Monday, November 26, 2007

Biloxi's Recovery: 'Let'em Eat Chips'

Earlier this year, I attended the Delta Regional Authority's annual meeting which was held in Tunica, Mississippi. One of the luncheon speakers was Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour who was fresh from a groundbreaking ceremony for a new Toyota plant in the Tupelo area.

The governor was, as they sometimes say in sports, "feeling it" that day and it came out in his unprepared remarks. The thrust of his statement was that Toyota chose Mississippi over Louisiana for its plant because — unlike the folks in New Orleans — in the wake of Katrina, the people of Mississippi didn't complain or ask for handouts, they just dusted themselves off and went to work rebuilding their communities.

I blogged on it back then. You can read about it here.

The Sunday Washington Post carried an article that examined how the recovery on Mississippi's Gulf Coast is going and found out that it's going well for casino operators and developers, but not too damned well for the people who lived and worked in the storm-affected areas prior to the storm.

Here is a sample of what the Post's reporter found:
While Gov. Haley Barbour (R) has hailed the casino openings as a harbinger of Mississippi's resurgence and developers have proposed more than $1 billion in beachfront condos and hotels for tourists, fewer than one in 10 of the thousands of single-family houses destroyed in Biloxi are being rebuilt, according to city permit records. More than 10,000 displaced families still live in trailers provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Now, long-standing resentment over the way the state has treated displaced residents has deepened over a proposal by the Barbour administration to divert $600 million in federal housing aid to fund an expansion plan at the Port of Gulfport. The port's recently approved master plan calls for increasing maritime capacity and creating an "upscale tourist village" with hotel rooms, condos, restaurants and gambling.

"We fear that this recent decision . . . is part of a disturbing trend by the Governor's office to overlook the needs of lower and moderate income people in favor of economic development," 24 ministers on the Mississippi coast wrote in September in a letter to state leaders. "Sadly we must now bear witness to the reality that our Recovery Effort has failed to include a place at the table . . . for our poor and vulnerable."
What's happening in Mississippi stands in stark contrast to the Louisiana Road Home program which, though it got off to a sputtering start, has focused relentlessly on putting people back in their homes. The Post noticed the difference:
Louisiana leaders designed a homeowner grant program that is far broader. Essentially, any homeowner with significant hurricane damage is eligible to receive as much as $150,000 for rebuilding, less any insurance payouts received. A special provision for low-income homeowners added as much as $50,000 to the award if the damage claim was not enough to rebuild.

Mississippi's primary homeowner grant program, by contrast, was much narrower.

The program, known as Phase 1, focused only on the relatively narrow group of homeowners who lived outside the designated flood-prone areas -- and as a result did not have flood insurance -- but were flooded by Katrina.

It excluded thousands who lived in the flood zone and lacked adequate flood insurance, as well as anyone who experienced only wind damage.

Bailing them out, the argument went, would encourage homeowners to forgo insurance coverage in the future. But because low-income households were more likely to lack insurance or to be underinsured, Mississippi's exclusions fell most heavily on the poor, advocates said.
Yes, the Barbour administration is not real interested in the fate of the poor — this is not news in Mississippi. If anyone remotely connected to Governor Blanco and her family had tried to profit from the recovery — as Barbour's friends and family are doing in Mississippi — no doubt a U.S. Attorney would have launched an investigation and the media would have been shrieking hysterically. Yet, right next door, the Republican Governor of Mississippi is doing just that and it hasn't stirred so much as an investigative whimper.

Chalk it up to another bit of selective non-prosecution by the Bush Justice Department.

As luck would have it, on Saturday, my family and I drove along US 90 as we returned from a brief visit to Florida. We drove along the coast from Ocean Springs, MS, through Biloxi, to Gulfport.

We were struck by how little progress had been made restoring homes damaged by the storm (some of this was somewhat reminiscent of New Orleans, only with more wind damage in evidence). The casinos, which prior to the storm had been on barges, now tower above the coastline in gleaming splendor. Restaurants outside of the casinos are hard to find. Life has not returned to anything remotely resembling pre-storm normal.

Yes, Barbour was right. Louisiana is different from Mississippi. And, thank God for it!

1 comment:

John said...

Good job Mike. And good for the Post.

The lack of any understanding of the exemplary nature of the design of the Road Home program is due to a concerted partisan effort by the BushCo administration and a torpid Louisiana news media.

To your complaints about the Bush Justice Department, lets add a bitter assesment of the way the federal apparatus delayed the program's funding in an attempt to kill just those elements that the Post story praises as superior to Mississippi's policy of pushing everything but casinos off the coast.

And a long, rancid, complaint about a Louisiana news media that has not troubled itself to do anything but repeat federal misinformation; a media which has complacently allowed a beleaguered state government, who actually did a very competent job in the face of active effort by this administration to force it to adopt an anti-homeowner, pro corporate policy similar to Mississippi's, to be universally reviled. That is truly embarrassing.

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