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Miss. residents fear their losses will be forgotten in Rita's wake

GULFPORT, Miss.—As Hurricane Rita threatens the coastal shoulders of Texas, the people in southern Mississippi are facing a new kind of fear and misery—that of feeling forgotten.

Here, a huge and jagged chunk of the coast is gone. Homes and jobs, too.

Waterfront towns no longer exist in any practical sense, or have eerily exquisite gulf views. Those that remain are nearly bankrupt without a vibrant tax base.

Hundreds are dead, hundreds more still missing. And the very system designed to help is taxed by the sheer scope of the storm and its tragic leftovers.

Still, much of the national conversation remains focused on a world-famous city 90 miles away that dodged the hurricane but fell to an epic flood caused by broken levees and generations of bad decisions.

Three weeks after the storm and days before Hurricane Rita, a successor that promises similar fury, is expected to hit Texas, Hurricane Katrina's wretched portrait is emerging in the numbers from Mississippi:

_219 are dead statewide, 164 in coastal counties. Officials believe those numbers are woefully underreported and that more bodies will be uncovered as large amounts of debris are removed.

_Of the 171,000 dwellings in the area, more than 65,100 homes, or 38 percent, are destroyed and 38,000 sustained major damage.

_With governments gone or operating from makeshift city halls, and much of the tax base now in woodpiles along the roadways, the future of up to four coastal cities is tentative. Two cities—Waveland and Bay St. Louis, clobbered more than most, are talking about merging, perhaps as the new "Bayland."

_All 12 casinos, with a collective payroll of 17,000 employees, are gutted and closed for business. In Biloxi alone, casinos poured $22 million into the city, school and public safety departments last year.

_The Red Cross financial assistance program is swamped by callers and people willing to stand in line for hours for up to $1,565 per family, the craftiest showing up with inflatable mattresses for overnight stays.

_More than 382,000 of Katrina's Mississippi victims have registered for aid from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. More than $300 million has been paid out.

"I am not sure the nation knows just how bad it is in Mississippi," says Pat Smith, a professor of history at the University of Southern Mississippi. "And with the next storm coming, that makes it all the more difficult."

Had New Orleans never drowned, Katrina still would have been a near-mythic storm comparable to Hurricane Andrew, which leveled swaths of South Florida.

"Mississippi is like the Pentagon was to the World Trade Center during 9/11," said Robert Thompson, a pop culture professor at Syracuse University. "With the themes of death, race, class and poverty, the floods in New Orleans took over much of the universe. And sometimes that kind of attention can translate into resources, particularly when you talk about mobilizing the private sectors. They respond to what they see over and over again."

Which is why National Football League legend Brett Favre, who's from a small town near the Mississippi coast, urged a national audience during Monday Night Football not to forget his home state.

"Every time I turn on the TV, all the attention is on New Orleans. I'm not picking sides, but it is a tale of two different cities," Favre said Wednesday.

The situation is different because of the kinds of damage, he said. New Orleans homes were flooded, but are still standing. Some will be salvaged. In Mississippi, the homes are gone or can't be saved.

"People on the Mississippi Gulf Coast have nothing—no house, no clothes, no direction and nowhere to go. They have been physically wiped off the map, and they need help," he said.

Downtown Gulfport is a lonely stretch of modest buildings, with its guts scattered on the sidewalks. A wingback leather sofa, bruised but still handsome, sits on the sidewalk. Plants still grow from their tilted pots in storefronts.

Ernest Ulrich runs the single business open in Gulfport. The Port City Cafe was blessed by waves that turned and dropped only a foot or so of water and soot inside. Now his customers are disaster-relief workers, and he serves 1,100 meals a day.

"Before I had the white-collar crowd—judges, attorneys and bankers—now it's all blue-collar," Ulrich said. "We don't care what collar it is, we just want to feed people."

But Ulrich is unsure of Gulfport's next chapter.

"There's not much to work with," he said, wistfully pointing to a wide-angled photograph of his lost city. "Most of the town is going to have to rebuild. The question is: Who can survive long enough to come back to do it?"


(Burch reports for The Miami Herald. Blake Kaplan of The (Biloxi) Sun Herald contributed to this report from Biloxi.)


(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): WEA-STORMS-MISSISSIPPI

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