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Tale of two cities: Biloxi and New Orleans

  • Story Highlights
  • Biloxi, New Orleans show signs of recovery, population growth post-Katrina
  • High labor and insurance costs, housing shortage hamper rebuilding efforts
  • Thousands of residents live in FEMA trailers, struggle to rebuild
  • Trump Tower planned for New Orleans; Biloxi has opened eight casinos
  • Next Article in U.S. »
By Jacqueline Adams
CNN
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NEW ORLEANS, Louisiana (CNN) -- Almost every day Erick Ventura wakes up, he thinks about leaving.

Ventura home in New Orleans

Erick Ventura's home in the Lakeview area of New Orleans was inundated with 7.5 feet of water. He is still rebuilding.

For the past year, Ventura, 38, and his wife Trisha, 34, have been living in a cramped FEMA trailer, parked outside of their Lakeview home just a few hundred feet away from the 17th Street Canal.

Before Katrina or "pre-K" as the locals say, Ventura worked in real estate and owned several rental properties. But all of that changed when the levees broke. Storm surge from Lake Pontchartrain inundated their house with 7.5 feet of water. The couple were displaced, and to make ends meet Ventura took a temporary job as a loss verifier for the Small Business Administration. His wife continued her studies in occupational therapy.

Ventura, like many others, feels like New Orleans has been forgotten.

"America really doesn't give a s*** about New Orleans. We forget. The bridge that collapsed [in Minnesota] -- it's gone, it's yesterday's news. The miners -- if they're not digging a sixth hole, we forget about them. We as a society, we really don't give a damn," Ventura said.

Two years after Hurricane Katrina, thousands of people in south Louisiana and along the Mississippi Gulf Coast are still struggling to rebuild their lives. Recovery from such a catastrophic event is slow and complex. Though the population and economy in the region's two largest cities of Biloxi and New Orleans continue to grow, serious issues persist. See comparison between the two cities »

Katrina's floodwaters battered the Crescent City's already fragile infrastructure, crippling public schools, hospitals and other basic services. Violent crime is soaring and increased insurance costs and a housing shortage are making the city less affordable. Along the Mississippi coast, increased labor and insurance costs are hindering the rebuilding.

White House recovery czar Don Powell says $96 billion of the $114 billion committed to the region has already been disbursed or made available to local governments. Powell implied that local leaders, particularly in Louisiana where recovery has been slower, were to blame if the money had not made it to citizens, according to The Associated Press.

A new CNN/Opinion Research poll found that a majority of Americans are pessimistic about the city's ability to fully recover from Hurricane Katrina. In the poll of 1,029 adults in early August, 55 percent said they believe the city will never completely recover. A slight majority, 52 percent, said the federal government has not done enough to rebuild those areas devastated by the storm.

Last week, New Orleans Mayor C. Ray Nagin told CNN that partisan politics are partly to blame for the sluggish recovery. "We're tied up in between whether this is going to be a red state or a blue state. You have a Democratic governor and a Republican president and there is all sorts of tension there and it's slowed things down tremendously." Watch CNN's interview with Mayor Nagin Video

Parts of the city, such as eastern New Orleans, Gentilly and the Lower 9th Ward remain largely uninhabited. Many houses still sit gutted or in shambles, while others are just slabs with overgrown lots.

"People need to realize that we're rewriting the chapters. We're in unchartered territory because no city has ever gone through what we've encountered over the last two years," said New Orleans Councilman-at-Large Arnie Fielkow. "When you look at the cause of our situation, the massive failure of a flood protection system caused by the negligence of our federal government, we're trying to pick up the pieces in a way that we can rebuild New Orleans to a better place than it was pre-Katrina."

Cooperation by all levels of government - federal, state and municipal - is a crucial element necessary for long-term recovery in the region, said Amy Liu, deputy director of The Brookings Institution Metropolitan Policy Program.

Just 83 miles away from New Orleans on the Mississippi Gulf Coast in Biloxi, business is booming.

Two years after Katrina's storm surge swallowed 6,000 of the 25,000 homes and businesses along Biloxi Beach Boulevard, storm debris has been cleared to make way for high-rise hotels, condominiums, casinos and other businesses.

Biloxi Mayor A.J. Holloway told CNN.com this is one of the biggest real estate development phases in the city's history. The city has issued $705 million in building permits, of which $444 million is non-casino and non-condo construction. More than 90 percent of the city's population has returned and the eight casinos employ 17,000 people, that's 2,000 more people than before the storm.

"We're going pretty good. Everything is falling into place," Holloway said. "We still have a long way to go, don't get me wrong, we just feel fortunate that the Biloxi people are working hard and [things] are getting back to normal."

The mayor attributes part of the area's success to cooperation between his office, the Biloxi City Council, the city's Planning Commission, state and U.S. lawmakers and his close relationship with Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour.

"I just talked to the governor himself just about 20 minutes ago. He's very, very active. He wants this Gulf Coast to come back stronger, bigger and better than ever. I'm certainly glad he was governor when this happened," Holloway said.

In July, Biloxi's casino industry reported a record-breaking $97.3 million in gaming revenue and Holloway said if the trend continues the city will earn $1 billion this year. To date, eight casinos have reopened and the mayor predicts that 18 to 22 casinos could open within the next decade. The city's casino industry was flourishing before Katrina, but Holloway believes new state legislation passed to allow casino barges to move onshore has helped spur development.

Opportunities for growth along the Mississippi Gulf Coast have lured people to move to the area from across the country.

Eleven months ago, in Youngstown, Ohio, David MacKondy was dreaming of starting a new life. Reeling from the death of his mother, the 46-year-old packed up everything he owned and headed for the Gulf Coast.

"There was a lot of opportunity versus where I came from. Even though I moved to a town that got hit by a hurricane," said MacKondy, who works for an advertising agency.

MacKondy said all of the new construction and growth excites him and he believes Biloxi will become the next Las Vegas with a beach.

"Most of the people on my street are from Philly, Texas, Ohio, Indiana. It's just a neat environment down here. I love it. I love the authenticity of the true Mississippians. You get that in the different restaurants and all of the people I work with are from here. It took them a while to accept me, but I wouldn't live anywhere else," MacKondy said.

Not everyone is singing the praises of the casinos.

Mitch Woodcock, 38, who moved to Houston, Texas, after Katrina and recently returned, said the cost of living has increased and the cheapest rental he's been able to find is about $1,200 to $1,250 per month for a place that used to cost $850. He said some people are living on the street or in rundown houses just to have a roof over their head.

"Casinos are doing well, yeah granted. They're building all of the condominiums and everything else up and down [Highway] 90 here. They're not worrying about all of the people who have lost so much. Lost houses and homes and even family and loved ones. It's like they don't care about them anymore. They're more worried about making money," Woodcock told CNN.com.

Holloway admits that residential areas have been slow to recover, especially in the hardest hit areas of East Biloxi and along Highway 90. So far, the city has only received 307 permits for new single-family homes. Holloway believes that is due, in large part, to the high cost of insurance after the storm.

Like New Orleans, permanent housing is one of the biggest challenges Mississippi faces 24 months after Katrina, and the state estimates that 13,000 families still live in FEMA trailers. The state's Homeowners Assistance Grant Program has already paid more than 13,000 of the nearly 16,000 eligible applicants, according to the Mississippi Development Authority, which has already begun Phase II of its program.

In the Lower 9th Ward, Robert Green Sr., 52, who lost his mother and granddaughter during the storm, feels like the government has failed him. He's still waiting to receive his money from Louisiana's Road Home Program. Green said that although he hasn't received an official award letter, he's been told he will receive a mere $700 to rebuild his home. He estimates it will cost $167,000 to build. Ruins, deaths don't stop Green family's New Orleans return

As of August 6, 2007, the Road Home Program has paid 40,130 of the 180,424 applicants, according to The Brookings Institution.

Even though much of his neighborhood remains empty, Green said he never feels alone because of the steady stream of family, friends and tourists who stop to talk to him inside his FEMA trailer.

"This is how it was before [Katrina]. We were friendly, we weren't afraid of people, we weren't worried about crime, we weren't worried about drugs - we were worried about normal things like will my daughter go to college and graduate," Green said.

Still, there are some bright spots.

People are continuing to move back to the Crescent City. A new report by the U.S. Postal Service shows that 133,966 households in New Orleans received mail in July, compared with the 198,232 households receiving mail during the same month in 2005. Greg Rigamer, demographer and chief executive officer of GCR Consultants, estimates that roughly 273,600 people were living in the city in July 2007, that's about 60 percent of the city's pre-Katrina population of 452,170.

The regional economy is rebounding and has been restored to more than three-quarters of pre-Katrina levels, according to Brookings. Construction is set to begin this winter on the 70-story Trump Tower New Orleans, which will be one of the tallest buildings on the Gulf Coast, according to co-developer David Brannen. Just last week, the Veteran's Administration announced its commitment to build a new medical center in the city's Central Business District.

Many of New Orleans' famed restaurants, music clubs and convention facilities are back in operation. Tourism officials said attendance at Mardi Gras and the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival in 2007 was near pre-storm levels.

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Despite his frustration, Ventura said he plans to stay.

"There is not another place I want to live that has all of the things that New Orleans has to offer," he said. "I think we're going to be a great city again. I have no doubt."
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