The NewStandard ceased publishing on April 27, 2007.

Biloxi, Miss. Suspiciously Evicts Katrina Relief Center

by Andrew Stelzer

A highly acclaimed nonprofit hurriedly founded in the days following Hurricane Katrina’s devastation of the Gulf Coast has closed its doors on orders from the city government, allegedly to make way for developers.

Feb. 20, 2006 – The city of Biloxi, Mississippi has evicted a volunteer-powered community recovery center. In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the Biloxi Community Center served as a resource for food, clothes, medical care and free computer access in a town that Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour described as "totally destroyed" by the disaster.

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Along Howard Avenue in East Biloxi, where the Center was located, entire neighborhoods are essentially wiped off the map, with barren foundations the only reminder that houses stood there just six months ago.

The Community Center was founded in the days following Hurricane Katrina by David Romero, who came from Indiana to Southern Mississippi with three truckloads of donated food and water. The chaos he saw among aid workers inspired the former firefighter and US Air Force veteran to take matters into his own hands, organizing volunteers and distributing food and water. City police were so impressed with his work that they offered to let him set up a distribution point in one of the few vacant buildings still standing.

Soon, the Center was running its own medical clinic, and receiving 10 to 15 pallets of new clothes three times a week from US Customs and Border Protection. The agency had seized the clothes for violations of trademark laws.

Romero has set up a nonprofit organization called "Midwest Help" to collect donations to help fund the Center, which serves a mostly Vietnamese and African-American neighborhood.

Romero even started a birthday program, giving donated toys to children who missed their birthday celebrations because of the storm.

"We had doctors there every weekend since we took over." Biloxi resident Miguel Rodriguez told The NewStandard. Rodriguez, 75, served as the Biloxi Community Center’s volunteer manager from its second day of operation, even though he had to have the walls and roof of his own house replaced, and his daughter’s home was reduced to its foundation.

With donated funds, Romero bought 50 computers, and students from Dartmouth University came to teach residents how to create resumes and search for jobs. They also showed Katrina survivors how to use the Internet to find available assistance.

Romero even started a birthday program, giving donated toys to children who missed their birthday celebrations because of the storm.

Since November, the city has repeatedly threatened eviction, insisting the Center was no longer needed. Romero says that the initial deadline of December 1 was staved off by the White House, after a visit and photo opportunity by First Lady Laura Bush.

Biloxi then gave the Center a January 1 date to move out, but according to Romero, it was put off again a few hours after the wife of state Senator Thomas Gallot told Romero she would call the mayor to have the eviction delayed once more.

But on February 4, Midwest Help finally closed its doors. The volunteers moved all the food, clothes and medical supplies to a nearby warehouse.

Romero believes the city was being opportunistic in evicting the Community Center, because the services he provided were keeping people in the city “that otherwise would have left.”

Municipal Clerk Brenda Johnston told TNS that the community center no longer served a pressing need, reasoning that "unless someone is just homeless and doesn’t have a job and doesn’t have a home, most people can get a hold of toiletries and things like that, and clothing."

Johnston said the city needs the space for senior programs, and that it will be turned into a polling station.

But Midwest Help’s supporters say the basic unmet needs have not subsided. Rodriguez says that on many days, up to 250 people would come through the doors of the center. But volunteers with Midwest Help told The New Standard that they think the center should have been able to stay open until people stopped coming.

"These people don’t have a lot of washers and dryers around, and unfortunately some of the [donated] clothes just get worn until they’re so dirty they get thrown away," Romero said of the Biloxi residents who by the thousands are trying to salvage what they can of their houses and property. Romero said that donated clothes, as well as food and water, are "exactly what people need right now. They don’t have storage space to store things; they need to be able to go every day and get what they need for that particular day."

The unemployment rate in the Gulfport-Biloxi area jumped from 5.9 percent in August 2005, to 21.3 percent in December, according to the most recent data available from the Department of Labor. Biloxi’s mayor, A.J. Holloway, estimated that 6,000 structures – about 20 percent of the city’s buildings – had been destroyed.

"Everybody lost so much," local business owner Sue Wen Brown told TNS, "and by giving out supplies and brand-new clothing, I think it was one step in rebuilding Biloxi."

Brown has reopened her bakery and po-boy shop, but is still living in temporary housing provided by FEMA. "Living in a FEMA trailer is not ‘back to normal,’" she said.

"I am absolutely ashamed of the city of Biloxi," Brown said about Midwest Help’s eviction. "How can we as a city or as a state, or even as the Gulf Coast region, continue to ask for tax incentives, or breaks, or even financial help, and yet shut down a center that provides basic needs for people?"

Meanwhile, Biloxi’s casinos began re-opening in December, and the three now operating brought in $63 million in January, according to Larry Gregory, the executive director of the Mississippi Gaming Commission. The community surrounding the Center is only a few blocks away from several Waterfront gambling houses.

Romero believes the city was being opportunistic in evicting the Community Center, because the services he provided were keeping people in the city "that otherwise would have left." He says that many people who came to the Center for help are fixing up homes that had originally been condemned, on land desired by developers only blocks from the Gulf of Mexico.

"Their plans don’t involve those houses still being there." said Romero of the developers, "and so all that land that they’re gonna have to buy becomes more valuable once the person has rebuilt their house and refuses to go."

Currently, Midwest Help is still receiving donations, but is now rerouting food and clothing to other volunteer organizations working in the area. Romero plans to stay in Biloxi at least a few more months. "As long as I stay here, there’s a supply line open for things to come down here," he said. "But if I leave, that’s one more line that’ll be cut off."

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The NewStandard ceased publishing on April 27, 2007.

This News Article originally appeared in the February 20, 2006 edition of The NewStandard.
Andrew Stelzer is a contributing journalist.

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