GULFPORT, Miss. — Bonnie McNamara, 31, laughs as she tells of the two obliging men who separately offered to pump gasoline for her at a self-serve station in this hurricane-ravaged city.
“We may be devastated, but we’re not desperate,” she says, grinning.
Hurricane Katrina was about as ill as a wind can get, but it nevertheless blew some folks good. There’s a surplus of single men, drawn to the ravaged towns to help rebuild the Mississippi coast.
Gulfport and its neighboring towns — from Waveland on the Louisiana line to Pascagoula on the Alabama border — were epicenters of destruction when Katrina came ashore Aug. 29. Nearly three months later, with the reconstruction in full swing, Gulfport — which once advertised itself as “where your ship comes in” — is a frontierlike boomtown.
Traffic clogs the streets around the clock. A visit to the Wal-Mart at the intersection of U.S. Highway 49 and Interstate 10 recalls the hours before a hurricane, with aisles jammed by shopping carts and 45-minute “express” checkout lines.
Fourteen daily flights land at Gulfport-Biloxi International Airport, nearly always full. As passengers debark, men outnumber women by at least three to one, and the logos on their shirts tell why they are here: Salvation Army relief; Local 1137 of an electrical workers union; Southern Baptist Disaster Relief; a mobile-home transport company.
At night, TGI Friday’s, Hooters and Chili’s are packed, with hourlong waits for tables and a lively, manly bar scene.
Chance Wicker, 22, in Gulfport to help rebuild the railroad between here and New Orleans, agrees, sadly, that numbers favor the women. After 12 or 14 days on the road, he says, in line to get into Michael’s Nightclub, all women look good, even long before closing time.
Scott Counts, a 45-year-old roofer who came to the Gulf Coast six weeks ago from Florida, says the competition is too much for him.
“It seems like a lot of the chicks are covered,” he says. “I’m not the kind of guy who will stand in line with 10 other guys to talk to a woman. You’ve got a million guys coming here.”
Gulfport has a semi-intact infrastructure of motels, restaurants and retail stores — all clustered on the interstate — barely supporting the out-of-town workers who have flocked here to help rebuild and make a dollar.
About a quarter of the city’s 26,000 housing units were destroyed or rendered uninhabitable by Katrina. The pre-storm population was 72,000, but city officials have no idea how many people are living here now. Some residents fled upstate and to Tennessee and Arkansas, but newcomers have crowded in searching for work.
Residents doubled up with friends and relatives. A few have landed trailers from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. New arrivals scramble for hotel rooms and apartments or settle for tents. That leads to tension, stress — and worse.
“People who work long, hard shifts, they get out, they want to let off a little steam,” says Gulfport Police Capt. Pat Pope, who heads the department’s narcotics division. “It’s the Wild West, Dodge City, Tombstone. The streets are safe, things aren’t out of control, but we do have a drug problem.”
Money fuels everything. Insurance settlements and cash payments from FEMA and the Red Cross have many locals feeling flush. Workers labor from dawn to dusk six or seven days a week and have money burning their pockets.