Alabama has been particularly aggressive. Since the early 1990s, the state has offered German-based Mercedes, Japan’s Honda and South Korea’s Hyundai a staggering $1 billion in tax incentives, abatements and infrastructure improvements to build plants there. The return on investment has been $7 billion, creating almost 50,000 direct jobs and another 70,000 in sectors like parts suppliers. The population of the town of Vance, where the 4,000-employee Mercedes factory is located, has leapt from 500 to 2,000. Unlike the local sawmill, fertilizer plant or rock quarry, residents feel Mercedes “is going to survive, no matter what,” says one woman who has five family members working there. “That’s what made Vance what it is.”
Jim Pollard, public information officer for neighboring Harrison County, says he remembers a chilling moment during Katrina when officials at Hancock County’s Emergency Operation Center — believed to be on safe ground — called him on the phone and told him the building was rapidly filling with water. “They all wrote numbers on their arms with indelible ink, then listed their names and numbers on a sheet of paper, put it in a Ziploc bag, and tacked it to the roof,” Pollard says. “We were taping final messages from them to their families.”
Only a few lonely cars were heading west Sunday morning beneath a canopy of gnarled oaks along Scenic Highway 90 in coastal Mississippi. To their right, stark reminders of Hurricane Katrina — bare slabs where homes once stood, damaged streets which once led to vibrant downtowns, trees still festooned with insulation and tarpoleons meant to protect buildings that no longer exist. To their left, a steady snarl of traffic snaked its way eastward as residents from Louisiana and Mississippi fled the wrath of Hurricane Gustav, expected to make landfall as a Category 3 hurricane Monday morning southeast of Louisiana in Plaquemines Parish.