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Katrina Still Bad for Business in Pass Christian

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:

Today, we continue our look at the Mississippi Gulf Coast and how Hurricane Katrina is reshaping the economy there. Insurance costs and land values have soared since the storm, prompting a shortage of affordable housing and pushing smaller businesses off the beach. We're going to spend some time in the town of Pass Christian, nestled on a scenic peninsula surrounded by water. My guide is longtime state representative Diane Peranich.

State Representative DIANE PERANICH (Democrat, Pass Christian): See, isn't it gorgeous?

ELLIOTT: Yes.

State Rep. PERANICH: You can see the Mississippi sound off in the - those stripes, and somebody saw trace here where Christopher Columbus landed.

ELLIOTT: We're under a canopy of oaks in War Memorial Park at the center of town. Virtually all of Pass Christian was wiped out by Hurricane Katrina, but the park is back. There's a playground for children, picnic tables, a gazebo.

State Rep. PERANICH: But the main thing is that debris is gone. Think how wonderful that is. You know, you can take a deep breath now and smell magnolias or jasmine or salt air.

ELLIOTT: A stretch of trailers lines the grounds.

State Rep. PERANICH: So this has become the cultural center of the city and the home to our businesses.

ELLIOTT: The trailers house a sandwich shop and insurance office and a local bank, complete with a portable ATM out front. It's just across the street from the city's municipal complex, where city hall, the police station, and other offices are also in temporary headquarters, a conglomeration of trailers and tents set up on what used to be the city tennis courts. Representative Peranich takes me inside a doublewide on the edge of the park.

This is the library, which I learned has been the community hub since one month after the storm.

State Rep. PERANICH: It was the heart of the community. It held us together.

ELLIOTT: She introduces me to two women, waiting at a table amid the bookshelves.

Ms. SALLY JAMES (Manager, Pass Christian Library): My name is Sally James. I will be 69 years old this June, and hopefully be in my house by that time. I'm a lifelong resident of Pass Christian and I've been with the library system 24 years.

Ms. ALICE RUSSELL (Board Member, Pass Christian Chamber of Commerce): I'm Alice Russell. I'm representing the Pass Christian Chamber of Commerce. I am a former business owner. Forced to retirement. We owned one of the service stations right up on Scenic Drive that went for a swim that - we like to say a lot of our stuff went for a swim.

ELLIOTT: Alice Russell Stanley has been in Pass Christian for 100 years. Her father was longtime city alderman. She lost her brother-in-law to Katrina. The Russell's have owned several businesses: a nursery, a bakeshop and since 1978, the Russell Service Center, a full service gas station and auto repair garage in what used to be the city's main business district on a bluff overlooking the beach. But the family is in a dispute with its insurance company and has decided not to rebuild.

Ms. RUSSELL: Unfortunately, we weren't treated very kindly so. Our type of business was very expensive because it's an environmentally affected business, they being a garage and gasoline station. So we probably - that has a big bearing on it. The fact that my husband is 70 years old and to have to start completely over in that type of business, as a matter of fact, the children said, Daddy, I think it's time we just all did something else.

ELLIOTT: Other businesses have come back but mostly on the northern edge of town. There's a Laundromat, a gas station, a bookstore, a couple of restaurants and $2 stores, but still no Winn-Dixie.

Ms. RUSSELL: We don't have a grocery store in Pass Christian yet. So the dollar stores have picked up the slack. You can go buy bread, milk and eggs and coffee and peanut butter and, you know, at a dollar store.

ELLIOTT: But on the beach and right downtown, signs of commerce are sparse.

Ms. JAMES: The cost of insurance has paid a big, big role in the delay of people making decisions to come back.

ELLIOTT: Librarian, Sally James.

Ms. JAMES: Pass Christian businesses were mom like Alice's - mom and pop businesses, except for Wal-Mart. We had quite little - as all little towns have little restaurants, we also had two four-star restaurants, did you know that?

ELLIOTT: No.

Ms. JAMES: Yeah.

ELLIOTT: Sally James is worried about the local tax pays. Unlike towns further east like Biloxi and Gulfport, Pass Christian does not have any casinos or large shipyards within its borders. It's biggest revenue generators were the Wal-Mart and Winn-Dixie, which are not back yet.

She saw the town recover from Hurricane Camille in 1969, but wonders how will it come back from Katrina's hit.

Ms. JAMES: I hope I'll live 10 years longer so that I can see Pass Christian. It won't be the Pass Christian even after Camille that Allison and Diane and I saw, because we came back as small towns that we were after Camille. We'll see a new - I hope it won't be so far from the small community that we once knew that we wouldn't recognize it.

ELLIOTT: Well, how do you think you'll see that change? What do you think you'll see in 10 years?

Ms. JAMES: Well, I hope I don't see too many high-rise condos, I'll tell you that right off the bat.

ELLIOTT: New condo projects are underway on other parts of the coast, where people who lost their homes to Katrina have sold to developers.

Ms. JAMES: The thing I think that has most frightened me is that the condos that they're planning to built are so expensive. There's no one on this Gulf Coast that could afford to buy them. We need to work very hard not to have our Coastline become the California Coastline or the Miami Coastline, for goodness sakes.

ELLIOTT: These women don't want to see their small town way of life disappear as the Coast recovers. Back at War Memorial Park, State Representative Diane Peranich is hungry to share some of that local culture with me.

State Rep. PERANICH: There were many things you would do when you would come home if you were away, but you weren't official home until you hugged your mother and have a roast beef po-boy from Pirate's Cove.

ELLIOTT: Pirate's Cove was the spacious beachfront restaurant that had been a fixture here for 25 years. Now, it takes orders through the window of a 12 by 24 trailer in the park.

State Rep. PERANICH: We're going to have a roast beef po-boy so you'll know where have I speak.

Unidentified Woman: Hi. How are you doing?

State Rep. PERANICH: Hi. May I have four roast beef po-boys?

Unidentified Woman: You sure can.

State Rep. PERANICH: Dressed with gravy on the side and four Barq's root beers open.

ELLIOTT: I stepped inside to speak with the owner, Mike Lamarca.

Mr. MIKE LAMARCA (Owner, Pirate's Cove): One day we'll going to build back, not on the beachfront, but we are looking to get back - build back here in Pass Christian.

ELLIOTT: What seems the problem with trying to build back?

Mr. LAMARCA: Really the cost for me. I mean, the cost of the land, having to start from ground up. Buying a piece of land and then putting the building on it and then equipping it, and such as that for a sandwich shop, you know. We're not a biog corporation that can overcome big prices.

(Soundbite of fast-food order)

ELLIOTT: There's a steady stream of customers on this weekday afternoon.

Mr. LAMARCA: We did good for being downsized. Business has totally changed. We're kind of isolated, past the (unintelligible) sort of isolated. And so, for - there's only couple of businesses open down here, so I'm learning that since the hurricane that the delivery companies they don't come down here as many times as they used to. That's really been a big difference in taking care of business these days, you know.

ELLIOTT: Lamarca is searching for a permanent location now, but is a bit taken aback by the prices. One possibility is a new project in the works for a five-storey development that will include shops below condominiums. It's called Harbor Town, and it's being built as part of Mississippi's Smart Growth Plan.

Diane Peranich hopes that's not just new lingo for turning this little town into an overpriced beach resort.

State Rep. PERANICH: My concern is I want to see the same faces I have always seen. You know, while we could grow and expand in the prosperity that would possibly come. I don't want it to come at the expense of those who that are here. We had little shotgun houses for years. I don't want them displaced by what some may consider as progress or smart growth. We can have the best of both worlds, but we cannot have the largest transfer of property since the Great Depression.

ELLIOTT: Despite her concerns as Diane Peranich looks out over the trees in War Memorial Park, she has faith Pass Christian will survive.

State Rep. PERANICH: But you see, they took a terrible beating these magnificent oaks, but they didn't go over. Maybe we are like oak trees. We certainly are people that endure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR National Correspondent Debbie Elliott can be heard telling stories from her native South. She covers the latest news and politics, and is attuned to the region's rich culture and history.