Former Biloxi Mayor Gerald Blessey Is Correct In Calling For A “Marshall Plan” To Aid Mississippi. Many Are Now Agreeing That Mississippi Cannot Go It Alone.
By Perry Hicks- Special to GCN - Filed 10/01/05 Updated 10/4/05
I need not tell you gentlemen that the world situation is very serious. That must be apparent to all intelligent people. I think one difficulty is that the problem is one of such enormous complexity that the very mass of facts presented to the public by press and radio make it exceedingly difficult for the man in the street to reach a clear appraisement of the situation.
George C. Marshall- June 30, 1947 at Harvard University describing his plan to rebuild Europe after WWII.
On September 18th, Jackson, Mississippi’s Clarion-Ledger printed an opinion written by former Biloxi mayor, Gerald Blessey, calling for a new kind of “Marshall Plan” to assist Mississippi’s economy in recovering from Hurricane Katrina. If anything, Blessey’s call is an understatement.
Touring Hancock and western Harrison Counties with Bruce W. Smith, professional writer and photographer, GCN owner and publisher, Keith Burton, like others who have visited Hancock County, was stunned by the magnitude of utter devastation.
“A camera cannot convey the impact of what we saw. Vast- and I mean vast- areas have been turned into something not unlike an upturned landfill. Everywhere there are piles of stuff that once used to be people’s lives. And of course, in order to save their literal life, have had to go somewhere else,” Burton said speaking to me by phone.
And therein lies the problem: Along with the homes, the residents of Bay Saint Louis, Waveland, and Long Beach have also gone. It is quite possible most will never return. Gone with these homes and residents are the local government’s tax base. Already, there is talk of Bay Saint Louis and Waveland merging to call the new corporate entity, “Bayland.”
During Keith’s tour, he only saw 2 gas stations open for business and still they were not busy. In all of that area, there are simply not enough people with cars to keep even 2 stations busy.
A Veritable Sea of Debris
Well over half of Hancock County was flooded by the storm surge; which in itself is also beyond the scope of most people’s imagination. The word, “surge,” conjures for most people flooding on the scale of a backed up storm drain, or perhaps the neighborhood flooding that we saw in New Orleans. In reality, this surge was a wall of water driven by category 4 storm force wind analogous to a tsunami. It leveled anything that attempted to resist it. Hence, nearly every building has been reduced to sticks.
This is the central most reason FEMA cannot distribute mobile homes more quickly. The proposed site must be cleared of all that wood, smashed furniture, containers of household chemicals, crushed automobiles, and other things of personal, sentimental value.
“The silence is the other thing that strikes you,” Burton remarked. “What had been very vibrant, pleasant places to live are now almost devoid of people. There is simply no place to live. The people we saw are the ones who couldn’t get out.”
These unfortunates- and their number is considerable- are currently being cared for by a combination of public and faith-based/private relief efforts. However, the faith-based/private operations cannot go on indefinitely. Funds, and the ability for many volunteers to be away from home, will inevitably come to the point they must end. With FEMA and the American Red Cross demonstrably overwhelmed, departure of the faith-based/private efforts will compound the public’s suffering.
After a full month, what lingers in the air besides the silence is the scent of decay. Not only are refrigerators full of decomposing food found everywhere, debris covers deceased pets and the ample woodlands are full of dead wildlife.
Specter of Bankruptcy
It goes without saying that the aforementioned towns are now financially insolvent. But consider this: In the storm surge effected areas, Federal requirements may now mean a replacement home must be built even higher than the current requirement; flood insurance, if it had been purchased, may not be enough to pay off mortgages, and new mortgages may surely require ever-more-expensive insurance- if a lender will loan.
Even if people want to return, the cost of debris removal, the payoff on existing mortgages, the cost of reconstruction, and the cost of required insurance may preclude many, if not most, people from returning to the worst hit coastal communities. There is developing a very real fear that the number of personal and business bankruptcies arising from Rita-Katrina will be massive.
Rita-Katrina’s economic impact extends far inland. Just as Bay Saint Louis-Waveland-Long Beach had been bedroom communities for commuters working in the New Orleans and Gulfport-Biloxi areas, inland communities benefited from the thriving casino and tourism driven economy of the Mississippi Gulf Coast. With that economy gone, the specter of bankruptcy extends far north into Mississippi’s piney interior.
What Is Needed
Debris removal remains the Number 1 obstacle to getting people out of tents erected on driveways and parking lots and back into decent housing. FEMA’s mobile homes cannot be installed until the debris has been cleared. Because much of this debris rests on private property, special legislation may be required before contractors can go in and clean it out. This cost is more than the small communities and individual citizens can bear.
Cash flow from existing mortgages is in limbo as are their continuance. In order for land owners to come back and rebuild, there has to be affordable insurance, affordable mortgage money, and jobs.
To the latter, the casinos need the assurance, and insurance, that they can rebuild and not lose their investment. Then there are the ancillary businesses that go along with a tourist magnet like the casinos. They have the very same needs as the casino and the homeowner; ditto for the other businesses that made up the coastal economic matrix.
Even though the state legislature has approved moving the Coast's casinos on land, which should help speed parts of the recovery on the Coast, the loss of property and sales tax money will serious diminish the speed of recovery for local governments.
But before many coastal residents can enjoy any improvements as a result of the recovery, they will likely have made new lives for themselves elsewhere. New residents will need inducements to move and make for themselves a life along the shores of storm ravaged Bay Saint Louis and Biloxi’s Back Bay.
Nature has forced an historic challenge not just on Louisiana and Mississippi, but all of the states that have received Rita-Katrina evacuees. Those states need relief, too.
Congress and the White House need to meet this challenge in a likewise historic manner and do so in a timely fashion. Americans are hurting. We have risen to the occasion many, many times for other nations. Now it is time to do so at home.
About the Author.....
Perry Hicks is a former Mississippi Coast resident and was a correspondent for the old Gulfport Star Journal. He has appeared on Fox News Channel’s “The O’Reilly Factor.” Perry has also hosted his own radio talk show on the auto industry with a mix of politics. Perry is a former college professor and a frequent contributor to GCN writing on stories of national importance with local interests. His articles can be found in the GCN Archive.
Contact the Author: email@example.com