GCN Recovery News Report
report will constantly be updated as information becomes available
Board members of the Mississippi State Port in Gulfport are coming
under fire by state lawmakers for the slow progress the port is making
toward Katrina recovery, reports the Sun Herald. Some lawmakers suspect
the powers that be at the port of Gulfport, and some in state
government, may be angling to change the port from a large shipping port
to a recreational one, with casinos, cruise ships and shopping. There
has been debate for years over which direction the port, the third
largest container port in the country, should take.
Biloxi has big plans for a new park centered around the city's landmark, the Biloxi Lighthouse. Monday, the City Council unanimously approved the plans for the park, which will include a museum featuring the city's heritage. The museum will be built to look similar to the beachfront mansions that were lost from Hurricane Katrina. The proposal includes buying land north of the park where two gas stations were located. The land is adjacent to property already owned by the city that was where the Danzler Housing and Biloxi Chamber were located prior to the hurricane. The only thing remaining is a statue of the French explorer Pierre LeMoyne Sieur d'Iberville that somehow survived the hurricane.The preliminary plans include widening the media to provide a better buffer for the lighthouse, this would mean moving a portion of the highway by about 12 feet. The city plans to ask MDOT for approval to widen the median. (More Here)
Homeowners who registered for Phase Two of the Homeowner's Assistance Program soon should be receiving verification packets in the mail, reports the Mississippi Press newspaper in Pascagoula. The packets are being sent by The Mississippi Development Authority to explain the grant process and may also require additional information from homeowners. The MDA is reportedly notifying homeowners in the order they registered, and all mail outs should be completed by March 1. Phase Two of the $3 billion program is funded by the U.S Department of Housing and Urban Development and administered by the MDA. Phase One of the program is still ongoing. The first program has paid out more than $700 million worth of grants to 10,600. MDA has received 17,674 total Phase One applications.
State Attorney General Jim Hood is proposing
legislation that would require insurers selling auto insurance in
Mississippi to offer homeowner and commercial policies statewide, if
they sell those policies in other states. Hood also asked Gov. Haley
Barbour and Insurance Commissioner George Dale to order State Farm
Insurance Company to continue writing policies in Mississippi, however
the Governor and Dale say they have no power to do so. Hood says
he patterned his proposal after similar legislation in Florida. He says
that State Farm and the insurance industry is "just a ploy" to
intimidate the state.
"We are looking at a robber baron in the face that is trying to make an example of Mississippi," Hood said in his news conference on his proposal.Hood said that State Farm's profits did not suffer unduly from claims stemming from Katrina. He said State Farm's reserves were never touched. (Much More Here)
It is has been clear since the days immediately after Hurricane Katrina that Biloxi would lead the way on Katrina recovery. Since the hurricane hit on August 29, 2005, all of the Coast communities have worked to put the damages from the hurricane behind them and great progress has been made. But more so in Biloxi. The city's casino industry stepped up to the plate early to rebuild, this was no small matter. If the companies had chosen to abandon the city, which they could have done, it would have created a domino effect that would have set the area back for generations. This did not happen. Instead, Biloxi is seeing a renewal and building boom that will soon be evident with almost a completely new city along the Biloxi peninsula. There is little left of the old , but the character of the city will remain, even as new buildings, houses and condominiums are built.
Every city needs a well-designed and modern infrastructure, specifically, water and sewer systems, electrical grids and roads to meet growing needs. While Katrina severely damaged water systems throughout the Coast, Biloxi's systems were fairly new and will provide the foundation for development. Mayor A.J. Holloway recently announced that the city is about to see a series of the most ambitious construction and renovation work in its history. The result will be new roads, new city parks, and public buildings. A new community center that can handle large events is to be built and a new city library at the same location on the third floor of the new community center complex. Biloxi's harbors will soon be restored as well as the city's public fishing piers, including the old bridge piers that were destroyed during the hurricane. A new park around the Biloxi Lighthouse is planned as well, which would require relocating U.S. 90.
The greatest factor for Biloxi's continued development and the expected expansion of the casinos is the completion of the new U.S. 90 Biloxi-Ocean Springs bridge. Currently, the casinos on Biloxi's east end are in mostly a holding pattern until the city has its bridge back. Contractors are to have 2 lanes of the new bridge open in November, with the entire bridge to open next spring.
In other work in Biloxi, The Veterans Administration Center is undergoing a major expansion as a result of the closure of the VA hospital in Gulfport. The Coast Coliseum is also being greatly expanded and residents will soon see a larger conference center there as well as a completely refurbished coliseum with a new facade and roof, as well as new amenities in the interior.
Housing is being address as well. Biloxi has confirmed that the Department of Housing and Urban Development has approved millions of dollars to rebuild public housing units in the city that were lost during the storm. There are also new apartments under construction. What is clear is that not all of the city's new construction will be condominiums.
Progress toward recovery is also occurring in Jackson County and throughout its cities in Pascagoula, Ocean Springs, Gautier and Moss Point. To large degree, Jackson County's communities already see the light at the end of the tunnel.
But Gulfport, Long Beach, Pass Christian, Bay St. Louis and Waveland are struggling still. Those cities saw great destruction in their water and sewer systems and work to rebuild them has yet to really begin.
Meanwhile, the Governor's Office is currently finalizing plans and policies for the Mississippi Alternative Housing Program, which is intended to exhibit a better way to deliver emergency housing following major natural disasters like Hurricane Katrina. FEMA will allocate up to $281 million for the construction of three alternative housing units: the Mississippi Cottage, Park Model and Green Mobile. Approximately 5,000-7,000 FEMA-provided travel trailers located in Hancock, Harrison and Jackson counties will be replaced with the new units. An application process is currently being developed for current travel trailer tenants interested in moving into an alternative model. Informational meetings for potential tenants will be held in late February, and application announcements will be made through local media and the Governor's Office of Recovery and Renewal website. The state plans to begin placing the new housing on the ground in June 2007. Design specifications for the housing units are currently being refined, and modular builders will receive bidding information for the program within the next few weeks. The Governor's Office will hold a pre-bid conference for interested manufacturers.
As GCN has been reporting, Pass Christian is struggling to keep its city together following the devastation from Hurricane Katrina. During the city's State-of-the-City address, Pass Christian Mayor "Chipper" McDermott said finances are the city's most critical problem. He said the city, which lost nearly 85 percent of all its homes and all of its government buildings, will need state and federal assistance for years to come. Only about 2,000 homes remain in the city, which had nearly 9,000 homes before Katrina. There is progress though, the city is seeing some business return to locations inland and the city's harbor is being repaired. Prior to Katrina, Pass Christian was among the most attractive communities to live. The city is surround on three sides by water and shared the full effect of the hurricane with Bay St. Louis and Waveland. New FEMA height requirements will require many of the city's houses to be elevated, sharply increasing the costs to rebuild.
The FEMA building height issue is a major concern in Biloxi. The city has yet to adopt FEMA recommendations as the regulations would have a major impact on rebuilding in the hard hit areas in Point Cadet and along U.S. Highway 90 and Biloxi's Back Bay. Biloxi Mayor A.J. Holloway, however, says FEMA is requiring the regulations and failure to pass the regulations by the City Council, would result in the loss of FEMA reconstruction funds.
Mississippi Department of Transportation (MDOT) officials report that work on the new Biloxi-Ocean Springs bridge is on schedule and on budget. The new bridge is a key roadway to the Biloxi peninsula and Biloxi's casino row. MDOT reports that the contractor should be able to open two lanes of the bridge in November. Work to finish the bridge is scheduled for next spring. MDOT has yet to replace the broken lights on the I-110 bridge or along U.S. 90 near the Beau Rivage casino that were knocked out by Hurricane Katrina over 17 months ago. MDOT has also not removed broken concrete along the I-110 ramp or repaired the sidewalk and landscaping. MDOT has repeatedly placed dirt on sections of the median on U.S. 90 since Katrina, but the dirt just washes out into the beach highway. A project to repair U.S. 90 has yet to begin and the badly damaged road remains a bumpy ride for Coast motorists.
MDOT is not very popular on the Coast. Many city, county officials and residents have long felt MDOT has been shortchanging the Coast on needed roads and bridges. Work on Katrina repairs has been exceeding slow. MDOT apparently feels that the bridge replacements at either end of U.S. 90 are the only work that is needed. Residents say MDOT is still ignoring the Coast, as reflected in the following recent post to the GCN Message Board:
Posted by: 02/07/2007 17:20
A plan to restore and rebuild affordable homes run by the Biloxi Housing Authority (BHA) was submitted to the Biloxi City Council, Feb. 6. According to a news report from WLOX, Hurricane Katrina wrecked 273 rental units operated by the authority, which plans rebuild or repair units in Suncoast Villa, Covenant Square, Fernwood Place, Hope VI, Oakwood Village and the Cadet Point Senior Village. The Biloxi Housing Authority board is also developing a long term recovery project. Those plans include new units at East End Homes, Benachi Bay, and Beauvoir Beach. BHA leaders say they are also hoping to create new senior citizens homes, more low and middle income rental units, and several home ownership opportunities. BHA officials told Biloxi city leaders that no city funding will be needed.
Thousands of Mississippi families, their lives shattered and uprooted by Hurricane Katrina 16 months ago, continue to suffer, according to a new study issued Feb.2, 2007, by Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health and The Children’s Health Fund (CHF). The Mississippi Child & Family Health Study, "The Recovery Divide: Poverty and the Widening Gap Among Mississippi Children and Families Affected by Hurricane Katrina," indicates that Mississippi children displaced by the disaster are showing signs of depression, anxiety and general emotional and behavioral problems, with many lacking any health insurance and subsequently missing substantial amounts of school.
Their parent or caregivers are suffering from similar problems, ranging from depression and hypertension to post-traumatic stress syndrome. In addition, the region’s poorest families are sliding further down the economic scale, unable to find jobs to replace the ones they lost after the August 2005 hurricane. Households that had been among the working class and the working poor at the time of Katrina were most vulnerable to the economic impact – 53% of households with an annual income below $10,000 lost all salaried jobs in the household after the hurricane, compared to 15% of households with annual income above $20,000. Reinforcing this notion of the economic tenuousness of their lives, among those living in FEMA trailer parks only half had access to a bank account and only 16% had a credit card whereas in the impacted community areas 87% had access to a bank account and 49% had a credit card. (More Here)
Biloxi city planners are asking the City Council for direction over building densities and heights as a result of Hurricane Katrina. The Sun Herald reports that for longer than a year, the council has tabled proposed changes to the city's laws that regulate density and development. Meanwhile, condominium developers have been asking for variances and the city has been mostly granting them. The city's laws, which set a height limit of 175 feet in most areas, have not been changed since Hurricane Katrina. The results of the hurricane have changed the city's beachfront, making it too expensive for many homeowners to rebuild because of higher insurance and construction costs.
A controversy over a warehouse holding Katrina relief supplies meant for Hancock County and Waveland is hopefully winding down. Relief workers and volunteers successfully removed the majority of material from the warehouse Tuesday, Jan. 30, but there remains more supplies in the warehouse that other volunteer groups will try to obtain. The materials became embroiled in a bitter dispute between Waveland's Mayor Tommy Longo, the warehouse owner Gerry Mallon, and a volunteer, Kathleen Johnson, who has been coordinating the relief effort in the area. The issues surrounding the controversy are still unresolved.
As GCN has been reporting, much of the Katrina recovery has been shouldered by volunteer organizations, charities and individuals from around the country that have come into the area to help families recover. Even after a year and a half, the work of volunteers continues and is needed. These volunteers often work without much recognition. In addition, much of the federal aid has not reached many of the smaller, more rural communities in the Katrina Disaster Zone in Mississippi and Louisiana. Many of these communities are not covered by news media reports and the word on their situation is often absent from news reports on the progress of the recovery.
But there are problems stemming from the charitable work. Much of this work of volunteers is done without any central planning or coordination. Workers come and go and information on what is going on gets lost as people rotate in and out of the area. The lack of continuity, which is a natural part of a large volunteer effort, has created stresses in some communities and on some volunteers that have sought to make some order out of the confusion, which has been a re-occurring theme of post-Katrina life on the Coast. A recent dispute that erupted in Waveland is one such example. One of the failures since Katrina is the lack of coordinated support on the volunteer and charitable work. There is no centralized communication point regarding the activities and successes of the volunteer effort underway on the Coast. This is not the fault of the charities or volunteers, but that of local and state government, which have not sought to keep up with what is going on either as a result of the lack of personnel, or understanding the situation. There is also some conflict over the handling of donated materials and supplies. Much of the confusion is the result of poor communications between local and state officials and the volunteer groups.
There has also been problems in how officials in local governments have handled donations and in working with volunteer and charitable groups. Cities and counties in the Katrina Disaster Zone have also had some trouble developing systems to account for donations and how they should be distributed.
Governor Haley Barbour has named Bryan McDonald to serve as director
of the Governor's Office of Recovery and Renewal, which is coordinating
the state's efforts to recover from Hurricane Katrina.
Federal Judge L.T. Senter ruled against a settlement proposal in the State Farm class action lawsuit Jan 26. citing the need for more information. The settlement by State Farm Insurance was expected to provide several hundred million dollars to help policyholders rebuild homes destroyed by Hurricane Katrina 17 months ago. In his eight-page order, Judge Senter of Federal District Court in Gulfport, Miss., said he was rejecting the agreement because it did not provide enough information for him to conclude that it was “fair, just, balanced and reasonable.” His ruling is actually considered a victory for many residents. As details of the settlement were released, it became clear to many residents that they could be left out of process, as reflected in this post to the GCN Political Message board:
Posted by: STATE FARM SLAB OWNER ()
Refrigerators, rail cars-even explosives-have been plucked from the Mississippi Sound and adjacent waterways in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, as a $230-million marine debris removal effort cleans both the coastal waters and inland waterways of the Mississippi Coast. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security's Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) oversees the interagency campaign, and hopes to be finished by the end of January. Inland cleanup in waterways north of Interstate 10 should also be finished by the end of January.
The primary area of saltwater cleanup is a belt of the Sound extending a half mile out and spreading from state line to state line. The removal of debris from deeper waters, extending four miles out, is scheduled to begin in January and may last into the summer. (More Here)
Governor Haley Barbour announced, Jan. 24, the state has issued the 10,000th grant in the Homeowner Grant Program. (Click Here for more)
Gulfport Mayor Brent Warr, who traveled to China in January, is
quoted in an article in the Chinese Press. The story is on a method of
panel construction that could be used to speed housing rebuilding if
adopted in the U.S. (More
Here). The Sun Herald interviewed Warr on his trip. His comments can
be seen Here.
A report obtained by the Mississippi Press from the Department of Housing and Urban Development blames the state for the slow progress of the Homeowner Grant program. The newspaper reports that although Gov. Haley Barbour has blamed federal audits for slowing the Homeowner Grant Program, a review of the program by U.S. Housing and Urban Development officials in August 2006 found numerous problems with the way the state was managing the $3 billion program. In the review cited low damage assessments with no follow-up visits, a lack of skill and knowledge by some Mississippi Development Authority employees operating the program and travel expenses incurred by the company hired to administer it. (More Here)
While there are few businesses rebuilding south of the railroad tracks in Gulfport and Biloxi, some businesses are moving just inland. One such area is along Courthouse Road in Gulfport north of the RR tracks. New business development is also occurring in D'Ibervile, north of Interstate 10 and on U.S. 49 in Gulfport and near the Woolmarket interchange in Biloxi. Several businesses that were located in Biloxi in downtown have relocated north. Piltz, Williams and LaRosa, a large Biloxi accounting firm, is building a new office at Commerce Park, off of Popps Ferry Road in North Biloxi. GCN has learned that Hancock Bank in Biloxi will not be rebuilding its branch on U.S. 90 but will locate elsewhere near downtown. Region's Bank near Biloxi's City Hall is also not reopening their bank office in downtown Biloxi.
There are indications that state officials are becoming aware of a possible sharp loss of income from declining sales taxes. As GCN has been reporting, sales taxes that have risen sharply since Hurricane Katrina represent a spike that may not last much longer into the future. Buried deep in a story on the another subject, the Sun Herald reports that state financial leaders, in a briefing for lawmakers on Jan. 11, said the state economy is pretty good, but the Legislature needs to be "cautious." State economist Phil Pepper told lawmakers that much of the state's recent exploding growth in sales taxes and other revenue is due to Katrina recovery and could be fleeting. State Treasurer Tate Reeves told lawmakers that the state's total bonded indebtedness has grown from $589 million in 1990 to $3.2 billion today.
Gulfport residents wondering why it seems that the city is moving slowly on hurricane recovery have a good reason to question what is going on in their city. According to documents obtained by GulfCoastNews.com, Gulfport officials have less than a third of the total value of projects that the city of Biloxi has compiled for reimbursement from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). Biloxi officials report that they have over $148 million in total FEMA reimbursement with $75 million going for debris removal and the remainder, about $74 million to help rebuild the city, compared to nearly $25 million for projects in Gulfport. Gulfport shows nearly $100 million for debris removal. (More Here)
Where is the money? Many people in the Katrina Disaster Zone are wondering where the federal money for the recovery is going as they see progress in the recovery moving so slowly. After nearly a year and a half residents and businesses see the recovery appearing stalled. The answers are not simple. Local governments are busy preparing plans for repairs. Each project has to be researched and plans made then approved. This is a slow process made even more difficult as many local governments do not have the staff to move quickly through the process. Local governments have not been provided with money to pay for additional staffing and experts to move through the process and have to use existing personnel. (More Here)
Since Hurricane Katrina hit on August 29, 2005, Bay St. Louis Mayor Eddie Farve has worn Bermuda shorts, this is regardless of the season. He has done this as his way of symbolizing the plight of his city. He has even worn shorts when he testified in Congress after the hurricane. In a story in the Sea Coast Echo, Farve says his city's recovery is progressing and he thinks that by next winter, he may be able to wear pants again.
Some of the FEMA trailer parks that were established to provide temporary housing for Coast residents after Katrina have become so crime-ridden that nearby residents outside the parks have seen sharp increases in crime. Efforts by FEMA to build more such parks, are being heavily resisted by city and county officials. One person told GCN that FEMA isn't building trailer parks, but crime scenes. FEMA is not responsible for security at the trailer parks. In addition, FEMA considers information on who is living at the parks confidential and does not provide local police information on who the residents are, or whether they have criminal records.
The post-Katrina recovery involves many issues. Among them is repairing water and sewer systems that were damaged by Katrina along the shoreline. Without water and sewer services, homeowners and businesses cannot rebuild. That work is going slowly, especially in the smaller cities, such as Long Beach, Pass Christian, Waveland and Bay St. Louis. But even Gulfport, the state's second largest city, has a challenge. Gulfport's water and sewer system is a hodgepodge of formerly independent utilities that the city has purchased over the years, and as a result of lack of maintenance, many of the city's pipes are leaking. Gulfport's pipes were in bad shape before the hurricane and the city is facing a growing and expensive repair that is not moving quickly. Over the past months, the city has been faced with numerous emergency repairs, boil-water notices, and is conducting smoke tests to find the leaks. The smoke tests also help the city locate homes and businesses that are not on the sewer system. Part of the problem is that Katrina's flood surge created pressures on the land that has shifted and cracked pipes, particularly the older pipes. While FEMA will pay for many of the repairs in the specific areas affected by Katrina, it is unlikely that FEMA money will be available for the city's pre-existing problems, making water and sewer repairs a costly item for the city.
As a new year gets underway it is clear that the Coast has made progress in rebuilding its future so devastated by Katrina. That progress though is measured in small steps. The mountains of debris from the storm are mostly gone, but there remains thousands of empty weed-infested lots that mars what was once an attractive place to live. There are also hundreds of businesses that have yet to find a way to rebuild, especially along the shoreline. Biloxi and the cities in Jackson County are doing the best. Biloxi's casinos and an organized and affective city administration have given that city a positive direction that will see many improvements in 2007. While there are plenty of shoreline losses in Jackson County, the county's core cities have largely recovered.
Condo development is clearly part of the Coast's future and many are likely to be built, but it is likely that many of the Condo's proposed are months, if not years away. In addition, condo's are not the housing solution that is so badly needed at the present time. The Coast's transportation infrastructure is still in shambles. MDOT has moved very slowly in doing anything about the Coast's crowded and dilapidated roads. And almost all of the Coast's municipal roads need work. Biloxi says it has a plan in place to repair miles of city roads, but Gulfport, and the rest of Harrison County, have made no such announcements. MDOT has yet to make simple repairs of such things as street lights on the I-110 bridge or on U.S. 90, or remove Katrina debris and the broken sidewalk near the busy Beau Rivage. The street lights controlled by Biloxi were replaced and operating within weeks of the hurricane.
Then there are the thousands of people still in FEMA trailers. Replacement housing is not happening. And even for people waiting for Homeowner Grant money to rebuild and repair their existing homes, the program will help but now it is clear that the program will not provide a speedy recovery. What many outsiders don't realize, is that there is no place for visiting contractors and construction workers to live. The lack of housing is a severe issue, affecting both residents, and those who would like to come here to work.
In Hancock County, which was so badly damaged by Katrina, the cities and county there are still having much trouble getting back on their feet. Many residents are still gone, and it is looking as many will not be back. While the cleanup that county has largely finished, the scars of Katrina are everywhere. Downtown Bay St. Louis is only a shell of its former self. Work to restore the main road in Old Town is underway, but it will be months before the work is done. Waveland's government is still in trailers and many of the city's residents are still trying to find a way to rebuild.
There is a growing feeling among most residents that they are really on their own to recover. That has always been true, the residents here a tough lot with the integrity to know what to do. While it is certainly true that the government doesn't owe people a life, they are responsible for the promises they make and the infrastructure that makes life in cities possible. In many ways, they are failing in this responsibility. Every effort needs to be made to get the federal and state government to do what is best and to stop the bureaucratic delays in distributing the recovery funds approved by Congress.
A program designed to provide tax incentives to encourage developers to build new apartments in the Katrina Disaster Zone in Mississippi is doing little to restore the thousands of lost apartments on the Coast that were destroyed by Katrina on Aug. 29, 2005. The Go Zone program was passed by Congress in 2005 shortly after the hurricane to provide tax incentives for businesses to encourage redevelopment in the region. In Mississippi, the area included nearly 60 counties, but most of the damages were along the Coastal counties. (More Here)
According to the Mississippi Business Financing Corporation, which is administering the business portion of the Go Zone program in Mississippi, some 135 businesses have signed up for the program with a total incentive valuation exceeding $5 billion. But of the 135 businesses participation in the Go Zone program, only 39 are located within the three Coastal counties and many are from existing operations that are using the program for rebuilding and are familiar names to Coast residents. (Much more Here)
For all of these people, and the families they represent, getting into a permanent home will likely take a miracle. (More here in this GCN Special Report)
There are still miles of empty lots, lost businesses and no construction in many of the most hard hit areas. Any idea that the Coast has moved quickly toward recovery is misleading, but there are some signs of progress. Several restaurants are being rebuilt along the beach highway in Gulfport and Biloxi including several Waffle House restaurants and a Wendy's. Work on the Edgewater Village Shopping center in Biloxi is underway and construction of a few more beach-front homes has started. Bay St. Louis and Waveland are also seeing new stores along the commercial areas of U.S. 90. McDonald's has reopened in Bay St. Louis and there is work underway to fix some of the area's shopping centers. But much work there is needed. In Hancock County, the new Lowe's and Home Depot are doing a brisk business.
Coast communities are still having a very hard time keeping litter and debris off city streets as well as keeping weeds out of the gutters and off sidewalks. The result is the area, even in places where life looks to be relatively back to normal, is trashed and unkempt, which adds to the depressing feelings many Coast residents are experiencing. Biloxi has tackled the problem but there are still areas that need work. Everywhere, even on the busy I-10, trash and litter can be seen. Some of this litter is the result of debris and garbage trucks, but a lot of the litter is from people throwing items out their vehicle's windows.
GulfCoastNews.com received a prestigious award during the Online News Association annual meeting held in Washington, Oct. 6-8. During award ceremonies Oct. 8, GCN received the ONA Excellence in Service Journalism Award for small websites for its GCN Survivor Connector Database.
"This is truly a deep honor," said Keith Burton, GCN's owner and editor. "The GCN database was created to help people that were relocated from evacuations during Hurricane Katrina, but I never realized at the time how it would help so many people." (More Here)