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Miss. Port Expansion Raises Concern, Hope For Jobs

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It's been six years since Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast, and the rebuilding continues. In Mississippi, the largest project under construction is the Port of Gulfport. Some $500 million in statewide recovery funds are being used to rebuild the port. The state calls it a critical resource, but some residents hit hard by Katrina fear they won't see the benefits.

The Port of Gulfport sits just off Highway 90, a main road that runs all along the coast. Katrina's 30-foot storm surge nearly destroyed this facility, which is the size of about 50 city blocks.

"It was actually 100 percent useless that day," says Don Allee, the port's executive director. "There was debris in the channel. You can't bring a ship in if there's debris or anything to compromise the safety of a vessel. A lot of our docks, 7 of the 10, they just weren't safe to use."

The restoration will increase the size of the port by about 50 percent, deepen the channel and raise the port's elevation. Allee says the project will create a bigger economic engine here, especially as the region vies for business related to the expansion of the Panama Canal.

"I think the port is not only vital to the immediate 20, 30 blocks that surround us, it's vital to the region," he says.

The port expansion includes a new access road intended to move truck traffic from the coastal highway to Interstate 10, but the road goes right through a number of working-class neighborhoods, including Villa Del Ray.

Working With The Community

Anthony and Eunice Crane's brick home backs up to what will be a new thoroughfare. They've seen several blocks of homes bought up and demolished to make way for the road.

"I understand that's your moneymaker, but you know, we live here. They don't live here," Anthony Crane says.

There's a picnic table in the yard just off the back deck, and Eunice Crane says it's where their six children and seven grandchildren get together. They worry about the effect of the noise and exhaust from the road.

The debate in Gulfport is not unlike the controversy surrounding the construction of interstate highways decades ago, which pitted established neighborhoods against economic expansion. Since Katrina, though, neighbors, activists and pastors are coming together to question plans that weren't really examined before.

Pastor Anthony Thompson is part of the Coalition of African-American Communities. The group held its first meetings this summer. He knows they can't stop the port road, which was planned well before Katrina hit.

"We don't want to just complain about the road and why we don't want it here, but we also want to present a plan of something we think will work," he says.

Thompson says the communities affected the most should see some real benefits.

"So what we're looking to do is create a mixture of self-owned businesses and maybe some franchises, stores that fit what ... the people in this community [are] looking for," he says.

An Economic Boost

The pastor is among those who have questioned more than $500 million in federal recovery funds being used to help rebuild the port. In 2008, civil rights groups sued to get the state to spend more money to rebuild low-income housing. A settlement was reached, but Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour says the recovery funds were always for more than just housing.

"The money was to try to bring back the Mississippi Gulf Coast bigger and better than ever," Barbour says. "The fact that it coincided with the expansion of Panama Canal made it the most promising economic development project that we could do to help the coast come back."

All along the Mississippi Gulf, housing activists say thousands of homes damaged by Katrina still need to be repaired, but everyone here also knows they need good-paying jobs in order to get people to remain on the coast.

Donald Evans is with the International Longshoremen's Association in Gulfport. His office will be bulldozed to make way for the new port road, and that's a hassle.

"Sometimes you have to make sacrifices, you know," he says.

Evans says just 20 percent of his union members are back to work since Katrina, so he says the port expansion will be a big help.

"[There's] not a whole lot of jobs in Gulfport — or especially in Mississippi — that pay $30 an hour, you know, for unskilled and basically uneducated labor," he says.

There are 2,000 jobs tied directly or indirectly to the Port of Gulfport now, and state officials say that number will double when the expansion is finished in about five years. Still, some question the estimates and whether those who live here will actually get the jobs.

Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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