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Rebuilding is spotty along hurricane-battered Gulf Coast highway in Mississippi, Louisiana
Katrina 90 Miles on 6462885
Caprice Oliver and her husband Scott Oliver pose for a photograph in front of their new home made from concrete in Gulfport, Miss., Tuesday, May 22, 2007. The Olivers are the first and only residents of their Gulfport neighborhood to rebuild after Hurricane Katrina. - photo by Associated Press
    GULFPORT, Miss. — Scott Oliver didn’t need government help to rebuild his beachfront property. Using his own money, he built a concrete compound to replace the wood-frame home Hurricane Katrina smashed to bits.
    Oliver and his wife moved out of a cramped trailer and into the new storm-resistant house just in time for the start of the 2007 hurricane season.
    ‘‘We didn’t wait on anybody. We just went ahead and did it,’’ said Oliver, 60, who turned down a federal disaster loan to avoid going into debt.
    The Olivers are the first and only residents of their Gulfport neighborhood to rebuild. Progress like theirs is spotty along U.S. 90, a coastal highway that spans the length of Katrina’s destructive path, from New Orleans to the southeastern tip of Mississippi’s Gulf Coast.
    In May 2006, a reporter for The Associated Press traveled along the highway to take stock of rebuilding efforts nine months after Katrina. At the time, the landscape looked as if the hurricane had just struck, with piles of smelly debris sitting untouched next to shattered homes and toppled trees awaiting chain saws.
    A year later, homeowners with both the means and the will to rebuild are forging ahead on their own, gradually repopulating neighborhoods along U.S. 90 where scores of ruined homes remain virtually untouched since the hurricane.
    For some, self-reliance isn’t an option. Many are waiting for government grants to rebuild. Others don’t qualify for the aid. Some families are fighting insurance companies for refusing to cover damage from Katrina’s storm surge, which inundated large swaths of Mississippi’s coastline.
    From their new third-floor bedroom, which is nearly 50 feet above the ground, the Olivers have a clear view of the slow recovery.
    A few blocks east is the Island View Casino, which opened last September on the site of a storm-damaged hotel. To the west is a FEMA trailer park. In between is a sea of barren slabs and weed-choked lots where houses once stood.
    ‘‘I’m so shocked at how slowly everything is coming back,’’ said Oliver’s wife, Caprice.
    But other signs of recovery abound on U.S. 90, which runs from Florida to Texas.
    The highway is nearly whole again. A bridge across Chef Menteur Pass in eastern New Orleans reopened last August. A new bridge reconnecting Bay St. Louis and Pass Christian, Miss., opened May 17. A third span, between Biloxi and Ocean Springs, Miss., is expected to open in November.
    Mississippi beaches, closed for months after the storm, are now filled with sunbathers. Many Biloxi casinos are busier than ever, and condominiums are popping up, too.
    Near the new bridge is a miniature castle that was Denise Shute’s vacation home before Katrina. The Homestead, Fla., resident and her companion, Richard Loth, bought the property nearly a decade ago, intending to retire there someday.
    The anachronistic castle remains a mud-encrusted mess. Plywood boards cover all the windows and doors. The house doesn’t have electrical, water or sewer service. Weeds choke the front lawn. Looters keep breaking in.
    ‘‘We’re the forgotten ones down on this end of the beach,’’ said Shute, a United Airlines flight attendant.
    The couple is still hunting for belongings scattered by the hurricane. Katrina’s storm surge swept through the house and deposited possessions in a patch of woods about a quarter of a mile north of their home.
    During a recent hike through the woods, they sifted through twisted piles of debris and found their garage windows, a string of Christmas tree lights, Loth’s golf shoes and his old briefcase.
    Loth, a Navy SEAL about to embark on an overseas assignment, also found the remnants of a rattan dining room set he bought during a trip to the Philippines.
    ‘‘Denise didn’t like it, anyway, so she’s glad it’s gone,’’ he joked.
    Before they start rebuilding, the couple must decide whether to accept a $150,000 federal grant earmarked for preserving historical buildings. But the money comes with strings attached.
    ‘‘If we use the grant money, we’re more restricted,’’ Shute said. ‘‘We might just take the money out of our own pockets and rebuild it as we can.’’
    Dale Womack would love to have that choice, but neither appears to be an option for the shrimper, who lives on a storm-damaged boat he can’t afford to repair. The Shelley Lynn, moored on the waterfront off U.S. 90 in Louisiana’s St. Tammany Parish, keeps taking on water and flooding his engines.
    ‘‘I just have to pray to God it doesn’t sink on me,’’ he said.
    Womack owes $5,000 in back taxes to the federal government, so the Small Business Administration won’t give him a disaster loan. The Federal Emergency Management Agency cut him a check for $800 after Katrina, but he doesn’t qualify for a much larger homeowner grant because he lives on a boat.
    ‘‘Here I am, just begging and dying for help, and they won’t,’’ he said.
    Womack’s boat is tied up next to Dwayne Shockley’s newly renovated home on a vulnerable strip of land between two lakes. Shockley’s flood and homeowner insurance policies covered some of the roughly $200,000 in damage. He used his savings to pay for the rest.
    Shockley’s house is in better shape than ever, but he’s still feeling the pain from Katrina: His annual insurance premium has increased from about $4,200 to $10,000.
    ‘‘This insurance thing is just outrageous, and there doesn’t appear to be any relief in sight,’’ he said.
    Mere mention of the word ‘‘insurance’’ is enough to ruin a relaxing evening for Oliver Lancaster, who sipped a beer on the porch outside his gutted home in Biloxi. Lancaster’s insurer, Lexington Insurance Co., blamed Katrina’s storm surge for his home’s destruction and refused to pay most of his claim, saying his policy did not cover flood damage.
    Lancaster has a reason for believing wind, not water, wrecked the 140-year-old house. During the storm, he said, all the clocks in his collection froze at 7:50 a.m. — before Katrina’s storm surge could have reached his home.
    ‘‘I know (wind) knocked it off the foundation. I don’t care what the insurance people say. That’s what happened,’’ said the 77-year-old retiree, who filed a lawsuit against the insurer on May 24 in federal court.
    A $150,000 federal grant has helped Lancaster build a new porch, replace walls and doors, and install new Sheetrock, but the grant only pays for about half the necessary repairs. He’s drawing from his savings for the rest.
    A condo developer recently offered him more than $1 million for the property, but Lancaster turned him down. The start of another hurricane season makes him nervous, but he doesn’t want to leave.
    ‘‘I like living on the beach,’’ he said. ‘‘I’m willing to take the risk.’’

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