Mississippi Governor Sees Opportunity in Rebuilding

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The Magnolia State suffered billions of dollars of damage from Hurricane Katrina. Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour talks with Melissa Block about how his state is recovering.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

I talked with the governor of Mississippi, Republican Haley Barbour. He was in his office in the capital, Jackson. We started by talking about housing.

Governor HALEY BARBOUR (Mississippi): We've got 36,000 travel trailers serving as temporary housing, which we were glad to get. But, frankly, it's not a very good solution, because the travel trailers are not built to withstand bad weather, thunderstorms, much less hurricanes.

BLOCK: The people who are in those FEMA trailers are supposed to be in them for 18 months. Do you think that's a realistic timeframe, and where would they go after that?

Governor BARBOUR: Well, first of all, I don't think a lot of these travel trailers will last 18 months. They're not built to be lived in. You know, they're built for people to use two or four weeks a year, maybe two months a year. They're not really built to be lived in day in and day out, 365 days a year. So we will need temporary or transitional housing for years on the coast. We, according to the Red Cross, lost about 70,000 units of housing. And these FEMA trailers won't fill the gap to get us to where we have rebuilt real housing.

BLOCK: When you have a storm of this magnitude, wiping out so much of the Mississippi Gulf Coast, you end up with basically a clean slate for redeveloping that coast. What's the vision for the state?

Governor BARBOUR: They say in the Chinese language that the symbol for danger is the same symbol as the symbol for opportunity. I never have known whether that was really true or not, but it ought to be true. And in Mississippi, that symbol's Katrina. And what we're seeing is everybody intends to come back bigger and better, and that's the theme of what we're doing, that the Gulf Coast is going to come back bigger and better than ever.

We're going to make the coast a world-class destination resort, but also the industrial and the commercial areas down there are just popping. And we're really optimistic. Our biggest problem, as I say, is affordable housing and being able to get labor to do the rebuilding and the construction of the new projects. And there will be a lot of new projects.

BLOCK: There are people, of course, though, who would say, you know, bigger is not necessarily better. What's to keep big interests, big developers, maybe hotels or casinos from building in places where maybe just single-family homes were before, people who don't have the money to rebuild on the coast?

Governor BARBOUR: Well, the coast is about 75 miles across. And the coast is going to change some. But they're going to -- in an area that wide, 75 miles, I mean 75 miles of developed area, 90 miles all told, you're going to have a mixture. We have a very mixed economy, and I think you will see mixed development, which is healthy. The main thing is the decisions about that development are going to be made by local people. They're not going to be imposed by the governor or the legislature or anybody else. The private sector and the local people will do that through zoning, building codes.

BLOCK: And do you figure that you'll end up with communities, as is predicted for New Orleans, that will be substantially smaller, shrunken?

Governor BARBOUR: No, the coast'll grow. There was a Gallup poll taken in October, where the headlines in the paper, 39 percent of the people from New Orleans who evacuated say they won't go back. Well, that same poll, which didn't have any -- wasn't considered newsworthy, 96 percent of Mississippians who evacuated said they had either already come back or intended to.

BLOCK: As busy as you are, dealing still with Katrina six months later, you've also got to be thinking about the hurricane season to come, and I wonder what lessons you learned last year that you may incorporate into any plans you're making this year.

Governor BARBOUR: We had a good plan. Of course, nobody could have a plan that could work with perfection when you get hit by the worst natural disaster in American history, and, you know, so this was double-barreled romping, stomping trouble, and our systems didn't all work well. But because we did have a good plan, we were able to adjust and adapt. And it's terrible we had 216 people killed. But the fact that that's all it was knocks you down when you take a look at what happened on the ground, the utter obliteration. It looked like an atomic weapon was shot off in the sound and flattened everything for 75 miles.

We're now deep into the planning for the next hurricane season, and the planning is hugely complicated by the fact that we have 36,000 travel trailers that are much more vulnerable to bad weather than homes are. So we have to think about more evacuations, probably earlier triggers on evacuations. We also are going to have more people on the Gulf Coast who don't have transportation, which means that we will have to use more buses from more school systems farther away, which means we'll have to put them in motion earlier, which means we'll miss a lot of days of school if we have any kind of hurricane activity after the middle of August.

But that's just what you have to do. You've got to be safe, better safe than sorry. And we're going to continue to pray for the best, but we're going to plan for the worst. That's what we did last time, and that's what we're going to do now.

BLOCK: Governor Barbour, good to talk to you. Thanks very much.

Governor BARBOUR: Take care. Bye.

BLOCK: That's Mississippi governor Haley Barbour, a Republican, talking with us from Jackson.

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