Along the Gulf Coast, Post Katrina, Part 6: Biloxi, Mississippi
The remnants of the iconic Sharkheads building on the beachfront
While the Acolytes of War, "Little Joey the Chickenhawk" Lieberman, AIPAC, the Cheney Shadow Government, the zombies in the Pentagon, and the Right-wing in general rant and try to manipulate the Media into rationalizing an attack on Iran, hurricane season has begun again. So we must pose this question, that if the United States ends up in another, third costly war against the Muslim World (and we have seen how expensive the first two have been), what will the consequences be if a major hurricane strikes the Gulf or East Coast at the same time?
In previous chapters of this series, I have pointed out how woefully pathetic and/or cynical government response have been, with certain exceptions when FEMA and HUD are out of the picture, to the devastating hurricane season of 2005, and how little has really been done, other than creating trailer parks, for vast segments of the hundreds of thousands of victims of Katrina in the South. The funds have been inadequate, the federal government response has been, like the wars, callous, corrupt and ideological, and the first line of defense in natural disasters, the National Guard, is deployed and bleeding in great numbers in Iraq, ironically helping to make Iraq look like the Lower Ninth Ward, after Katrina.
So what rabbit will George Bush pull out of his hat (or ass) if another hurricane blasts a major metropolitan center? What if Mobile, Alabama or Houston, Texas gets a direct hit this time? Since, on the whole, areas previously hit have been rebuilding largely on the lines of who has working capital and political clout and who doesn't, instead of any comprehensive, centralized effort that helps all sectors of society, what kind of aftermath would we get, say, in Houston? Would we see giant Oil Baron business towers standing amidst an apocalypse of thousands of shattered toothpick houses, similar to the situation in Biloxi, Mississippi right now?
And just what is the situation in Biloxi some 22 months after Katrina struck? Well, let me tell you about the place:
I was able to drive to Biloxi from Pascagoula on three separate afternoons this past May. This was my second trip to Mississippi in two months, and since I didn't have time to tour Biloxi on the first trip, I was doubly determined to check out Biloxi this time around, and what I found was a city of strange contrasts, woeful catastrophe and colorful history.
By the time Mississippi became a state in 1817 and Biloxi a part of it, the latter had fallen into sparse times, with only a small community of hardcore French and Creoles, but over time it began to seasonally attract wealthy New Orleans citizens trying to escape the squalid summer heat and malaria, became an enduring port for riverboats and terminal for the railroad, and saw massive fishing and lumber industries develop. Its fishing fleets and canneries became so extensive that Biloxi became known as the "Seafood Capital of the World" by 1900, and also boasted one of the great sportsfishing enterprises along the Gulf Coast. These diverse industries also attracted fishermen and workers from throughout Europe and other regions, making Biloxi a true melting pot, and after the Vietnam War was lost by the early 1970s, expatriate Vietnamese fishermen, many fleeing retribution and "reeducation" by the Communists, could be added to the mix in numbers enough to create a viable Asian community, a community that would often clash with the more established, territorial and xenophobic fraternities of fishermen, even though most of them were of immigrant stock themselves.
During World War II, the Army Air Corps set up a training base on the outskirts of Biloxi and this has since metamorphosed into Kessler Air Force Base, bringing a large military presence to the city, both active-duty and retired. And where there are large numbers of servicemen, there is usually a tawdry assortment of camp followers, shady con-men selling cars, rip-off loans and various other rackets, prostitutes, pimps and strippers, gamblers, drug pushers and even moon-shiners. Add to this brew the sleazy underworld of the "Dixie Mafia" which had created, in the 1960s and beyond, a shifting network of crime, corruption and murder throughout various cities and states in the Deep South, and which had made Biloxi one of the satellite hubs of its activities. The Dixie Mafia was not a true, Sicilian-heritage crime hierarchy, but a 'Good-ole Boys" loose syndicate with a strong penchant for violence and a magnetic appeal for corrupt politicians and sheriffs. In Biloxi, they congregated around the "Strip", an assortment of strip joints along the Biloxi beachfront that served as a sort of primitive forerunner of the later 1990s"strip" of casinos along the same beachfront, although the latter would offer more family-oriented entertainment and more sanitized gambling, though equally deleterious to one's wallet, than in secretive, smoke-filled backrooms, where curious conversations about contract murders might waft into the air.
Biloxi and surrounding Harrison county have had a number of their prominent citizens enmeshed in scandals that have splashed across the front pages of America's newspapers over the years, men such as Judge Walter Nixon, the LBJ-appointed federal judge who was impeached by the House of Representatives and removed by the Senate for lying to a grand jury about influencing a decision to drop a drug prosecution against the son of one of his business partners. To be impeached by such a corrupt body as the U.S. Congress really takes brazen affront, lots of enemies, or both.
Then there was Sheriff Leroy Hobbs, who started out as a sort of media Dudley Do-Right in Biloxi back in 1972, but who, twelve years later, would be convicted by the Feds under the RICO Act for racketeering. His alleged activities ran the gamut from nepotism, gambling and protection rackets to drug smuggling, involvement in contract murders and association with key figures in the Dixie Mafia, even with Carlos Marcello of the real Italian-American Mafia. It should be noted that the Dixie Mafia has been one of the prime movers of drugs in the States, particularly in the South, an easy transition for characters whose heritage is riddled with moonshine bootleggers. For those of you who harbor the illusion that the South is this strictly moralistic, Ten Commandments-spouting Bible Belt, where organ music fills the air and fire-breathing preachers lurk, ever eager to pounce on every infraction against Godly order, that is merely the faÃ§ade for a region deeply enmeshed in sin and corruption, not unlike the rest of the country, and, for that matter, the planet.
Another infamous Biloxi official was lawyer and one-time mayor Pete Halat, who was convicted on racketeering charges related to the gangland-style murder of Mississippi Circuit Court Judge Vince Sherry and his wife, Margaret. His involvement with Biloxi underworld boss Mike Gillich and others in this crime was brought forth in a laborious trial ending in 1997. Such is life in Biloxi.
A close-up of a Hurricane Camille memorial, ironically damaged by Katrina
On August 17, 1969, Hurricane Camille, a Category 5 storm, tore into Biloxi and the Mississippi coast, creating massive damage, although actually less damage than 2005's Katrina, only a Category 3 hurricane, leaving many Biloxi natives baffled as the latter monster submerged 80% of the city. In a telephone interview with John Morykwas, the great-grandson of George E. Ohr, the famous Mad Potter of Biloxi, whom I will have more to say about later, John described how he rode out both hurricanes, but that Camille, perhaps the strongest storm ever recorded with winds reaching 190 mph, only caused flooding to the bottom of his front steps, while Katrina, with winds of 175 mph maximum, flooded not only the top of his steps, but three feet above them, inundating his house.
John has several possible explanations for this anomaly, that 1) the National Hurricane Center, for whatever arcane reasons, was actually understating the true strength of Hurricane Katrina, or that 2) the sea level is simply higher around Biloxi than 36 years ago, with, moreover, less sand to buffer the city, and this fact contributed to the massive flooding. John, who has had many and varied careers ranging from a stint as an Air Force B-52 and F-4 navigator to work with the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, to ending up as a federal employee for the Veteran's Administration (and a whistleblower), described to me how he has "always been a waterman" and has certainly noted over the years how the sea level seems to be rising around Biloxi. And he states emphatically that NOAA has known for some time that sea levels are rising in general.