Looking to Rebuild on the Mississippi Coast

Melissa Block talks with Rep. Gene Taylor (D-MS), who lost his home in Bay St. Louis when Hurricane Katrina hit last week. He represents much of Mississippi's Gulf Coast, and has been on the scene since the storm, surveying damage and monitoring the recovery efforts. Taylor, an outspoken critic of the way FEMA responded to the disaster, says the devastation is vast — but he's eager to rebuild.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

Now to the Mississippi Gulf Coast where, despite the improving relief efforts, conditions remain extremely difficult. Congressman Gene Taylor's district includes the entire Mississippi coastline, including the towns of Bay Saint Louis and Waveland. He says many of his constituents are still sleeping by the side of the road.

Representative GENE TAYLOR (Democrat, Mississippi): It's fair to say that well over 80 percent of the people in Bay Saint Louis and Waveland in particular, but most of--and almost all of Hancock County have lost their homes. They're not damaged. They're gone. And so at this point, we're--What?--eight days into it. And last time I looked, there were about seven ...(unintelligible) in all of Hancock County. A heck of a lot of people camping out if they could find a tent. As you know, the Wal-Mart was looted down here, so people are eating the food that was taken out of there, wearing the clothes that were taken out of there, in some instance, camping in the tents and the camping equipment that was taken from there.

Now in the good side, the National Guard has done a phenomenal job in these eight days of cleaning up the streets. I never could have guessed they could have done so much so quickly.

BLOCK: Congressman, last week, you had voiced concern about the National Guard troop level presence, and especially considering that a number of troops are in Iraq right now and that that may have been hampering the relief effort. Do you still feel that's the case?

Rep. TAYLOR: No. Thank goodness, I think the manpower shortages have actually been solved. We have over 4,000 Mississippi Guardsman in Iraq today, and so for the initial responders, we were very much in trouble. We now have actually more Guardsmen in Mississippi than we've sent to Iraq. One of the troubles, though--and I would encourage you to check the Congressional Record--when our engineering unit came home from the initial phase of the Iraq War, I reminded the Secretary of Defense that they were told to leave their heavy equipment behind. Just today, I ran into the commanding officer of that unit. He tells me that the day the storm struck, they still only had 65 percent of what they had prior to going to Desert Storm, so, again, the Guard, I think, has done a remarkable job.

The villains here are FEMA. The FEMA representative in my home county, I'm going to personally ask that he no longer be on the federal payroll. He has made some boneheaded decisions that could have risked people's lives, I hope didn't cost anyone's lives, and certainly cost the taxpayers millions of dollars as the Guard and Reserve had to devise plans to literally get around his decision-making process, deliver things by helicopter rather than using vehicles, because if they used vehicles, they would have to go through FEMA.

BLOCK: What decisions are you talking about that you're so critical of?

Rep. TAYLOR: Well, the one in particular was he wanted all the food to be handed out in just one place. And as we kept encouraging him to go to the smaller communities throughout Hancock County, he said, `No, I won't go unless there's National Guardsmen to protect the stuff.' Well, by this time, we already had well over 100 law enforcement officers from Florida. And I said, `Look, send it down with the Florida policemen and they'll guard it. We don't have any rioting. This is not Louisiana. We all know each other here.' And he wouldn't, waiting on Guardsmen that didn't exist, because they're in Iraq. So the National Guard, thank goodness, took things into their own hands, started taking food directly off the trucks, putting it on helicopters, again, a very expensive way to deliver food, but also a fast way.

So because of the FEMA screw-up, the National Guard has logged thousands of unnecessary flying hours, millions of dollars worth of fuel, probably endangered the lives of those crews. Ninety-nine percent of this food could have been delivered by Humvee. That in particular, particularly when I kept telling the guy, `The Mississippi Guard is in Iraq. You're wasting your time. We have lots of highway patrolmen to guard it.' And that one decision, I guarantee, needlessly cost the taxpayers over a million dollars.

BLOCK: What can you tell us about the search for victims, and what would you expect the casualty count to be in your county, in Hancock County?

Rep. TAYLOR: Well, again, I know the hard number as of last night was 35. They're still out. Again, we've been blessed with volunteers from all over the country. The New Yorkers have sent teams down with dogs. I know as recently as yesterday, they had found two people who miraculously were still alive a week to the day after the storm. And so, again, I'm sure they will find some more people.

BLOCK: You mentioned this hard number of 35 found so far. Are you expecting that that number will go up?

Rep. TAYLOR: Yeah. I regret to say that. It's probably safe to say that number will at least double.

BLOCK: Congressman Taylor, thanks very much for talking with us today.

Rep. TAYLOR: Well, thank you.

BLOCK: Democratic Congressman Gene Taylor represents Mississippi's 4th District, a district that includes the entire Mississippi coastline.

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