Friday, September 01, 2006

The Myth of Mississippi's Recovery

Is the Gulf Coast truly recovering more quickly than New Orleans? The Times-Picayune doesn't hesitate to suggest that is true in the headline Mississippi's recovery effort seems to be leaving Louisiana's behind. Why? even as the story seems to contradict that assertion.

The story starts out comparing the two states' Road Home plans, noting that Mississippi's was rolled out faster and is less complex, while noting Louisiana's delay results from the Magnolia State initially receiving five times as much money per capita as Louisiana, and the state delaying the program until the Pelican State's delegation could make up the disparity.

And contrary to the T-P's inordinately delicate assertion that the federal government "floated a plan that would have resulted in Louisiana residents receiving less money than Mississippi residents", Congress in fact appropriated the 5-to-1 disparity fueling early assertions that the whiter, more Republican states of Mississippi and Florida received disparate treatment of their hurricane disasters.

The story leans heavily on comparison of statistics, but fails sometimes to call out the reasons for the disparity. One major citation is the difference in building permits issued, with Mississippi leading the way with a 51% increase over the prior year from 161 to 253 in Biloxi while New Orleans falls short of its prior year at with just 364 this year compared to 394.

While the story discusses the fact that Katrina's storm surge levels much of the Gulf Coast miles inland, it doesn't make the obvious connection that Mississippi cannot recover without new construction. The Gulf Coast wasn't damaged by Katrina, it was destroyed. Much of New Orleans housing stock, while significantly damaged by steeping for weeks in polluted floodwaters, remains capable of restoration rather than reconstruction.

The item citing sales tax collections ignores the fact that New Orleans retail was decimated by the flood, forcing sales out to the less damaged suburbs. The Gulf Coast does not have that neat division into urban and suburban that Orleans and Jefferson Parish represent, so recovery spending on the Gulf Coast is typically occurring in the same county as the damage. The same is not true of New Orleans.

The Picayune moves quickly into the question of whether what is calls "plan-demonium" is hampering the Louisiana recovery, turning almost immediately to political hack Tom Blankley, a former staffer for disgraced GOP leader Newt Gingrich and now editorial page editor of the openly partisan, semi-Official Washington Times, to opine that ""it's an honest government [in Mississippi] and Louisiana is notoriously corrupt and incompetent."

Perhaps Mr. Blankley can explain how GOP Governor Haley Barbour's funneling of overpriced, no-bid contracts for debris removal to companies that pay the governor consulting fees in that context, as was widely reported back in September.

Mississippi is also lauded for its rush to reopen an expanded set of casino's, in some cases planning to take away moderate-income residents homes to develop an expanded resort and gaming industry. New Orleans Mayor No-C-'em Ray Nagin was widely derided when he proposed a similar plan for New Orleans recovery.

On matters of infrastructure, comparisons of the Gulf Coast to New Orleans remain unbalanced. While Mississippi quickly moved to re-open public schools and New Orleans did not, the Orleans Parish School Board has been in virtual collapse as an institution pre-Katrina, and the story disregards the reopening of the parochial school system starting in November of last year. Forty-five percent of the city's students attend private or religious schools.

The story does not that the Gulf Coast was quick to reopen hospitals, but doesn't discuss the level of damage those sustained. Most of New Orleans' hospital infrastructure was severly damaged, with two large complexes--Memorial and Lindy Boggs--sitting at the bottom of the bowl. The downtown Charity-LSU complex was similarly decimated. However, suburban hospitals including Oschner and the publid West and East Jefferson hospitals remained online even through the storm. The Gulf Coast's two major hospitals did not sustain major damage and remained open through Katrina.

On other infrastructure issues, the story closes on this note:

...businesses along the Beach Boulevard have yet to reopen, because work did not start until last month to repair the road, which crumbled under Katrina's weight. One longtime favorite, Trapani's Eatery, has reopened in a strip mall on U.S. 90 in Bay St. Louis, while others continue to wait.

A similar situation is occurring in Long Beach, where the storm surge flattened most of the structures in the first three to four blocks off the beach. None of the owners has been able to rebuild because the storm decimated the water and sewerage service to the area.

Mayor Billy Skellie, who continues to operate City Hall from a cluster of double-wide trailers on Klondyke Road north of the devastated area, said the city was able to patch the system in the residential areas farther inland, but that Katrina did too much damage along the beachfront to make even temporary repairs. He hopes repairs to that area will be complete by March.

The story saves the reaction of Mississippi residents for the back page paragraphs of the long piece. Residents of Gulfport, Waveland and Pearlington all question the rosy assessment of their political leaders.

For all the talk about Mississippi's progress, Bill and Nanka Caraway of Gulfport are having none of it.

Katrina washed away the Second Street home that Bill Caraway's grandfather built in 1919. The floodwaters lifted the house from its foundation, causing the roof to collapse and the walls to crumble, and the Caraways were left with little more than the clothes on their backs.

People such as the Caraways decry the notion that the coast is advancing faster than New Orleans, given that the area looks much the same as it did the day after the storm passed. True, the various municipalities have removed mountains of debris in the interim, but the miles upon miles of beach road with little rebuilding seem to tell another story. ...

Like many coastal residents, the couple didn't receive enough money from their insurance company to start over, let alone build a brand-new home. They have asked the state for a $150,000 Road Home grant but haven't heard yet whether they will qualify.

In the end, the myth of Mississippi's recovery revolves around an expanded casino strip that was shouted down in New Orleans, and Mississippi's GOP-connected leadership's ability to receive five-times as much initial funding as Louisiana, leaving our city and state to claw for an equitable deal.

At the end of the story, the best assessment remains LSU political scientist Wayne Parent's: "It's like apples and oranges, given that Mississippi went through a hurricane and Louisiana had a hurricane and a great flood, and the damage was so much greater, so much more widespread..."

Don't know if you saw Scarborough Country Tuesday, but I'm really getting furious. Only thing that me that made me truncate last night's post was a desire not to insult an entire state. Still can anyone from Ms. get any attention without using it to talk about how little attention they get? In Ms. they have a complaint about little press coverage they get; in La. we have a complaint that we get less aid (relative to the damage done) for a disaster that the federal government admits at least some responsibility for than other states have received for purely natural disasters. My question for anybody from a third state: who has the more legitimate complaint?
I can't bring myself to watch the evening cable heads anymore. It just drives me crazy. I used to watch religiously because of my professional and personal involvement in politics, but my disillusionment in the U.S. political process is so complete right now I find it hard to pay attention to anything outside of NOLA. Its as if I were watching the affairs of another country.
LA wasted 4 months pushing for the Baker bill to have the government buy up neighborhoods and let an appointed commission decide whether and how to redevelop them. Everything LA pushed was a new LA-only program run by LA appointees. The Baker bill had $0 for MS.
Meanwhile, the MS delegation worked to fit assistance into existing programs where only appropriations was needed, not new agencies. So, MS got the CDBG funding for housing assistance, including $6 billion for LA, without any help from LA. Unlike LA, MS has never pushed for MS-only assistance.
Follow the links to the stories from last Fall. I think getting five times per capita out of CDBG sure shoulds like Mississippi assistance.

I'm not attacking Mississippi. I have cousins (had) in Waveland. But to suggest MS is somehow "ahead" of Louisiana is in many ways a ridiculous comparison.
I said MS-only assistance. MS efforts helped LA. The Baker bill would not have helped MS.
The 5-to-1 comparison is based on LA's much broader eligibility. The MS plan was targeted to homeowners who did not have flood insurance because the flood maps were wrong. LA did not have 5 times more of those. MS had to narrow eligibility to get the Administration & Congress to approve the plan. It would not have passed with all the money LA wanted in it. Blame Richard Baker, not Thad Cochran, for the delay. Because of Cochran, you eventually got your $10+ billion housing program. Say, "Thank you."
Why on earth should Louisiana's plan include Mississippi? Mississippi: a massive hurricane with a temporary storm surge. Louisiana: a massive flood that remains for a month after a mild hurricane.

That the Baker bill addressed addressed only Louisiana's problems made it superior. Different circumstances require different solutions. Cochran's was accepted, Baker's was rejected. They could have accepted both, but they didn't. They accepted the plan designed for Mississippi.

We're supposed to be thankful for this?
The issue isn't whether Mississippi has a more effective congressional delegation than La. I'd love to see media coverage of that, instead of media coverage that implies that La. has received more aid than Ms. It has, but not relative to the damage done. Hell, the pre-K population of Orleans Parish alone was 20-25% greater than the combined population of Mississippi's three coastal counties; the GNO pop. was about four times as great. Yeah I know, Katrina hurt more than the three coastal counties, but La suffered damage outside of the GNO area and a second hurricane devastated the western part of the state.

All La.'s asking for is as much aid (relative to the magnitude of the damage) for a disaster that the Corps of Engineers has admitted sme responsibility for, that other states have received for purely natural disasters. I can understand the people of Mississippi equating greater media attention to N.O. with disprortionate aid--if anything, N.O.'s aid is disproportionately small--but the governor certainly knows better. The newspaper editor I saw on Scarborough country should know better. I'd love to see Mississippi get real media attention, I don't know if its lobbyist governor would.
1. Thanks because the Cochran/MS plan is what got LA the funds for the Road Home grants.
2. It's not just that Baker's plan was LA-only, he led the opposition and personally blocked committee action on Gene Taylor's bill that would have helped all property owners without flood insurance in Katrina and Rita disaster areas. If the Taylor bill had passed, a few hundred thousand people would have their money by now, including rental properties and businesses. We would not have wasted 8 months to design and implement new programs. Property owners could simply have filed flood insurance claims to be paid out of disaster appropriations.
3. I agree that Barbour and others are getting undeserved praise, but they are not responsible for any of the problems in LA.
An open letter to all New Orleans residents:

If anyone finds my posting herein duplicitous, please accept my apologies - I've been quite distracted by Katrina recovery issues in Mississippi, and have only recently started monitoring the many NOLA blogs related to the killer storm - Of course, there's much I agree with, and some I don't - But have no doubt, my friends, that Mississippians are squarely behind your efforts to get back to some sense of normalcy.

I'm a freelance photojournalist based in Central Mississippi - I couldn't grasp the shortage of Katrina info regarding Mississippi being reported by the National mainstream media, while our local media were doing "fly-overs" along the Mississippi coastline....showing an incredible picture of destruction and despair - New Orleans, or so it seems, got the majority of the press - Of course, it was a riveting story that was still unfolding for too many days after the storm, and Mississippi was simply debris piles - I "get" why the media was there, but I could not reconcile the scale of human suffering also taking place in my own state...but being largely ignored - So I took the initiative to report the story first-hand, in my own humble way - Any interested parties may check out my efforts to report what I personally documented on my non-commercial website at

Let me be very clear: What happened to the good people of New Orleans as a result of Katrina was horrific. I love the city of New Orleans, and its people. I have been there many many times in my life, and look forward to return visits. New Orleans will be "back", better than ever. I have great affection for its people, as I do all my good neighbors in Louisiana. And, let us not forget the remainder of Southern Louisiana. Those poor people were devastated by Katrina.

But this is NOT the time for race-baiting, or conspiracy zealots.

It was, after all, New Orleans' Mayor Ray Nagin who once proudly proclaimed that New Orleans would ALWAYS be a "chocolate city". So, before casting blame, pointing fingers, and calling names, perhaps you should look at the leadership of New Orleans. Only then will you be able to understand that there apparently is, sadly enough, blatant racism that is being used ( in some cases) to somehow explain an act of God. If you believe, as many have stated publicly, that there was some grand conspiracy that led to the levees being sabotaged as part of some act of "ethnic cleansing" to change the demographics of New Orleans, and further "whiten" the "chocolate city", then I suspect further reason will be lost on you.

But just as I've been frustrated by the lack of media attention in post-Katrina Mississippi, I've grown weary of the non-stop negative depictions of New Orleanians - New Orleans, despite any shortcomings, is a National treasure that must be preserved.

At this point, all becomes cliché...but no less important.

This is a time for healing...for hope, recovery, and re-building...for everyone.

But I don't think the people of New Orleans will find any healing by blaming others, while there is doubtless plenty of blame to go around. Just please remember NO single elected official was/is responsible for decades of mismanagement of levee construction, levee mismanagement and maintenance, or a general lack of disaster preparedness. Katrina, in all her fury and destruction, was not wrought by man. And her fury was unprecedented. My good friends of Louisiana, we in Mississippi share your pain. Like you, we were "sucker-punched". It's simply that most people don't know about our plight.

Be assured that I, like so many other Mississippians, look forward to a greater New Orleans than ever before.

And frankly, I don't care what "color" or "flavor" it is.

Best of luck to you all - You all remain in our thoughts and prayers.
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