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Katrina Recovery in Crisis
By Keith Burton - GCN   7/20/07

From the beginning of the disaster that has become known as Katrina, GCN has reported that the hardest part of the disaster was not the storm and its damages, but the aftermath. Homes and businesses destroyed, lives in turmoil, disease and illness have escalated since the hurricane that changed the lives of all of the residents in the disaster area, and nearly two years after the hurricane, the evidence is clear that America, its leaders at every level have failed to comprehend the challenges that recovery requires.

Many people around the country are still reading about the reports on the slow progress of the recovery. As GCN is based in Biloxi, we see first hand the slow progress and the small victories. But a new situation is developing that will further derail the recovery, and threatens the economic viability of the area.

First, the good news

The Mississippi Coast no longer looks like the storm hit yesterday. The debris, literally mountains of broken trees, destroyed buildings and homes and crumbled roads and  bridges, have been removed. Billions of dollars have been applied to repair almost all  private homes that could be fixed. The Coast's casino industry, a major force in the economy, is booming. For many residents that lost homes, money has begun to arrive through various programs to help them rebuild. But all of this is not recovery. It is relief.

Recovery is a different matter altogether. There remains thousands of families still in trailers, or living away from their homes that remain as slabs. They are struggling to make mortgage payments on property that will likely never see a home again. You can drive along U.S. 90, and see several blocks inland and note miles of empty property.

There remains shortages in doctors and in the overall medical care throughout the region. Among the losses from Katrina from Mississippi through Louisiana, were health professionals, who also lost homes and have been recruited to live elsewhere. The doctors that remain report nearly overwhelming patient loads. Many, are true heroes of Katrina, but with no publicity for their work.

Local Efforts Slowed by Lack of Help, Paperwork

Local governments are still completely overwhelmed. Federal support  did not include money to hire additional employees to sort through the tremendously increase post-Katrina workloads and FEMA required paperwork. This has meant that permits, building inspections and much more have been slow. Cities and towns have codes and regulations that must be followed by law. These processes are slow even in the best of times. Shortcuts mean buildings don't get proper reviews when constructed with the potential for future problems.

City and county services have come to almost a halt. Most of the Coast's public buildings are still heavily damaged and repairs haven't occurred, increasing the costs when they eventually will be. Construction costs for material, manpower and insurance have nearly doubled, which means recovery monies from insurance and from loans often do not meet the actual cost to rebuild.

Another major rebuilding problem is that FEMA has yet to release revised flood plain maps. Without current maps, homeowners and businesses do not know how high, or even whether they can rebuild in some areas as these maps determine flood insurance costs and availability. FEMA says the maps won't be available until late in 2007 and not adopted until the fall of 2008. Property owners can rebuild under the existing maps, but it creates a potential risk for costs and lenders.

Since the hurricane, volunteers from around  America, from church groups, to civic organizations and businesses, have been the backbone of the relief. Thousands of homes have been repaired and hundreds rebuilt by these groups, but despite their efforts, any drive through the worst hit sections shows that the work has only been a drop in the bucket.

Now, with the two year anniversary approaching, there is a growing trend among local political leaders, and even residents to say that the Coast has to move on. In recent weeks, a controversy has erupted over a group that operated a volunteer-run kitchen that has provided food for volunteers. The group, God's Katrina Kitchen, has found itself without a home. The kitchen operated out of a tent for months in Gulfport, but city leaders felt the project was no longer needed in the city and was drawing vagrants. The group sought refuge in nearby Long Beach, only to be resisted by city leaders there as well.

The attention on the plight of God's Kitchen has resulted in news stories around the nation saying that the help of volunteers is no longer appreciated, or needed.

GCN received the following email recently:

Thanks for including the link to WLOX-TV's recent coverage of the forced closure of the acclaimed God's Katrina Kitchen's volunteer services on the Gulf Coast. A colleague also sent me AP's coverage of the story.

From my perspective as a participant in and organizer of volunteer rebuilding teams since 1999 to North Carolina, Florida, Mississippi, and Louisiana, rejections such as this hurt our efforts to raise community awareness, encourage donations, and especially recruit volunteers to aid in rebuilding homes such as we have done in Gulfport.

I urge you to consider having Gulf Coast News initiate a special inquiry into how recent, how widespread geographically, and how frequent such rejections of outside volunteer help are becoming. You, local
authorities and citizens, and volunteers from all over the world whose passions, skills, and toil have helped resurrect hope, homes, and livelihoods in coastal MS, all need to know whether this is an isolated case or not. 

Dennis Luther
Disaster Response Ministry
Good Shepherd Lutheran Church
Gaithersburg, MD

The sad fact is the help is still needed. But the conditions of the help are changing. There has never been an effort to coordinate the work of volunteers. No one knows exactly how many homes have been rebuilt or repaired,  where all the volunteers are working, or even the success that they have had, except in individual news reports. Local communities don't have the manpower to continually review progress in many areas of the recovery.

GCN has spoken and met volunteers that came to work who had trouble finding things to do. That is not because there isn't work to be done, but it isn't the type of work that is needed.

Throughout the region, residents have needed help cleaning up property, and cities cutting grass along streets and parks, fixing sidewalks, helping with paperwork, even picking up the smaller debris left behind. Most of the homes that can be fixed have been. The  thousands that remain, are mired in legal and  permit issues, and the staggeringly high costs of insurance, which have put many families in the position of having to abandon their homes because they can no longer afford them.

A moratorium enacted by many lending organizations shortly after the hurricane on acting on delinquent homeowners has kept the figures artificially low. But that is ending.

Programs that have sought to just give people money to recover are fraught with waste and widespread fraud. But the money has helped many, even with the fraud.

Local  politicians are coming under growing pressures to pick up the pace of recovery. But they have not been successful. What is happening instead is that they just hope everyone gets used to the situation. They hope not to have to raise taxes, but it seems inevitable. Roads and streets throughout the area are falling apart. Many before their time. In neighborhoods throughout the area, the heavy equipment used to remove fallen trees and homes from Katrina, tore up the streets, which due to the area's frequent rains are now becoming worse. The major corridor roads also are coming apart for same reasons, and the cities and counties don't have the money for repairs.

The local leaders are tired. But they also don't want to show that they still need help because that will reveal their lack of progress. That is partly what is behind the Gods Kitchen affair. It is wrong for volunteer groups to assume that they are not needed based upon some of the actions of local leaders, many who are now vulnerable to re-election issues. Volunteer help is still needed. And while it is true that some charity groups become entrenched and create their own need, that is not the case here, not yet at least. But the volunteer groups do need to reassess their objectives as the post-Katrina situation is not static. They need to recognized the changes that are occurring and change their mission with the existing situation. This review may be difficult to do and will require more cooperation with the overwhelmed and exhausted public officials.

The federal dollars are still mired in paperwork issues within their bureaucracies. The rules often change and their concern for fraud, even at the official level, has slowed delivery of the money. Even so, the undermanned cities and counties have enormous difficulty planning for the repairs and moving through their legally required hurdles that slow progress on major recovery projects. All the of the Coast's cities are operating under continuous emergency conditions, which must be voted on at each session, to be eligible for relief monies and to expedite the spending for recovery projects.

As mentioned earlier, there is a difference between relief and recovery. The immediate relief was easily identified as the needs were so great, but recovery requires more information and coordination, and that is what is lacking at every level. The problem there, however, is that there are people in decision-making positions, both public and private, who fear any greater participation on recovery will reveal issues that they don't want opened to the public. Community leaders in both the public and private sectors are sensitive to situations that could put the area in a detrimental light. That is part of the problem now as the recovery in some Coast communities is failing to show progress at too many levels.

There is an unequal quality to the recovery. In Biloxi, and cities in Jackson County, progress can be seen. Moving west to Gulfport and further west to Hancock County, the recovery is still something over the horizon for those communities. Empty broken homes, city buildings and libraries and deserted major parks and harbors are all to easy reminders of what has yet to happen..

For those Americans outside the Katrina Disaster Zone who are tired of hearing about Katrina, consider the plight for those still dealing with it on a daily basis.


More information:

Charity Group Says it is Being Penalized for Helping People - WLOX

Biloxi Water System in Red Following Loss of Customers After Katrina - Sun Herald

Pascagoula to Close Last FEMA Trailer Park in City - Mississippi Press

Rand Study Finds Wind Insurance Costly and Scarce on the Gulf Coast - eurekalert.org

Sizable Proportion of Gulf Coast Physicians Displaced Following Hurricane Katrina - PrNewsWire

 

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