Recovery chief says housing near pre-Katrina level

Published 6:03 pm Friday, June 13, 2008

The new federal hurricane recovery chief says the amount of housing on the Mississippi Gulf Coast is near pre-Katrina levels, but some officials and advocates living in the region dispute the claim.

Maj. Gen. Douglas O’Dell based his comment on current housing units and those expected from several projects he said had been initiated by Gov. Haley Barbour’s administration. Barbour has said his planned projects are aimed at helping renters and low-income households, but many have yet to break ground.

O’Dell was in Mississippi on Thursday, visiting with Barbour and Mike Womack, director of the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency.

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Advocacy groups have complained about the lack of affordable housing, which they say is hampering the Gulf Coast recovery and keeping thousands of people from returning to the region that was devastated by Hurricane Katrina in August 2005.

“The governor believes there are a combination of housing opportunities, about the same amount of housing available to families today as there was pre-Katrina,” O’Dell said during a news briefing at MEMA headquarters. “It may not be in the same places. A lot of it is being relocated north of I-10,” out of the so-called velocity zone.

He said the goal is that “families find themselves in comfortable, affordable and sustainable housing across the Gulf Coast” by fall.

As of Thursday, 4,018 residents were living in federal trailers. About 2,600 were in Katrina cottages, permanent structures that closely resemble traditional housing.

“Absolutely in no way shape or form is there as much (housing) available as pre-Katrina,” said Bay St. Louis Mayor Eddie Favre, who leads a city located in Hancock County, an area that bore the brunt of the storm.

Favre said the city’s housing authority only recently began the process for building more housing units. The lack of housing is the reason 25 percent of the city’s population hasn’t returned, he said.

James Crowell, president of the Biloxi branch of the NAACP, said efforts are being made by local and regional housing authorities to create more affordable stock, but there’s a long way to go.

“My hope is that O’Dell would talk to people who are suffering and not just the leaders who say we are doing fine,” said Crowell.

O’Dell said Barbour has begun a housing study to identify the area’s housing needs. O’Dell said the study would be completed in about six weeks.

Barbour spokesman Pete Smith didn’t not immediately comment Thursday on the housing study.