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CNN Express: Mississippi and the Gulf Coast States

Aired August 21, 2010 - 15:00   ET



TOM FOREMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice over): Five years after Katrina rolled ashore, five years after Gulf residents were battered, beaten, and driven across the country, five years after the mother of all hurricanes and an oil disaster too, the cost is bouncing back. Families, businesses, all communities are embracing a spirit of revival. And nowhere more than in Mississippi where millions of folks are building up America.

Welcome to the CNN Express. I'm Tom Foreman. We've been traveling all up and down the Gulf Coast, Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, looking at how folks here are dealing with the calamities that have come their way, and there are far too many of them. Nobody here denies that there's been a lot of bad news here, a lot of setbacks and an awful lot of losses. But equally undeniable is the fact that many people here are working every day to build up again. Any time any day you can hear blues in the Delta; this is the land of legends, muddy waters, BB King. Its home to their musical heirs like Terry "Big T" Williams.

TERRY "BIG T" WILLIAMS, BLUES MUSICIAN: I don't care if it's a fast- played blues or a so-played blues, it's still saying something about I'm feeling bad but still life is OK.

FOREMAN: And lately life has been more than OK here even in the wake of the oil spill, Katrina, and all the economic turmoil because of a rising tide of blues tourism. At the Delta Blues Museum the crowds are growing so steadily, that people from every state and dozens of foreign countries, that it will soon be expanded to more than twice its size. This town alone pulled in $54 million from visitors last year. People tracing the history of blues and rock through a string of historic sites throughout the region called the Blues Trail. Kappi Allen is with the County Tourism Commission.

KAPPI ALLEN, DIRECTOR OF TOURISM: This year so far we've seen an increase of 13 percent in our tourism tax numbers.

FOREMAN: And all that in the middle of a recession.

ALLEN: Absolutely. We are open for business.

FOREMAN: Some say the surge is because the blues speak to folks in hard times. Some say it's because people here are doing a better job marketing their attractions. But Bill Luckett an owner of the Ground Zero Blues Club says whatever the cause, the results are undeniable. How important do you think that is to building up this part of America in these hard times?

BILL LUCKETT, GROUND ZERO BLUES CLUB: Well, we have lost a lot of our factories, a lot of our base manufacturing wise. Blues music and tourism and interest in blues music is replacing that as an industry.

FOREMAN: According to lore, the great blues man Robert Johnson met the devil at this cross road and traded his soul for the gift of music. That's just a legend. But this is a fact.

WILLIAMS: The tourist attraction used to be seasonal now it's year- round. They come all the time.

FOREMNA: In the wake of so many problems for many folks, that feels heaven sent. Mississippi's musical heritage grew out of its rural farming culture. Farming is still huge here. This state grows more cotton than almost any other. It also produces soy beans, rice, corn, and catfish, lots of them. Since the 1980s Mississippi has raised more catfish for restaurants and supermarkets than any other place in the country.

As business goes, it's quite a catch, around $250 million worth annually. Down along the Gulf, fish are also big business for tourists who come to catch them and to eat them. Ever since Katrina and even in the midst of this oil spill, there have been plenty of people who have been steadily rebuilding all of these coastal communities, but the hardest place for them to establish a beachhead has been on the beach. There's been insurance problems; there have been problems with people getting up the nerve up for it. But with each passing month, more and more people heed the call of the water and their answer.

This Trapani family restaurant has great cooks, loyal customers. The owners Jolynne and Tony are dedicated, hardworking.

TONY TRAPANI, RESTAURANT OWNER: These crab cakes right here have no bread in them whatsoever.

FOREMAN: But situated far from the water they lack one thing, location, location, location.

T. TRAPANI: This place needs to be on the beach. This whole area is about boating and water and fishing and everything. Now, we're doing OK, but we can't stay here forever. We have to move back to that beach in order to help the community out.

FOREMAN: For a dozen years, the Trapani's place was right on the waterfront and they had lots of company. This whole area out here was filled with businesses.

T. TRAPANI: All of this was businesses. That was a coffee shop.

FOREMAN: Plenty of restaurants have opened since Katrina. There are now more on this coast than before the storm. They are building inland, not on the water, especially not this past summer with the threat of oil looming so large. So the Hospitality and Restaurant Association is offering classes for aspiring restaurateurs, helping with business plans, running special promotions to attract customers all because they know they need businesses on the beach to build up their part of the Gulf.

RICHARD CHENOWETH, MS HOSPITALITY & RESTAURANT ASSOC: Like little gears. You have the sprockets going around and if one those go you start slipping like this and it kind of goes down.

FOREMAN: You need them all.

CHENOWETH: We need them all.

FOREMAN: The Trapani's have made up their mind. Soon they will break ground rebuilding right back where Katrina took them down.

Why is it so important for you to be back here again?

JOLYNNE TRAPANI, RESAURANT OWNER: We always knew that this was a big puzzle -- piece of the puzzle we can replace to bring back this community.

T. TRAPANI: We are determined to rebuild this thing.

FOREMAN: Because they are convinced if they build it not only customers but other businesses will come, too.

When we come back, it's moving day. How Gulf businesses devise a remarkable solution to their mortgage crisis, one that is working here and might work elsewhere, too.

Also, the community is still struggling but the kids are all right in Waveland. Further down the beach, building up America.




FOREMAN: Many famous folks from Mississippi have helped build up America for many years. In entertainment, Oprah Winfrey, Sela Ward, this is CNN, James Earl Jones all hailed from Mississippi. So did Muffet master Jim Henson, sporting heroes, Brett Favre, Walter Payton and Jerry Rice grew up here as did the Civil Rights pioneer Medgar Evers (ph) his story and Shelby Foot, the literally giant William Fulkner, Tennessee Williams, and more recently mega best selling author John Grisham. This state that loves music gave us Faith Hill, Lance Vast, Lee Ann Rhymes, the late Bo Didley, and, of course, the king, Elvis Presley was born in a humble Mississippi home.

Calling this state home grew a lot harder for many folks along the Gulf after Katrina faced with a sudden shortage of housing, soaring prices as a result. Many who wanted to stay just weren't sure they could afford to. But businesses couldn't afford to let them leave either. In Gulfport, that produced a unique partnership for building up America. Little more than a year ago, Craig and Mandie Neicase were struggling. They had lost so much income and property in Katrina, his job with the sheriff's department couldn't overcome setbacks let alone the recession.

Did you have at that time any hope of buying a place like this?



FOREMAN: This wasn't just you. This was everybody.

M. NEICASE: Everybody on the street, everybody in the neighborhood. Everybody had lost everything.

FOREMAN: The situation was driving desperately needed workers away, even before the catastrophic oil spill. Everyone knew the community had to get out of that trouble. And that is where this place came in. Business and civic leaders raised $12 million to start the nonprofit Gulf Coast Renaissance Corporation to help house those families. The state gave money, too and when Renaissance opened the doors, CEO Kim LaRosa saw an immediate response.

KIM LAROSA, GULF COAST RENAISSANCE: Boy did people respond. We had people coming out of the woodwork.

FOREMAN: It worked like this. If a worker with a family of four making $50,000 or less needed a leg up to buy a home, the corporation and the employer together would provide the down payment. The Niecase's got $30,000 from the sheriff's department, $10,000 from Renaissance. In return they pledged to stay and help rebuild as they repaid the loans.

C. NEICASE: It keeps employees based down here, it keeps tax base down here.

FOREMAN: Stabilizes this community.


FOREMAN: Banks have now joined the program, too. Almost 600 families have been put into houses.

You're requiring these people to go to classes to know how to be good homeowners, to manage their budget, stay in these houses.

LAROSA: Yes. We did not want to set them up to fail. We have no one to date fail, no foreclosures.

FOREMAN: Not one?


M. NEICASE: Six cart wheels.

FOREMAN: Call it an investment in the heart of the town, in people who can fight the storms, can fight the oil spill and who will, because this is truly still home. Of course a home is more than just a house. It is the people who live there and their feeling of safety and security, all of which took a pounding in Waveland.

When Katrina hit this town, they lost all of their businesses, almost all of their homes. Their citizens were scattered all over the country, then came the recession, then came the oil spill. And yet through it all they focused on one group of citizens which owns almost nothing but keep the future.

The children are riding the waves again around the battered shores of Waveland. No community was hit harder by Katrina, and none has been more mindful of the fact children suffered just as much as adults. Caroline Collins can attest to that. She remembers her father staying through the storm and returning to find him amid the wreckage.

CAROLINE COLLINS, YOUTH LEADER: Coming home and like seeing him when I walked in the door. I remember him kissing all of us on the head.

FOREMAN: So from the start, this town has focused on the recovery of children as much as the return of adults. Because as Mayor Tommy Longo puts it, more than business, more than government.

MAYOR TOMMY LONGO, WAVELAND, MS: The families are the heart and soul of your community.

FOREMAN: As a result some of the earliest recovery projects here were family oriented. Baseball fields and parks, a community center, a new library, new schools and safe places for children and their parents to retreat from the devastation and debris. It's an ongoing process. At St. Clair's Church still in a temporary building a new youth group has just been started. Beth Gruzinskas is an organizer and she's never had any doubts about staying.

BETH GRUZINSKAS, PARENT LEADER: I've lived here my whole life. This is where I belong and this is where my children belong and my family. There was no question that we were going to rebuild.

FOREMAN: Plenty of young people are fully committed to helping.

COLLINS: We want the best for the community because we love it just as much as all the adults do.

FOREMAN: Still it's an ongoing process convincing adults to deal with terrible things like a great storm or catastrophic oil spill is one thing. Persuading them to expose their children to it is something else. This town made that a priority and it still is. As a parent, what do you want other parents to know about your town?

LONGO: That's its safe. It is a safe environment. I want them to know that they need to come home.

FOREMAN: And he should know. He has seven children all still growing up right here in their hometown.

When we return, saving the great homes of history.

(UNIDENTIFIED MALE): This is the magnolia hotel.

FOREMAN: And building up a home in the forest where they talk to the animals. No kidding.



FOREMAN: Louisiana and Mississippi by far the hardest hit of the Gulf States when Katrina swept in. Even the oil spill affected communities here more than most. All along the coast people suffered and feared the repercussions of another blow so soon after the great storm. And in the Panhandle that has produced an unexpected outpouring of concern for wildlife. For every living creature at the Florida Wildlife Association, the oil catastrophe has changed the world. The woman in charge, Chris Beatty says oddly it's for the better.

CHRIS BEATTY, FL WILD MAMMAL ASSOC: We received over 1,000 e-mails in the last four weeks. The phone just rings off the hook with all sorts of questions from volunteers.

FOREMAN: Because they want to help the wildlife?

BEATTY: Yes, they do. This is their home, their community, their environment.

FOREMAN: The center takes in 1,000 animals a year, mostly injured or orphaned, most to be treated and released, seagulls, possums, raccoons.

BEATTY: There we go. Good girl. It's baby season if you can't tell.

FOREMAN: Dozens of deer like this fawn whose mother was hit by a car and flocks of little birds.

(UNIDENTIFED FEMALE): Every 15 minutes you go through a syringe.

FOREMAN: Every 15 minutes.

(UNIDENTIFED FEMALE): Every 15 minutes unless they are really little and then it's every 10 minutes.

FOREMAN: Lately they have been taking in lots of donations from people reawakened by the threat of the oil spill to the value of this natural resource. One recent Saturday the center was given almost $19,000 in cash, supplies and mainly in free labor from 80 volunteers, including Clutch Sims.

CLUTCH SIMS, VOLUNTEER: Can't depend a whole lot on our government, so we have to do it ourselves, take care of our own business.

FOREMAN: So they are rebuilding pelican pens, hawk and owl enclosures, and fox habitats. They don't know if they will get oiled animals, but --

BEATTY: We feel it's better to be prepared than to wait until it actually happens.

FOREMAN: At the height of the oil fear, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service was preparing two, surveying the Eastern Gulf Coast ahead of the advancing oil.

(UNIDENTIFIED MALE): We're trying to get some respecific information on wildlife. We're comparing the situation now with what might occur.

FOREMAN: So at least you will know what you are up against. To see what happens?

(UNIDENTIFIED MALE): That's correct.

FOREMAN: That information will still prove valuable for managing, hunting, fishing, tour implementation.

Wildlife of Florida really is an important part of what makes this state attractive to people.

BEATTY: I think it's beyond that. The whole Panhandle is a rural area. That's what our livelihoods depend on. Without wildlife, we'd be very damaged.

FOREMAN: As it is, the tragedy of the oil spill brought attention that could help wildlife on the Gulf Coast for many years.

(UNIDENTIFIED MALE): In the Delta country, they are still flooded out.

FOREMAN: Forty years ago the killer hurricane Camille ripped through here causing immense damage and hundreds of fatalities. It was actually more powerful than Katrina.

(UNIDENTIFED FEMALE): We lost everything, 22 houses.

FOREMAN: Fewer people had homes along the coast back then, so the overall toll was less. Still, those who survived began building up again as soon as they could, just as Gulf residents are doing now.

When we come back, saving their history and betting that the landmarks of the past are a key to future success, too.




FOREMAN: The 150-year-old lighthouse is gleaming again in Biloxi, reopened just this year after a massive restoration. Other glimmers of hope are appearing all over town.

BILL RAYMOND, HISTORIC ADMINISTRATOR: This is the Magnolia Hotel. It is the only surviving antebellum hotel along the Gulf Coast.

FOREMAN: Bill Raymond, historic administrator for Biloxi is overseeing the revival of more than a dozen landmarks hammered by Katrina.

How much damage did you have here?

RAYMOND: We had seven foot of water; we had water up to about there.

FOREMAN: And he's sharply aware that with so many jobs lost from the recession and so many in perils because of the oil spill, many citizens are asking hard questions.

RAYMOND: Why would you spend money on an historic structure? You need to help people get jobs.

FOREMAN: What did you tell them?

RAYMOND: Think about the future, think about just a few years from now when people do get jobs and have work.

FOREMAN: You're going to want a town with an identity.

RAYMOND: Exactly.

FOREMAN: For three centuries this town one of the oldest on the Gulf has had a deep identity rooted in fishing and tourism. In the newly restored city hall, the mayor believes regaining a sense of that history is critical to convincing tourists to come back, business leaders to reinvest, everyone to believe his town will fully return from all of its calamities.

You lost a lot of history in the storm.

RAYMOND: We lost a tremendous amount of history, but we're going to bring it back as much as we can.

FOREMAN: Inside the lighthouse, the wall shows how high floodwaters have risen over many years, but sites all over show that this town has always built up no matter how far it was beaten down.

RAYMOND: It is in honor of history, but it is the reminders and the markers of our history.

FOREMAN: And Bill Raymond is convinced with each bit of history he can save, the future, too, grows brighter. No one here has any illusions.

They know this part of the country has been hit very hard. They know that their losses are real. They know they face many, many challenges, maybe for many years.

But they are also sure of this, they have been hit hard by great storms and great calamities before and they have always come back.

From all of us on the CNN Express, we wish the very best to the people of the Gulf Coast. Thanks for joining us. We'll see you down the road.