The Never-Ending State of Emergency.

They don’t mention this part to incoming tourists, but it’s there just the same: five years after Hurricane Katrina killed 52 people in Biloxi, the city is still officially in a state of emergency. And there’s so sign of it being lifted any time soon.

story by Dan Oshinsky / photos by Dan Oshinsky
published August 18, 2010

From time to time, most recently on August 3, a paragraph appears on the Biloxi City Council agenda that does not seem to belong. It is one sentence and 44 words, and even though it will not be considered for very long, or even directly voted on by the council, it will be among the most important things that will happen in Biloxi all year.

Under the heading, “Consent Agenda, Section A,” it reads:

“Resolution continuing the declaration of a State of Emergency in the City of Biloxi, Mississippi for Hurricane Katrina, and authorizing the mayor to do all things reasonable and necessary to protect the immediate health and safety of the city’s citizens; and for related purposes.”

They don’t mention this part to the tourists at the craps table at the Beau Rivage, or to the gumbo-eating diners at Mary Mahoney’s, or to the convention-goers at the just-opened Convention Center down on Highway 90, but it’s there just the same: five years after Hurricane Katrina killed 52 people in Biloxi [1], the city is still officially in a state of emergency, and there are no signs that it will soon be lifted.

“Our Katrina story is still going on,” says Biloxi mayor A.J. Holloway, who has served in office since 1993. But understand, Holloway says: the state of emergency now is in name only. He remembers the hours after the storm, when he’d see Biloxians on the street wearing nothing but shorts and shoes and saying, “What do we do now, mayor? What I’m wearing is all I have left.” He remembers ordering dump trucks to plow the city streets of debris, and the debris piling up above his second-floor window. That was a state of emergency.

Five years later, Holloway describes the city as more in “a state of repair.” Officially, he has to keep the city under a state of emergency in order to bypass bureaucratic hurdles. Under a state of emergency, Holloway says the city can accept bids for construction projects without needing to wait out a period of weeks, as mandated by law. With three multi-million dollar projects underway — including work on the city’s library, community center and visitor’s center — Holloway wants the construction finished as fast as possible.

“We still have a lot of things to do that we couldn’t do if we weren’t in a state of emergency,” he says. “We still have a lot of building to do. We still have a lot of cleaning up, fixing up.”

Keeping the city under a state of emergency isn’t ideal, but Holloway has used unconventional methods to aid city planning before. In the city’s initial post-Katrina push to get debris out of the streets, Holloway decided that one company probably couldn’t handle the entire job by itself. So he split the city into three sections — north, east and west — and contracted work out to three different companies. He flipped a coin twice to decide who’d work where.

But Holloway says his methods were all with one intent. Some officials estimated that after Katrina, the amount of debris in Biloxi could fill a football field stacked 30 stories high. [2] Holloway says he just wanted then — and wants now — to get his city back to a state of normalcy as soon as is possible.

“We need to do what we need to do to get us back,” he says. ❑