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Biloxi braces for an uncertain future

A lifelong resident of Biloxi, Mississippi, Sharon Hanshaw is an advocate for affordable housing in a city that was severely battered by Hurricane Katrina.

As the multi-million gallon British Petroleum (BP) oil spill permeates the Gulf of Mexico, people in Biloxi, MS, are getting nervous.

Sharon Hanshaw, executive director of the Oxfam America partner organization Coastal Women for Change (CWC), has been working to help Biloxi residents prepare for hurricane season. Now, she says, many locals fear that they will no longer be able to earn a living from the Gulf waters—and in a city already battling poverty and the legacy of Hurricane Katrina, this could be one uncertainty too many.

“People are in panic mode,” says Hanshaw. “They’re worrying: ‘I might lose my job, I might lose my job.’ What does that do to you and your family?”

Jobs at risk

The oil spill threatens a region already hit hard by poverty and unemployment. The Oxfam-funded 2008 report Measure of America ranked Mississippi and other Gulf Coast states as the lowest in the country on educational attainment, life expectancy, and level of income.

Hanshaw estimates that at least 20 percent of people in her native East Biloxi rely on fishing and shrimping to support their families. Many more work in related industries, including restaurants, shipbuilding, and the city’s 11 seafood processing plants. “Fish and shrimp: that’s how we live,” she says.

With the oil spill approaching the Gulf Coast, “fishermen fear this could be the end of their career,” says Hanshaw. “They’re asking questions like, what kind of compensation can I receive? Can I still fish and be okay? How long, if the spill reaches land, will I be out of work?”

Though community members have attended three meetings with BP officials, Hanshaw notes that straight answers are in short supply. “We get emails from the Environmental Protection Agency, BP, local organizations, national organizations—all with different information. There’s not one email with the same stuff,” she says. “There’s a lot of unanswered [questions], uneasiness.”

Cultural and language barriers also add to a sense of exclusion and misinformation. “The Vietnamese-American community is the majority of fishermen here. It’s their livelihood,” says Hanshaw. But, she adds, many Vietnamese fishermen don’t have computers or internet access—and key resources, like the BP insurance claims phone line, don’t provide Vietnamese translators.

“In East Biloxi, the Vietnamese community was left out during the catastrophic Hurricane Katrina,” adds Hanshaw.  “Many are afraid it will happen again.”

In Katrina’s shadow

Memories of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita are still fresh in Biloxi, where 52 people died and more than 5,000 buildings were damaged or destroyed. With the start of hurricane season approaching on June 1, Hanshaw says many residents are worried about the next big storm.

Many in the low- and middle-income neighborhood of East Biloxi are still fighting what they see as an inequitable recovery process. Right now, Hanshaw’s group is protesting the closing of three local schools, including the historically African-American Nichols Elementary. School superintendent Dr. Paul Tisdale attributed the closings to budget cuts and poor enrollment, but Hanshaw sees post-Katrina displacement as the root of the issue.

“Instead of building back affordable houses as soon as they could, the municipality had developers from other cities build condos and casinos,” explains Hanshaw. As a result, many families were forced to move out of the area, while others displaced by the storm still haven’t returned.

“If they take the schools… the community as we know it is over. It’s gone,” says Hanshaw. “A lot of teachers’ jobs will be gone. And that’s very devastating for people.”

With all of this happening at once, it’s no wonder locals are feeling overwhelmed, she says. “Can you imagine the mental state of people—thinking about schools, BP oil, and hurricane season, all in a couple of weeks?”

Time to get ready

This month, CWC is partnering with another local group, Gulf Coast Restoration, to distribute a fact sheet about the oil spill in English and Vietnamese. “The fact sheet will tell you what you really need to know, how to prepare yourself. If you have an [insurance] claim, this is the number that you need,” says Hanshaw.

CWC volunteers plan to hand-distribute the fact sheets to peoples’ homes. “Not everyone has a computer, so [we make] phone calls and knock on doors,” she says. “You have to talk to people face to face, get them on the same page. Don’t assume everybody got the memo.”

Hanshaw is inviting her neighbors to attend a training session on advocacy, where they’ll learn how to make their voices heard both locally and in Washington, DC. Her group will also continue their core work on hurricane preparedness through a series of workshops, where locals learn how to assemble preparedness kits and create evacuation plans.

“Now we have to address the spill too, because that’s a form of preparedness also,” she says.  “We want to help people understand that this is big. We have to get ready. And we don’t know what’s going to happen. We just don’t know.”

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