It has been 16 years since Hurricane Katrina ravaged the Mississippi Gulf Coast region. The City of Biloxi is a coastal community that sits quietly along a small peninsula in the heart of the Gulf of Mexico. Category 5 winds destroyed residential communities and businesses throughout Harrison County. Unfortunately, the negative impact on the infrastructure is still felt today.
East Biloxi, known as the “Seafood Capital of the world,” is one of the communities that was hit hardest in Harrison County. The tourism and gaming industry made Biloxi a destination for more than 20 years prior to Katrina. Today, years of construction have had a socioeconomic impact on Black businesses along East Biloxi’s Main and Division Street corridors. Environmental protections, as well as community development, are a concern for many East Biloxi residents.
Many of the concerns stem from a prior Community Needs Assessment study commissioned by the East Biloxi Community Collaborative and conducted by the Mississippi Urban Research Center at Jackson State University. EBCC’s data analysis of 305 surveys and three focus groups from March to September 2019 revealed the top five priorities for the East Biloxi community: access to healthy foods, health/health care, employment, affordable quality housing and improvements to public infrastructure. Each priority area was then compared with “needs” based on findings from the data.
Slow recovery efforts in recent years are not consistent with the objectives of city and community leaders. Oscar Renda Construction secured a $118 million contract to repair and rebuild the infrastructure in East Biloxi in May 2014.
The original completion deadline for the project was set for August 2017. But due to 35 change orders, Oscar Renda Construction and the City of Biloxi extended the contract to June 2018, increasing the total from $118 million to $122 million.
Finally, in February 2021, the North Contract was completed, with work on 55 miles of streets in East Biloxi, north of the CSX railway, for $130 million, BNews Monthly reports. This project required the company to tear up miles of city streets to dig up and replace underground sewer lines for seven years.
Environmental Concerns For Local Activists
The Gulf Restoration Network sued contractor Oscar Renda back in 2017 for allegedly violating the Clean Water Act. Environmentalists accused Renda of not doing enough to prevent polluted dirt from flowing into the bayous and Biloxi’s Back Bay. Recently, on July 3, 2021, members of the Coast Guard’s Sector Mobile Incident Management Division found black oil in a highly toxic environmental area of Back Bay.
The ADOS Advocacy Foundation’s Mississippi Chapter reached out to local community organizations such as Steps Coalition, Mississippi Rising Coalition and the NAACP to volunteer support for revitalization efforts in Wards 1 and 2. This collaboration would help residents and business owners like Mrs. Inez Thomas of Inez’ Cafe and Lounge, who have experienced a lack of revenue and had to close due to construction work.
Residents of Wards 1 and 2 still cite access to healthy foods and infrastructure as their top priorities. Higher-paying jobs, access to housing, and better health-care facilities round out what many residents and community leaders continue to demand after a decade.
How Will The City of Biloxi Spend Rescue Fund?
The State of Mississippi received $1.25 billion in Cares Act funding on March 27, 2020, with a deadline to spend the funds by Dec. 30, 2020. The remaining $200 million rolled into an Unemployment Trust fund. The top allocations for the Education and Stabilization Fund or the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund (ESSER) are designed to provide funding to Mississippi Department of Education, Institute of Higher Learning and the Governor’s Emergency Education Relief Fund (GEERS) for awarding sub-grants.
Biloxi Public Schools received $2.1 million in CARES Act funding. The funding does not support the need for investments in after-school educational programs in East Biloxi’s Wards 1 and 2. Harrison County is Mississippi’s second-largest county with a population of 208,080 and received $11 million from the CARES Act In April 2020. Meanwhile, the City of Biloxi with a total population of 46,212—approximately 25% of the county—received an allocation of $1,031,832.34.
Organizing Efforts Benefit East Biloxi
I reached out to Biloxi Councilman Felix Gines to help me identify available resources to fund revitalization efforts on Main and Division Streets in East Biloxi. We discussed the City of Biloxi’s designation as an entitlement city, which the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development uses to to determine eligibility for the federally funded Community Development Block Grant Program.
The City of Biloxi’s CDBG 2021 Action Plan is designed to identify the resources available to address the objectives established in the city’s Consolidated Plan, and how they are invested to achieve the city’s housing and community development needs—specifically as they relate to low- and moderate-income residents. Nonprofit organizations including Open Doors Homeless Coalition received a $6 million grant through CARES Act funding.
In order to protect local residents from expiration of the federal moratorium on evictions on Aug. 1, the City of Biloxi consulted with Open Doors Homeless Coalition to help administer CARES Act funds to address homelessness. One of the programs provides up to six months of rental assistance on behalf of qualified individuals or households that coronavirus has negatively affected.
The city’s partnership with organizations including Open Doors Homeless Coalition and others compels a commitment to community uplift paramount in gaining equity for the residents of East Biloxi. ADOS Mississippi activists will continue to support these efforts—East Biloxi’s economic recovery desperately depends on it.
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