeo.org>
Date: 20 May 2006 01:00:58 -0000
Reply: cpeo-brownfields
Subject: [CPEO-BIF] The Forgotten Coast: Biloxi's (MS) Challenging Recovery
[For an 860K formatted Word version with seven pictures, go to http://www.cpeo.org/pubs/Biloxi.doc. - LS]

The Forgotten Coast: Biloxi's Challenging Recovery
Lenny Siegel
Center for Public Environmental Oversight
May 18, 2006

As in New Orleans, film cannot capture the enormity of Hurricane Katrina's devastation along the Mississippi Gulf Coast. The storm surge nearly scraped mile after mile of coastline. However, since much of the debris had been removed it was difficult for me, seeing this area for the first time, to tell how much had been demolished.

On May 18, 2006, I visited Biloxi, Mississippi, to discuss a possible Brownfields workshop with Bishop James Black of the Faith Tabernacle of Praise Church. Bishop Black is a civil rights and environmental justice leader. I know him from his service as Community Co-Chair of the Keesler Air Force Base Restoration Advisory Board.

According to the U.S. 2000 Census, Biloxi had about 50,000 residents, 71% of whom are white, 19% of whom are African-American, and 3% of whom are ethnic Vietnamese. It appears that the Air Force and a number of hotel casinos are the economic engines of this beach town. Also from the Census, about a third of the people in Gulfport, adjacent to Biloxi, are black.

In my brief visit, I gained new insights into the challenges of recovery on this part of the Gulf Coast. Clearly the damaged sections of Biloxi will be rebuilt; reconstruction is underway. However, cleared land has been made available for the economically important casinos. There is some concern that residents may be relocated onto contaminated land, but that doesn't seem to be a central issue.

Repopulation of evacuees is a major concern, but from what I could tell, many more homes and businesses were damaged than destroyed. Bishop Black still lives in his storm-damaged house. Nevertheless, he has focused his time on restoring his spiritual home, instead. The Faith Tabernacle of Praise Church is located on the western portion of the Biloxi Peninsula, midway between the Gulf of Mexico and the Biloxi Back Bay. It was flooded and battered by winds as Katrina hit land, but the waters receded as the powerful storm passed through.

The Church appears to represent many structures in the area. It suffered roof damage, fallen ceilings, damaged walls, ruined carpets, and damaged pews. Step by step, Black and his congregation are making repairs. But it's not easy, because there is a shortage of people who can do the work. During our conversation, he received two calls from a carpet-layer in Georgia, hundreds of miles away. He hadn't found anyone closer to re-floor the church.

The casinos have large construction crews working, but lower-income people, businesses, and other institutions can't compete. Programs are needed to match the rehabilitation needs of large number of buildings with skilled labor from outside, coupled with subsidies to bring costs down to a level where people can pay.

Black's Center has partnered with the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice and the Worker Education and Training Program of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences to train about two dozen workers in hazardous waste operations as well as lead, asbestos, and mold abatement. They are well prepared to assist people clean their homes, but there isn't enough funding to make full use of the new skills.

Bishop Black's flock needs more that building repair, however. A wide range of community services were also destroyed by the hurricane. He pinpointed child care and elder services. I learned at the Recovery 2006 conference earlier this week that the Gulf Coast is now awash in both public and private funds, but I learned from Black that his community doesn't have the wherewithal either to obtain sufficient support or implement the projects they know that they need. They are doing what they can, but they could do much more if better assisted by government and non-governmental organization from outside the area.

Lenny Siegel
Director, Center for Public Environmental Oversight
c/o PSC, 278-A Hope St., Mountain View, CA 94041
Voice: 650/961-8918 or 650/969-1545
Fax: 650/961-8918

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