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Miss. Casino Rehab May Prevent Other Rebuilding


In this part of the program, we'll report on two responses to hurricane damage here along the Gulf Coast. We'll report from Mississippi where lawmakers have voted to allow floating casinos to rebuild onshore. The Gulf Coast casinos employed about 14,000 people and generated half a million dollars per day in state tax revenue. Now many are happy to see jobs coming back, but some are also concerned that the expected development does not overwhelm what's left of their working class neighborhood. NPR's Chris Arnold reports.

CHRIS ARNOLD reporting:

The once glitzy casino barges in Biloxi now look like ruined container ships. They've been stripped to their bare metal frames by wind and surf and hurled up onto houses and city streets. But most of these casinos were well insured, and they're ready to rebuild. That's not the case for most of the residents who live in neighborhood back behind them. Many don't know what they're going to do.

Mr. ALONZO DAVIS(ph) (Retired Schoolteacher): I just don't know right now. I don't know--our nieces in California, they want me to come out there and live. I don't like California.

ARNOLD: Sixty-seven-year-old retired schoolteacher Alonzo Davis is stopping by a disaster recovery center here in Biloxi.

Mr. DAVIS: I love Biloxi. It's where I was born and raised, and I don't want to leave it. I love it.

ARNOLD: But Davis says his house was torn from its foundation and badly damaged. Half the homes on the peninsula here were destroyed by the storm surge. Davis did not have flood insurance and says he doesn't have money to rebuild. And he says he's still not hearing any plan from the city for what residents can do to try to stay here. He has dozens of relatives in the neighborhood in the same situation. His family's been here for more than a hundred years, and he says he's been committed to his school kids and his community his whole life.

Mr. DAVIS: I went in my pocket and bought kids food for their family because they didn't have it. Be concerned about your people that help supported this town when you didn't have a casino.

ARNOLD: Before Katrina hit, the real estate market had been heating up here with condo projects pushing out some long-time residents. City councilman Bill Stallworth says he's worried that the destruction of the storm could speed up that process exponentially.

Mr. BILL STALLWORTH (City Councilman): What it did was clear large sections of land.

ARNOLD: Stallworth's concerned that real estate speculators could rush longtime residents here into selling too quickly and too cheap. He says the casinos moving onshore will drive up demand for land. The casino floors themselves have to be within 800 feet of the shoreline, but hotels and parking lots could be built further inland. And even before the storm, developers were looking to get permits for some 3,000 new condo units. And now out-of-state investors are posting signs in front of ruined homes that say, quote, "We buy houses, fast cash, quick close." Again, Councilman Bill Stallworth.

Mr. STALLWORTH: They're looking at, oh, this is a windfall because we can walk in now and offer $20,000 for the land, and, wow, we in great shape. We can put up a condo that we can sell at $250,000 per unit. We have got to stop that.

ARNOLD: Stallworth and aid agencies such as Oxfam are working to set up long-term rebuilding plans to help residents stay in their homes. The president of one of the larger casinos says there will still be room for a diverse community here, and he points out that the city would have to rezone parts of the neighborhood before a lot of development could happen. Meanwhile, many residents here are very happy that the casinos are moving onshore because they want their jobs back. And if there is a land buying spree, longtime resident William Earnest Parker(ph) says that's fine with him.

Mr. WILLIAM EARNEST PARKER (Resident): If they paid my price for the land, they could build outhouses on it. I don't care, after I'm gone.

ARNOLD: But you're not going to give it away.

Mr. PARKER: I'm not going to give it away. Anything I got, I'll even sell these boots.

ARNOLD: For thousands of residents, though, who want to stay and who've lost most everything, Councilman Bill Stallworth says there's going to be a tremendous need for volunteers, not just in the first few months but for the next couple of years, to help people rebuild their homes. Chris Arnold, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR correspondent Chris Arnold is based in Boston. His reports are heard regularly on NPR's award-winning newsmagazines Morning Edition, All Things Considered, and Weekend Edition. He joined NPR in 1996 and was based in San Francisco before moving to Boston in 2001.