Effort to restore Miss. housing funds stalled

Published 10:22 pm Saturday, September 20, 2008

A congressional effort to prevent Mississippi from using millions of dollars in Hurricane Katrina housing money for a project to make a Gulf Coast port one of the largest in the nation appears dead for the year.

This past spring, U.S. Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., was among about a dozen lawmakers who asked House Appropriations Chairman David Obey, D-Wis., to insert language in a federal funding bill that would block Mississippi’s diversion. The letter said the transfer was unreasonable because the state hadn’t met its post-Katrina housing needs.

It’s unlikely the issue will be addressed before Congress adjourns at the end of the month, Appropriations Committee spokeswoman Kirsten Brost said Friday.

Thompson’s chief of staff, Karis Gutter, said Congress is expected to approve a continuing resolution, which won’t include the special language about the housing funds.

Congress approved $5.4 billion in federal community block grants for Mississippi’s recovery after Katrina struck in 2005.

Republican Gov. Haley Barbour initially wanted to divert $600 million to the state port from a fund designated to restore homes demolished by the storm. The plan outraged many Democrats on Capitol Hill, including U.S. Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., who said the Bush Administration appeared partial to Barbour.

Earlier this month, the state directed $30 million back to the housing fund.

“The folks who signed the letter are all committed that this is not the intent of Congress, and Chairman Thompson still feels that way,” Gutter said Friday. “We’re not anti-port. We just feel that the funding designated for housing should indeed be used just for that.”

His comments came days after the Mississippi State Port Authority unveiled a proposed expansion for the state port, which was ripped apart by Katrina. The expansion’s cost will range from $1 billion to $3 billion.

The plan calls for the port to expand from its current 210 acres to nearly 1,000 acres. In addition, the property would be elevated 25 feet above sea level to protect it from storm surge similar to Katrina’s, which tossed shipping containers into nearby neighborhoods.

Port director Don Allee said the expansion, which is expected to be approved in the next few weeks by the authority’s board of commissioners, will occur in phases over a number of years.

“We’ve never taken our eyes off the community development block grant money,” Allee said. “What we do with that is create the platform for private investors or operators to come in.”

Allee said the expansion would create more than 6,000 new jobs at the port and increase the port’s capacity to handle 3 million containers a year within the next decade. Pre-Katrina, the port handled 215,000 containers. He said “conceptually” the port could become the country’s largest.

Coast advocacy groups working on the region’s recovery are hopeful Congress will scrutinize the proposal next term before approving a funding bill.

“I think there will be a very, very careful examination of this proposal. The port no longer contends this is about restoring hurricane damage. It’s all about a vast expansion plan,” said Reilly Morse of the Mississippi Center for Justice.