Friday, November 16, 2007

Why am I not Surprised? Mississippi Shafts Katrina Poor

Poor Lag in Hurricane Aid From Mississippi
By Leslie Eaton
The New York Times

Friday 16 November 2007

Gulfport, Miss. - Like the other Gulf Coast states battered by Hurricane Katrina, Mississippi was required by Congress to spend half of its billions in federal grant money to help low-income citizens trying to recover from the storm.

But so far, the state has spent $1.7 billion in federal money on programs that have mostly benefited relatively affluent residents and big businesses. The money has gone to compensate many middle- and upper-income homeowners, to aid utility companies whose equipment was damaged and to prop up the state's insurance system.

Just $167 million, or about 10 percent of the federal money, has been spent on programs dedicated to helping the poor, mostly through a smaller grant program for lower-income homeowners.

And while that total will certainly increase, Mississippi has set aside just 23 percent of its $5.5 billion grant money - $1.25 billion - for these programs. About 37 percent of the residents of the state's coast are low income, according to federal figures.

Mississippi is the only state for which the Bush administration has waived the rule that 50 percent of its Community Development Block Grants be spent on low-income programs, according to the Department of Housing and Urban Development, which administers the program. It is also the only state to ask for such waivers.

State officials, from Gov. Haley Barbour on down, insist that the state does not discriminate by race or income when it hands out aid to storm victims.

"We feel like we have programs in place to address all walks of life," said Gray Swoope, executive director of the Mississippi Development Authority, which administers the federally financed grant programs.

Any delays in spending money on low-income projects have been caused by the complexity of creating the projects, said Donna Sanford, director of the disaster recovery program for the development authority. The state, Ms. Sanford said, "has done everything that we can to keep it on track and moving as fast as possible to meet the needs of everyone."

Nonetheless, resentment at being left out of Mississippi's economic recovery has been stirring in poor communities along the coast, and nowhere more so than in this city, hit hard by Hurricane Katrina's storm surge, where the state plans to spend $600 million of the federal money to repair and improve its shipping port.

Though the expansion will increase employment here, historically very few port jobs have gone to low-income residents.

Some critics contend that the main interest of state leaders in spending community development dollars is to help big businesses like shipbuilders and casinos and the port.

The state's spending plan "moves business to the forefront and forgets about the people on the ground," said Anthony Thompson, pastor at Tabernacle of Faith Ministries, whose spotless church (rebuilt by volunteers) is next to a moldering subsidized housing project that he says has not been touched since the storm.

In his mostly black neighborhood in west Gulfport, Mr. Thompson said, "I see a lot of people waiting on help; I see a lot of houses still damaged."

State officials say that programs not limited to lower-income residents help them nevertheless.

The aid to utilities helped everyone on the coast, including renters, officials say. And almost a third of the families who got money from the state's main housing compensation program were low-income, which in Gulfport would mean an annual income of less than $39,000 a year for a family of four.

The nature of that program helps explain the unhappiness in some neighborhoods. It provided grants of up to $150,000 to homeowners who lived outside of the federally defined flood plain and so did not have flood insurance to cover their losses when their houses were swamped by the storm surge.

To be eligible, families had to have carried regular homeowners' insurance, so that, as the governor said when he was selling the plan to Congress, "we're not bailing out irresponsible people."

But advocates for the poor said that requirement barred many of the least affluent, especially retirees and the disabled, who live on fixed incomes. "The fact is, people who have no money choose food and medicine, and not insurance," said Ashley Tsongas, a policy adviser for the aid group Oxfam America. "That moral superiority doesn't recognize the reality people face."

Renters were also excluded from the program, as they were in Louisiana, and homeowners who had wind damage were also not covered. Some federal officials have said Louisiana's decision to help cover wind losses is one reason its program almost ran out of money.

Two-thirds of Mississippi's block grants have not yet been spent. In fact, few of the coastal states have spent much of their grant money, with the exception of Louisiana, which has already used almost half of its original allotment and just received an additional $3 billion for its home-rebuilding program.

Because fewer applicants than expected applied for Mississippi's assistance program, the state still has almost $2 billion left, some of which it plans to use for community development projects and for the port expansion.

The port, at the foot of Gulfport's main street, flies a Chiquita banner under its American flag; fruit imports remain down but are bouncing back, though exports of frozen poultry have stopped since the storm destroyed the port's refrigerated warehouses. The state says that the expansion will add about 1,000 jobs over the next five years, and that many of those will be reserved for low-income residents.

But some community advocates are dubious, noting that before the storm only 10 percent of the port jobs went to low-income residents. They also think the cost per job will be too high.

And they note that the port's own master plan envisions a new tourist and casino development. "It's not all about bananas," said Reilly Morse, a lawyer for the Mississippi Center for Justice.

Mr. Morse and many others who oppose the port plan say the state should first ensure that all the families now living in more than 10,000 government trailers have a permanent place to live, that rental housing gets built and that all homeowners can repair their houses.

"I don't have any problem with economic development and expanding the port, but not at the cost of people," said James W. Crowell, president of the N.A.A.C.P. branch in Biloxi, just down the beach from Gulfport.

Brent Warr, who became Gulfport's mayor just months before the storm, called the port expansion "an incredible opportunity for the city," and said he had been assured that the new facilities would be devoted to maritime use, not to gambling and cruise ships. "We don't have to make this community about neon and chrome," he said.

Asked about the frustrations some residents have about the lack of aid in their communities, Mr. Warr said it would take time, because the development authority has to create programs all at once while making sure the money is well spent. "It's like taking a funnel and packing it so full of money that nothing can come out," he said.

Dorothy J. McClendon fears that none of that money will reach her east Gulfport neighborhood, Soria City, where she leads a civic group with the modest motto, "Moving Toward a Drug-Free Community."

Because it is north of the railroad tracks which serve as a sort of levee, the neighborhood did not flood, so residents cannot get state grants, Ms. McClendon said. Few had insurance to cover their wind-damaged roofs; she is sleeping on a couch in her living room because she fears that the water-damaged ceiling in her bedroom is going to fall.

Repairs to public works and economic development projects appear to happening elsewhere; Soria City's main business is a tiny shop selling sodas and snacks and 25-cent cigarettes. Even the program to help small landlords does not apply to this neighborhood, Ms. McClendon said, because while there are plenty of properties that could be fixed up and rented out, few were occupied right before the storm, as the program requires.

"But we're here, we're hurting," she said. "We need help, too
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