Reports: Mississippi's Poor Shut Out from Katrina Aid

Recent reports suggest some Mississippi Gulf Coast residents are still without federal aid following Hurricane Katrina. Some residents argue that wealthier citizens are benefiting more significantly from relief aid. Ashley Tsongas, an aid advisor and Gulfport, Miss., Mayor Brent Warr respond to the reports.

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CHERYL CORLEY, host:

I'm Cheryl Corley. Michel Martin is away. This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Coming up, our discussion continues about the economic status of blacks born into middle-class families.

But first, after Hurricane Katrina, Congress dedicated billions of dollars for rebuilding the Gulf Coast. The funds came with the requirement that half of it be spent on helping low to moderate income citizens. Mississippi received nearly five and a half billion dollars in federal grants. But there are reports that Mississippi has only spent about 10 percent of the federal money so far on helping low-income residents, while significantly more of that money has been spent on programs that had benefited wealthier citizens and big businesses.

Well, joining me now to talk about this is Brent Warr, the mayor of Gulfport, Mississippi, one of the state's hardest hit cities. He joins us from one of the city's government - city government's temporary office trailers. And Ashley Tsongas, a policy adviser for the aid group Oxfam America, she joins us from Boston, Massachusetts.

Welcome to both of you.

Mayor BRENT WARR (Republican, Gulfport, Mississippi): Good morning. Thank you.

Ms. ASHLEY TSONGAS (Policy Adviser, Oxfam America): Thank you. Glad to be here.

Mayor WARR: Good to be here. Thank you.

CORLEY: Yes. Mayor Warr, why don't we begin with you? Tell us about the state of Gulfport now. Give us a picture. How much of the area has been rebuilt?

Mayor WARR: Well, we're still in the recovery mode. We're beginning to rebuild, and it is going actually very well. You know, it was a tremendous - there was a tremendous devastation, and we're trying to assess, you know, really the best way to come back so that we can try to come back better than we were before.

CORLEY: Mm-hmm.

Mayor WARR: That's very complicated, but it's doing well. Thank you.

CORLEY: How much damage actually remains in the city?

Mayor WARR: Oh, my Lord. You know, there was approximately five million cubic yards of debris that had to be removed.

CORLEY: Hmm.

Mayor WARR: We've completed the majority of that. Still have some homes that need to be demolished that were derelict and left in unusable condition. We have about a hundred million dollars worth of infrastructure repair south of the railroad tracks. That's within probably the first 2,000 feet of the shoreline there.

CORLEY: To still do?

Mayor WARR: Oh, yes. Oh, gosh, yeah. You know, it's amazing, nationally, I know there may be a perception that the storm is over and the recovery is complete. But we're nowhere near that state as yet.

CORLEY: Mm-hmm. Ashley Tsongas, Oxfam America has been very critical of how federal money has been distributed in Mississippi's rebuilding efforts. So explain. Where do you believe the breakdown is?

Ms. TSONGAS: Well, I believe along with the members of the Steps Coalition, which is a coalition of about 50 organizations, local and national organizations that are working to restore the coast of Mississippi, we believe that the priority in the beginning was really given to economic redevelopment, especially of the casinos, and then a subset of homeowners who were need of rebuilding. Now, not that either of those were unworthy choices for funds, but just that the exclusion of other households and the continued exclusion of these households from assistance is really problematic.

CORLEY: And why do you think the dollars haven't got to some of the neediest people?

Ms. TSONGAS: Well, in many cases, it's the way that the programs have been designed. For example, there's no assistance right now for wind-damaged homeowners. There are over 30,000 households that received wind damage. Ten thousand of those certainly do not have adequate insurance, and none of them are right now eligible for assistance. And as we know, the more - the lower your income, the less likely you are to be able to afford insurance or adequate insurance to insure your home. So those are the kinds of folks that are currently being left out with no program yet to serve them.

CORLEY: Well, we asked for a response from Governor Haley Barbour, and his office sent us a statement. It says that recovery can't succeed in a vacuum and that assistance for homeowners and infrastructure recovery has to occur simultaneously. It also says that 41 percent of the housing grants distributed have been for households with income at or below 80 percent of the average median income.

And, in addition, the statement says they will build 16,000 units of public and rental housing for low to moderate income families, and that work for these housing programs will add at least another 3,000 homes. And quoting here, there are ample funds and housing programs to accommodate all eligible needs. Everyone who qualifies gets help. No shortage of funds. No diversions.

Is that enough in your mind, Ashley?

Ms. TSONGAS: No, it's not. I think it's solving the problem as you define it rather than solving the problem itself. If, you know, one of the - one part of that phrase was, you know, those who qualify will receive assistance. Well, if you have wind damage, you don't qualify, so therefore, you don't receive assistance. That leaves out, you know, thousands and thousands of households, many of whom are quite little low income.

Currently, there is also not enough programs in place, no funding in the pipeline to really assist people who are very low-income renters. So we're not seeing the numbers of units that need to come back in order to re-house people. I mean, there are 14 - approximately 14,000 households still in FEMA trailers right now. And as we know, all the problems with formaldehyde and simply just living in something that was not designed for a long-term - as a long-term residence, and yet the solutions for that had been to shut down the trailer parks rather than to try to find long-term housing solutions for them. So that's - it's just simply not adequate, and which is why the diversion of funding at this point is so shocking.

CORLEY: Mayor Warr, I know you're not a state official, but is there more to the picture than as Ashley is painting it?

Mayor WARR: Yes. There's a lot more to the picture. A lot of it is truth. I'm appalled at the some of the statements that made, because they're actually just inaccurate. The truth of the matter is the figures that are - that we just heard are probably the party line figures, but they're certainly not the accurate figures.

The reality of the recovery here is that every - you know, that Katrina was an equal opportunity disaster, and everyone was affected by it. And the recovery was - has been managed pretty comprehensively over the entire coast.

CORLEY: So what's inaccurate? That she's - what she's saying that's wrong?

Mayor WARR: Oh, the number of people that are in FEMA trailers is - is far less than was just stated. And the recovery and, you know, there's been a huge disaster, and there's a far greater issue here that needs to be discussed and worked on and reported on. It has to do with the wind insurance and the disaster that has to do with, you know, how policies are managed and the wind versus water, which came first.

In a disaster like this, where you had winds in excess of 150 miles an hour for nearly six hours and the storm surge of nearly 26 feet, everything that was in harm's way was destroyed. And to be able to come in at the, you know, two years after the disaster from the sidelines and try to criticize the specific elements of the recovery is kind of inaccurate. I'd be interested to know when my friend who is on this panel with me was last in them in the city of Gulfport (unintelligible).

CORLEY: I'm going to let you answer that, Ashley, in just a moment. But I'm Cheryl Corley, in for Michel Martin. If you're just joining us, I'm talking with Gulfport, Mississippi Mayor Brent Warr about how federal dollars are being spent to help rebuild after Hurricane Katrina. Also joining us is Ashley Tsongas from the aid group, Oxfam America.

As I understand, Ashley, you've traveled to Mississippi but you might want to answer the mayor's question directly.

Ms. TSONGAS: Yes, I'm happy to answer that. I was just there a few weeks ago, and I've been going down regularly since right after the storm. We actually have two staff members who live and work in Biloxi. And again, as I say, I'm member of the Steps Coalition. These are not simply Oxfam America's positions, but really a consensus of at least 50 organizations in the coast. Clergy have spoken out about this. We have bishops and reverends and into the state about this, a real concerned about what happens when we do not address specific housing needs of some of our most vulnerable residents.

Now, I certainly do not agree - or do not disagree with the idea that we need to have a comprehensive recovery and certainly economic development, and redevelopment is part of that, that the devastation was huge and that, indeed, we are all learning as we go in trying to figure out how to do this. But I think one of the lessons that we can learn from other disasters is that, if there isn't specific attention paid to the housing needs of the lowest income folks in the area, then those are the ones who tend to get left behind and actually get stuck in FEMA trailers for years and years, which I know is, you know, what no one wants to see.

And, certainly, I know that the city officials have been working quite hard to address these issues, but they - we have to be very careful about how we allocate funding, because often it's the people…

CORLEY: But…

Ms. TSONGAS: …who need help the most who do not receive the funding.

CORLEY: But let me ask you, Ashley. Doesn't economic development really help everyone in the region?

Ms. TSONGAS: Certainly, economic development helps everyone in the region. I mean, one large question is how much is economic development going to help somebody who goes home to a FEMA trailer and can't get into a real home? And is that economic development going to help them enough to help them rebuild their house? It's a large question.

The other is, you know, are we talking about - if we're talking about elderly and disabled people who are still in FEMA trailers, is economic development going to help them to get back into their house? And that's a question.

But the other question, the specific proposal at hand is not simply a rebuilding of a port, but it's a dramatic expansion of a port that's very costly given a number of jobs that are being created. I mean, if you look…

CORLEY: Let me - get back to Mayor Warr, then. You have focused much of your attention on rebuilding your city's port. Why have you made this a priority? And do you see needs that aren't being addressed?

Mayor WARR: Absolutely. The workers who work at the state Port of Gulfport make the same hourly wage as the workers who work at the Port of New York. So we're talking about giving individuals who have an opportunity to have a career and a profession, not just a menial laborer job.

We can create careers for individuals, who, by virtue of that, do not any longer fall within the poverty cycle. And it's interesting to say that where it's been quoted that the individuals that work at the port are not the lowest income individuals. That's right, because when they get a job there, they bring themselves up financially. And that is a very attractive opportunity for our city and for our state. And if we neglect that, then shame on us.

CORLEY: Let me ask you…

Mayor WARR: Truth of the matter is there's a large percentage of vacant trailers in these FEMA trailer parks, and it's becoming fewer and fewer on a daily basis. So that process is actually being managed quite well.

CORLEY: I only have a few moments left. Mayor Warr, the wounds from the storm are deep. Many remember the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina as an example of racial injustice, particularly in New Orleans. Many of the poorest residents in Gulfport are African-American. How do you respond to concerns about discrimination?

Mayor WARR: Well, there's been none here in Gulfport or in Mississippi. We've not cried. We've not accused people in any venue of ignoring us, and we've just gotten to work and brought ourselves back. And we've had great aid from our federal and our state local officials.

CORLEY: Ashley, how do you weigh in on that?

Ms. TSONGAS: Well, I would say given that North Gulfport, Soria City, the Quarters, Gaston Point and Magnolia Grove, all historically African-American neighborhoods which are primarily wind-damaged homes who have not received assistance, I do think that we are really looking at a serious issue of who's being neglected in this recovery.

CORLEY: All right. Well, thank you to you both - Gulfport Mayor Brent Warr and Ashley Tsongas, a policy adviser for the aid group Oxfam America.

Thank you both for joining us.

Mayor WARR: Thank you so much.

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