Two years after the storm

Published 3:47 pm Monday, September 10, 2007

It has now been two years since a storm rocked the lives of every person in the Mississippi Gulf Coast. On August 29, 2007 the office of Gov. Haley Barbour released the progress report on recovery, rebuilding and renewal. What follows is a brief summary of this in-depth report from the governor’s office.

Probably, the most reported and least understood is the staggering destruction that has required billions of dollars to clear debris and rebuild the housing and public infrastructure. The other areas of massive restoration were in economic development, education, human services and environmental restoration. The first year of recovery laid a solid foundation for this past year’s efforts of local governments, non-profits and the private sector.

According to the report, Mississippi’s hardest hit areas such as Bay St. Louis and Pass Christian, and the residential areas of the coast exhibit “strong benchmarks of recovery. On May 17, 2007, these communities marked a milestone in Katrina recovery with the opening of the first two lanes of the new U.S. Highway 90 Bridge, linking West Harrison County with Hancock County.”

Picayune received part of $97 million in grants for a new fire station, as did Poplarville.

“Many of these grants will help implement ideas generated shortly after Katrina… these projects will help restore many public resources on the Mississippi Coast, greatly improving day-to-day life for residents and helping the region come back stronger than ever,” Barbour said.

The report states more than 500,000 volunteers came to Mississippi to “share their time, resources, and hard work. The state is blessed to have so many individuals come to help.”

The National Center for Charitable Statistics reported the “number of non-profits in Hancock, Harrison, and Jackson counties increased while total revenue decreased.” There are plans underway for a Volunteer Center which would be hosted by United Way of South Mississippi. The accomplishments of all the groups who dedicated their energy to help those devastated by Katrina are too numerous to note in this space.

The report slices into the meat of each prong of the Gulf Coast recovery machine. The organizations of local governments, non-profits, and private sector are covered, then housing, public infrastructure, economic development, education, health and human services, and environmental and marine restoration are discussed.

Only a few of the highlights will be discussed here. You can view the whole report at www.governorbarbour.com.

In the private sector, the economic impact to small businesses, refineries, fishing, tourist trades, and agriculture was equivalent to a stock exchange bust. What was once thriving was given a near fatal head wound.

“However, Mississippi’s economy is regaining its foothold. Employment levels are back to pre-Katrina levels… sales tax revenues are setting records, and small businesses are returning to the most devastated areas,” the report states.

The stakeholders in the six Gulf Coast counties recognized that healthy economy was the critical factor in a sustainable recovery.

The local governments, the non-profits and faith-based organizations, and business leaders have performed above and beyond expectations to the restoration effort.

One newly formed organization is the Gulf Coast Business Council comprised of top leaders in the economic and business sectors. They are working toward a unified, regional voice of business specifically geared towards the economic vigor of South Mississippi.

“The private sector is the engine that will drive Mississippi’s long-term recovery,” said Gulf Coast Business council President Brian Sanderson. What the council has recognized and is trying to capitalize on are the tremendous opportunities for economic growth.

Some of the milestones covered in the report include:

– Homeowners Assistance Program—Phase I has distributed nearly $1 billion to Gulf Coast homeowners and Phase II is in full swing with more than $40 million already distributed to applicants and more checks being drafted.

– Elimination of Cost-Share—Congress waived the non-federal cost-share requirement for FEMA disaster assistance which means the costs of rebuilding public buildings will be the sole cost of the federal government. This will save the state and local governments more than $100 million.

– Bay St. Louis Bridge—Residents in Hancock County and Harrison County are reconnected.

– Employment—Unemployment rates are back down to pre-Katrina levels.

– Housing—In August, 17,000 Mississippians continue to live in FEMA temporary housing which is down 19,000 from one year ago. Housing and Urban Development (HUD) estimates nearly 60,000 homes sustaining major damage.

– Public Schools—The enrollment in the six coastal counties is at 94 percent of the pre-Katrina enrollment. The students are receiving high marks on the accountability tests.

– Wind Pool—The state avoided catastrophic rate increases, limiting them to 90 percent and 142 percent for homes and businesses respectively.

– Wet Debris—The Mississippi Sound has been cleared of the debris.

– Mental Health—Project Recovery made more than 360,000 visits to hurricane victims.

There are some barriers to restoring housing, the report notes. Reasonable insurance rate increases were realized with the wind pool, but premiums are significantly higher than before the storm. Residents may have the money to rebuild, but are unwilling or incapable of paying the higher rates. Pre-Katrina, there were approximately 16,000 wind pool policies which is insurance of last resort. Today there are 40,000 residents with wind pool policies. This indicates the lack of private insurance in the coastal regions. A bill was introduced in July that would allow the National Flood Insurance Program to offer wind and flood insurance in one policy.

Another barrier is the inflated market caused by the high demand for housing. Many people are “waiting it out” hoping the prices will go down.

Akin to that problem is the changing landscape as cities rebuild. The dynamics of neighborhoods are still fluctuating and many people are postponing decisions to rebuild until the residential/business mix is settled in their old neighborhoods.

“Post-Katrina, the issues of housing are complicated because of wetlands regulations and the much higher cost of labor and building materials, along with the zoning and planning uncertainties,” the report concludes.

There are several programs that are designed to promote community revitalization and planning, economic development and small business financing. The economic development program is funded by $340 million for use to attract new industries, job creation, and infrastructure. These funds are on a project-by-project basis. Four projects have been approved, 10 others are in the approval process, and 20 more are under review.

An innovative House Bill 1890 changed the “Small Enterprise Development Finance Program (SED) so that more small to mid-sized businesses can qualify for low interest loans ranging between $350,000 to $4 million for construction, renovations, and purchase of new equipment.

You can view this report in its entirety by visiting www.governorbarbour.com.