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The Recovery that Isn’t
Mississippi Coast Governments Shaken from Poor Post-Katrina Support

By Keith Burton – GulfCoastNews.com    Filed 10/15/05...Updated 10/26/05

It’s when the sun sets and the sea breeze shifts to the south is when you notice it; the acrid smell of smoke and fire. Biloxi in the post-Katrina days of the hurricane is not itself. Nor is the rest of the Mississippi Coast. During the day, when the skies are clear and sunny, it is easy to think that it is just another day. We have our work, and it keeps us busy. But everywhere you look is debris and trash, and the splintered remains of neighborhoods. The smoke at night is the evening’s reminder of Katrina, the smoke of pyres made from the homes and lives of what we have lost.

Millions of tons of debris have been removed from our cities to refuse fields where is it being burned just north of the Coast’s brilliant white sand beach. But we all know the fires will burn for many more months as only a fraction of the debris has been moved.

Hurricane Katrina came and went nearly eight weeks ago. But it is still here. Indeed, the Coast remains in a true survival mode, and has only begun what some are calling recovery. Just this week (Oct 26), nearly two months after Hurricane Katrina, Hancock County Emergency Management officials contacted GCN to get help in getting more donations of food for Katrina Survivors in that county.

"We have received tons of food supplies, but the volume of those donations is starting to drop off.  Unfortunately, the need for food will continue for many weeks and months to come," says Brian Adam, Hancock County's Emergency Management director.

The reality is that thousands of people remain without homes and are still living with relatives, or are out of town in motels, or in small tents set up in the front yards of what was once was once their home. No one really knows how many people are gone but the sheer numbers of empty neighborhoods provide clues.

Disaster relief officials and volunteers from faith-based organizations are still present, but more so the faith-based groups and the Salvation Army. They see the need and are doing what they can. But it is not enough. The big agencies of relief, such as the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Red Cross, are continuing to prove a disappointment. Their bureaucracies and ineptness have already been widely revealed. But even those revelations have not changed their performance. The Congressional hearings on FEMA’s performance, held so quickly following the hurricane, have only seemed to quiet the nation’s concern, but have allowed the errors to continue.

No Certainty of Income

City officials from across the Coast have been telling GCN that they are struggling to survive. They say that they are not getting help unraveling the maze of procedure and paperwork necessary to get federal assistance, nor the financial help to see them into the near future.

“I think those SOB’s in the federal government have lost their minds,” said one senior city official who asked not to be identified. “They have no clue to what it is like for people to have lost their homes and lives. A lot of people believe the federal government is going to come in to help us. They aren’t here, and I don’t think they are coming.”

This is not to say FEMA officials haven’t been on the Coast. It is just that their work has been slow and inefficient and their advice contradictory and confusing. Even presidential visits and media blitzes have failed to stir the agencies of relief. Also, much of the federal relief is being coordinated through the state, which has also not been slow to get the relief that does exist to the communities that need it. Basically, the state is another labyrinth of bureaucracy that the city have to deal with.

So far, the major federal response to Hurricane Katrina has been to provide help in the form of disaster relief loan and tax relief programs that do nothing to help with the immediate catastrophic financial losses local governments are dealing with. Cities have to pay first for debris removal and emergency repairs of services such as water, and sewer. And then, later, at some yet undefined date, get reimbursed. But the huge extent of the destruction here has overwhelmed all of the Coast’s governments.

Across the area, municipalities and counties are nearly broke. Some already have had to borrow just to be able to meet payroll. Bay St. Louis and Long Beach have borrowed $500,000 each, and D’Iberville $1-million. This may sound like a lot of money, but it is not. It is just enough to meet payroll into the first of the year. That is when they hope property taxes will come in. But they know the money will be far less than what will be needed.

The federal and state governments seem not to understand that the Coast communities have lost much of their tax base in the form of businesses and homes. Federal officials seem not to understand that cities like Pass Christian that lost 100 percent of its businesses and nearly 80 percent of its homes are in trouble.  

Coast officials are wisely trying to resist applying for disaster loans when they don’t know how much income they will have in the future. But they have no choice. They are faced with either going immediately broke, or borrowing the money with the possibility of going bankrupt later with more debts from disaster relief loans they can’t repay.

Coast communities are doing what they can to get temporary housing set up. FEMA officials won’t connect a trailer until debris is cleared and water, sewer and electrical connections are in place. But homeowners have no place to put the trailers. The debris from their homes still lies across the pipes and water. So, local officials have tried to find property to set up tent cities and trailer parks.

But again, the federal bureaucracy rears its head. Long Beach Mayor Billie Skellie told GCN that they had a site in the Harrison County Industry Park in Long Beach, but the site was turned down by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers because it was “wetlands.”

“Don’t they realize this is an emergency,” Skellie said. “They really need to work with us on this.”

The red tape of the federal government is proving to be insurmountable. Many local officials expected a rebuilding conference set up by Governor Haley Barbour to include help and assistance in navigating the federal redtape. But it became clear that the conference, which included nationally prominent architects and planners, came only to prepare the Coast for a future. A future that is pretty far away when day to day surviving is still the order of the day.

Even many residents, whose homes survived the storm and still have jobs, do not realize how critical conditions are. Since the hurricane, only emergency workers have been allowed into the most heavily damaged areas. These areas include a huge swath of the Coast that includes its entire coastline. Except for photos and television reports, they have not seen first hand that their communities have entirely been lost. Hundreds of businesses and apartments are gutted and empty. And we can tell you, photos do not show what has happened here justice.

Everyone is talking about the Coast casinos that when they are rebuilt the Coast will be back, as if the casinos were the only industry driving the Coast’s economy. The casinos were part, certainly a big part of the economy. But not all. We can tell you that there will not be a miracle recovery from casino openings. They are in bad shape and will need many months, if not a couple of years to open.

And even then, all the support services and amenities must come back too. Every Coast motel from Biloxi to Pass Christian, was destroyed. Every beachfront restaurant, every giftshop, every mom and pop store, every gas station are gone.

The military installations such as Keesler A.F.B, NASA’s Stennis Space Center and the Northrop-Grumman shipyard are the major engines that drive the Coast. But cutbacks and damages have affected them as well, with the result in job losses, personnel transfers, layoffs and more.

Keesler suffered millions of dollars in damages with many of its military housing damaged or destroyed. Its hospital, which served the thousands of military retirees on the Coast, has been closed to damages, forcing retirees and active duty personnel to find civilian doctors, many of which have also left the area or had to close their offices due to damages from the hurricane.

Biloxi’s superintendent of Schools, Dr. Paul Tisdale, says most of Keesler’s children and their families were transferred from the Coast. The children are no longer in the area’s schools.

There are also indications that the Katrina damages at the Keesler hospital have been seized as a reason to implement a Pentagon-desired closure of the hospital as part of the national base reduction program, or BRAC. Just before Katrina, efforts by local, state and federal representatives to keep the hospital in operation barely were successful. Now it appears that the military at the Pentagon will let Katrina do what the BRAC commission would not.

There are miles, tens of miles of total destruction. And when the debris is removed, emptiness will be what is left for a while. It was only in the last five years that the lots that were destroyed by Hurricane Camille in 1969 were built upon. And, yes, those areas were lost again.

City and county officials are trying to put their best faces on the loss and the critical nature of the situation. Many actually are still in a state of shock. Many coast officials also lost their homes and businesses and are trying to balance their personal losses and time with their public duties. Could you do that?

Katrina was the great social leveler. The list of public officials, high ranking business community leaders that have lost everything is astounding. In every community, there is a core of leadership that can help move an area forward. And that is true on the Coast as well. But never have so many lost so much at one time. Many of the Coast’s mover’s and shakers are sidetracked with their own personal recovery.

Time Limit to Recovery

There is also a lot at stake. It is possible that some of our communities will not recover fast enough to maintain their identity as cities. They could go bankrupt and lose their municipal charter. Towns do disappear at times, the communities of Hansboro and Mississippi City, which once were between Biloxi and Gulfport, ceased to exist many years ago.

Most people don’t know there is a time limit on recovery. In fact, the federal government, FEMA, has mandated that they will reimburse cities based upon a timed schedule. The longer it takes, the less they will pay. Right now, the clock is ticking and already the mayors and county administrators are worried that it will be impossible to meet the deadlines without extensions. This will drive expenses for the cash-strapped cities even higher.

Fortunately, through the hard work of the state's congressional leadership, and perhaps the president's promise to help, President Bush acted Saturday, October 22 to extend the deadline. The first deadline was set to occur Oct 27th when FEMA would reduce the reimbursement to 80 percent. Bush extended the deadline to November 26th in which FEMA will reimburse Katrina-damaged communities 100 percent of their recovery expenses.

But the clock is still ticking on recovery. Less than a quarter of the debris from Katrina has been carted off and even less in Hancock County. It may be that the deadline will have to be extended again, for if the cities have to pay even 12 percent of the costs of debris removal, let alone all the repair expenses to their towns and public buildings, it will bankrupt most Coast towns.

Many residents have also acted unwisely, spending the money they have received for help frivolously. Most people expected their lives to get back to normal within a few weeks of the hurricane. But that is not the case. As a result, the initial support in cash that was provided by relief agencies to families and individuals has been spent. The fear is that when people run out of money, crime will escalate. It is already happening.

Everywhere there are signs asking for help. But most of the jobs are low paying positions at fast food restaurants and retail shops. And there are no takers. That has some trying to entice workers with higher than base pay. Even that isn’t working. There are not enough people to fill the positions, they are gone and there is no housing for anyone who would come. Hundreds of apartment units are empty as repairs are being made, work that will take months.

The loss of the Coast’s population is evident in the schools. Every district has lost nearly half of its student population.

Dr. Paul Tisdale, superintendent of Biloxi schools says their district went from around 6,200 students before the hurricane to just over 3,100.  He says their school district benefits from being part of the City of Biloxi’s loss of income insurance policy that the city purchased earlier this year to protect it from loss of casino taxes in a hurricane. As a result, they are financially stable for the short term. But Tisdale said that if revenue continues to fall, there will be some hard decisions, meaning staff reductions, for next year. But other school districts are not in as good shape and are teetering financially. Biloxi’s hurricane insurance has proven to be a wise investment, but it only can go so far.

The concern from all public officials is that Federal help, which so far has been not much help at all, will end at the very time everyone else in the nation has forgotten the crisis.  Even the faith-based and private organizations will be gone and Katrina’s victims will be left alone to fend for themselves. The idea and promises that the federal government and country will help rebuild the Coast is already fading. There are already disturbing signs that the federal help is quickly waning.

Jackson County officials are trying to keep open Camp Vancleave, which has been a key housing camp for the numerous volunteers and construction workers helping the county provide manpower and support for recovery efforts. Suddenly this week (Oct 26) FEMA announced it would close the camp. Local officials want that decision overturned.

“The government has been willing to bail out Chrysler, Savings and Loans, and airlines, but if they can’t provide help to us, frankly, they need to reassess how government operates,” said D’Iberville’s City Manager Richard Rose in an interview with GCN.

Meanwhile, the debris fires will still be burning and their acrid smoke will still mask the sweetness of the evening air.

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