Good Works and the Artful Dodge
August 29, 2015 marks the tenth anniversary of one of the most powerful storms to hit the United States in recorded history. It was the wristwatch that caught me. I picked it out of the sand while we were walking the coast of Waveland, Mississippi. We had traveled down there with gardeners from North Carolina and Virginia a year later to help restore landscaping to devastated areas.
While I was doing routine fact-checking on Hurricane Katrina I uncovered so many compelling stories that I felt I could not talk about our small involvement without first describing the events of that stormy day. One post became four. Parts I and II tell of the storm and its immediate devastation; Parts III and IV follow the aftermath.
The damage from Katrina is so extreme that hopes of new beginnings or happy endings can become distant, persistent mirages, and for every positive experience there is often an equal or greater negative one. The coarse cloth of this nation’s character is woven through and around Katrina’s aftermath: steely resolve against all odds, patience that stretches into years, deep attachment to family and community, heroism that seeks no rewards, overwhelming, yes, overwhelming generosity, patriotism, and betrayal.
Part IV has no snappy conclusions, there can’t be any, only snippets of stories and file photos uncovered from news reports, editorials, and blogs. I apologize for omissions or errors of fact.
St Bernard/Plaquemines Parishes, LA: It’s been six months and we still don’t know if we can stay.
There was nothing left whole in St. Bernard Parish. This parish, five miles east of downtown New Orleans is the only county in America that has ever been totally devastated by a natural disaster. All of its 27,000 homes were destroyed. Six months later only 7,000 people remained out of a population of almost 70,000.
Mostly, people lived in limbo. They waited, many families living apart, split between states. They waited for aid to come. They waited for trailers. They waited for insurance companies to settle and then maybe tried to appeal the settlements. They waited for banks to give them loans. They waited to find out about flood insurance. Meanwhile, towns were twilight zones. No people, no dogs, no cats, no life.
There were some bright spots. Volunteers with Emergency Communities did a bang-up job of serving 185,000 free meals in six months and boosting community morale by distributing tons and tons of food and clothing, offering first aid, showers, emotional support and much much more.
Domino Sugar called all 300 employees back when it reopened its plant and provided housing for their families in rent-free travel trailers. The new town on company property became Chateau Domino.
ExxonMobil, another big employer, donated $4.2 million to rebuild the St. Bernard schools. The downside: nearby residents suffer from noxious odors, high rates of cancer and illness from industry emissions (over 2500 violations of the Clean Air Act). Citizen groups are asking the company to clean up its act as it rebuilds.
With volunteer help, the St. Bernard Project has rebuilt 479 homes (about 60 a year) each costing an average of $15,000. This ongoing project makes a special effort to train veterans in electrical and plumbing skills and then hires them to do the work.
Well, people did come back to St. Bernard and today the population is up to about 35,000. Many rebuilt following guidelines that FEMA laid down.
They didn’t count on Congress passing the Biggert-Waters Flood Insurance Reform Act last year. This act cuts federal subsidies out of flood insurance. The idea is to make the program self-sustaining, which sounds pretty smart.
No one in Congress considered that unsubsidized insurance for primary dwellings could be a hardship for low- and middle- income homeowners. Residents in St. Bernard who live 4 feet below base on FEMA’s maps (not so unusual in Mississippi delta country) can expect to see premiums of about $9,500 a year. The median income for a family in St. Bernard is about $43,000 a year. You can imagine the fallout. Entire communities could become ghost towns if insurance costs drive people out with no prospect of resale.
Nor did anyone in Congress check up on FEMA. In 2009 the Government Accountability Office reported that FEMA turned over as much as two-thirds of premium dollars to insurance companies for administration. (That would leave one-third for payouts to homeowners.) Nor did FEMA enforce audit requirements on insurance companies. And, the agency continues to work with flawed flood maps, though it has promised to correct them in time.
The people of St. Bernard have some powerful allies now. Residents in New York and New Jersey who felt Sandy’s wrath have joined the call to extend the deadline. Hopefully Congress can arrive at a reasonable solution.
Pearlington, Mississippi: Where is the money?
Immediately after Katrina, Martin Horn, owner of a commercial construction company in Charlottesville VA, sees that most relief efforts are going to New Orleans. He wants to use his skills to help, and he finds a town that is struggling to survive. In the course of two years and 25 trips to Pearlington he, along with volunteers from the Building Goodness Foundation, construct shelters, buildings and a recovery center in this community that lies 8 miles north of the Gulf on the Pearl River, halfway between New Orleans and Biloxi.
Eight years after Katrina, Hancock County officials announce that the buy-out program proposed five years ago for people in flood-prone areas is under way and three people have received offers. Originally, $10 million was allotted toward buying out about 110 flood prone properties, but last year the state moved $6 million to other projects because the buyout was not moving fast enough.
Now the state says it will honor the $10 million, if it must, though the buy-outs might not cost as much as originally estimated. Property owners will be offered fair market value based on appraisals, and the list of eligible applicants has been cut in half.
The County warns citizens that progress will be slow. The county has to apply first to MEMA and MEMA has to apply to FEMA and FEMA regularly requests more information and after all this paperwork and waiting, it will take at least six months to a year or longer to get the property appraised and then, if an offer is made. . . there is no appeal, it is a take-it-or-leave-it proposition.
Meanwhile, $36 million has been spent on water and sewer lines, badly needed in a community without water or sewer service, where a high water table can contaminate shallow wells.
Trouble is, the lines are allegedly in areas that the Corps of Engineers considers off limits for housing. Residents wonder why they are not seeing any money and why more consideration isn’t given to flood control.
Chatter on the Internet is brisk about irregularities in the state’s Department of Marine Resources management of funds.
The Mississippi Coast: It’s like we’re in a real bad dream.
Scour the Internet for vacation sites along the Coast and you will have no idea that there was ever a Katrina. Travel magazines call Bay St. Louis one of the Best Little Beach Towns and the Coolest Small Town. Buccaneer State Park in Waveland features, of all things, a half-million-gallon wave pool, water slide and flume.
Casinos in Biloxi are bigger and glitzier than ever now that they are no longer restricted to barges at sea. A new rule allows them to build on land, which means they can offer upscale dining, lodging, entertainment–and gambling–under one roof. Gamblers have come back and the casinos are today the golden goose for Biloxi, boosting employment and contributing a healthy chunk of property taxes to the city.
The Coast has come a long way from that day when a strip of Waveland between shore and railroad tracks disappeared and police officers and staff had to ride out the surge by clutching at trees. Afterwards, county offices – and schools — were housed in donated tents. Paper and pencil replaced computers and personal cell phones substituted for destroyed lines of communications. Police officers patroled the county in pick-up trucks and bikes until donations of vehicles and equipment came in from all over.
And the Rainbow Family, aided by donations from, it seems, everywhere, set up the New Waveland Café and Clinic. Three hot meals a day were offered and volunteer doctors and nurses from all over the country treated 5000 patients in four months free of charge.
A long way, too, from when Pass Christian’s public buildings and fine antebellum homes were destroyed and the city was close to collapse.
Charitable groups made building a day care center possible so people could return to work, and the State of Qatar donated money for a boys and girls club. Today, through pooled resources, the town has a modern complex of schools, a day care center and a boys and girls club in one facility called the Center of Excellence.
A long way, too, from days when Seabees in Gulfport cleared three miles of railroad track to lay a temporary sewer line and then built temporary town offices and temporary housing for a thousand people.
In ten months Mississippi cleaned up more than 10 million tons of debris.
But look beyond the playgrounds of the gulf and there is still sadness. . .
As of 2011 the town of Waveland was heavily in debt. People came back, but the tax base did not recover. Insurance rates soared, sometimes costing more than mortgage payments. Many could not afford to rebuild to code. Nor have part-time residents on valuable beach property rebuilt. Without a solid tax base, police officers and city employees are taking pay cuts or losing their jobs.
The story is much the same in Bay St. Louis and other towns. Some spiffy new homes sit on 20-foot tall cement stilts along Beach Boulevard, but many people can’t afford to rebuild. Here, as in other towns, insurance companies dickered over whether damage was caused by wind or water and took their time awarding stingy settlements.
Remember those signs for the Mockingbird Café? Relief crews wanting a good hot cup of coffee kept the Café alive and well for a while, but now they are gone. Then the Gulf oil spill temporarily scared off tourists. The Café hasn’t broken even for months.
People are angry. Mississippi State Senator David Baria of Bay St. Louis has introduced insurance reform bills in the state legislature for three years running. He is asking for fair policies and fair payment of claims. Insurance companies point out that few settlements have been disputed and they have paid billions in claims for losses by Katrina. Senator Daria can’t get the legislation through committee.
In Biloxi, where casinos are thriving and business is booming, hundreds of people on the north side of the railroad tracks are still living in substandard homes with structural damage, makeshift electricity and plumbing, and mold and mildew. Three years after Katrina, civil rights groups sued the State of Mississippi and the U.S Dept of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). Two years later, in 2010, the state agreed to dedicate $132 million for repairing needs that had already been identified and researching and repairing unidentified needs in nine south Mississippi Counties.
The state apologized for overlooking these needs for five years and made the point that 50,000 homes have already been rebuilt. The state also promised quick action on this last group. (Good people of Pearlington, take note.)
What in the world is going on in Mississippi? After Katrina, the federal government granted 5.4 billion taxpayer dollars to Mississippi, half of which was earmarked for families with low-to-moderate incomes. Surely, creative ways, such as partnering with charitable groups, could be found to stretch funds for rebuilding across the coast.
Governor Haley Barbour has repeatedly requested waivers from HUD to divert federal aid for rebuilding housing to other projects. According to investigative journalist Tim Shorrock, distribution “has been badly skewed toward wealthy homeowners.” Steps Coalition reports that only about $1 billion, or 20 percent, has been spent to aid low-income victims.
Critics point to a parking garage near the MSU football stadium 200 miles inland as an egregious example of misspending. Other projects, they claim, never materialized or failed to create jobs. It took a lawsuit to squeeze $132 million out of the state. As to its promise to speed up aid, that hasn’t appeared to happen. The state is still sitting on almost a billion dollars of unspent funds.
To those children who have lost your childhood, our hearts go out to you.
We hope we have given some small voice to your story.