Miss. Port Expansion Raises Concern, Hope For Jobs In Mississippi, the largest project under construction is the Port of Gulfport, which is using some $500 million in statewide recovery funds from Hurricane Katrina. The state calls it a critical resource, but some residents hit hard by Katrina fear they won't see the benefits.

Miss. Port Expansion Raises Concern, Hope For Jobs

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Now let's talk about who gets the value of a project in Mississippi. The Port of Gulfport was ravaged by Hurricane Katrina six years ago. The state has put about half a billion dollars towards the restoration of that port, calling it a critical resource.

But as NPR's Kathy Lohr reports, some local residents won't see the benefits.

KATHY LOHR: The Port of Gulfport sits just off Highway 90, a main road that runs all along the coast. Katrina's 30-foot storm surge nearly destroyed this facility, which is the size of about 50 city blocks.

Mr. DON ALLEE (Executive Director, Port of Gulfport): It was actually 100 percent useless that day.

LOHR: Don Allee is the Port's executive director.

Mr. ALLEE: There was debris in the channel. You can't bring a ship in if there's debris or anything to compromise the safety of a vessel. A lot of our docks, seven of the 10, they just weren't safe to use.

LOHR: The restoration will increase the size of the port by about 50 percent, deepen the channel, and raise the port's elevation. We can't get too close to the construction but drive nearby with Allee, who says the project will create a bigger economic engine here, especially as the region vies for business related to the expansion of the Panama Canal.

Mr. ALLEE: I think the Port is not only vital to the immediate 20, 30 blocks that surround us. It is vital to the region.

LOHR: The port expansion includes a new access road intended to move truck traffic from the coastal highway to Interstate 10. But the road goes right through a number of working-class neighborhoods, including Villa Del Ray.

Anthony and Eunice Crane's brick home backs up to what will be a new thoroughfare. They've seen several blocks of homes bought up and demolished to make way for the road.

Mr. ANTHONY CRANE: I understand that's your moneymaker, but you know, we live here. They don't live here.

LOHR: There's a picnic table in the yard just off the back deck and Eunice Crane says it's where their six children and seven grandkids get together.

Ms. EUNICE CRANE: It changes a lot because we probably can't hear each other talk.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CRANE: Then you think about the exhaust and all that stuff coming through here.

Ms CRANE: Oh, you know, from the big truck, the diesel smell and all that stuff, you know.

LOHR: The debate in Gulfport is not unlike the controversy surrounding the construction of interstate highways decades ago, which pitted established neighborhoods against economic expansion. But since Katrina, neighbors, activists and pastors are coming together to question plans that really weren't really examined before.

Reverend ANTHONY THOMPSON (Coalition of African American Communities): And I would like to say welcome to our first COAC structure and planning sessions.

LOHR: Pastor Anthony Thompson is part of the Coalition of African American Communities. The group held its first meetings this summer. He knows they can't stop the port road, which was planned well before Katrina hit.

Rev. THOMPSON: We don't want to just complain about the road and why we don't want it here, but we also want to present a plan of something that we think will work.

LOHR: Thompson says the communities affected the most should see some real benefits.

Rev. THOMPSON: So what we're looking to do is create a mixture of self-owned businesses and maybe some franchises, stores that fit what other people in this community are looking for.

LOHR: The pastor is among those who have questioned more than half a billion dollars in federal recovery funds being used to help rebuild the port. In 2008, civil rights groups sued to get the state to spend more money to rebuild low income housing. A settlement was reached, but Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour says the recovery funds were always for more than just housing.

Governor HALEY BARBOUR (Republican, Mississippi): The money was for much more than just housing. The money was to try to bring back the Mississippi Gulf Coast bigger and better than ever. The fact that it coincided with the expansion of the Panama Canal made it the most promising economic development project that we could do to help the coast come back.

LOHR: All along the Mississippi Gulf, housing activists say thousands of homes damaged by Katrina still need to be repaired, but everyone here also knows they need good-paying jobs in order to get people to remain on the coast.

Mr. DONALD EVANS (International Longshoremen's Association): Sometimes you have to make sacrifices.

LOHR: Donald Evans is with the International Longshoremen's Association in Gulfport. His office will be bulldozed to make way for the new port road, and that's a hassle. But Evans says just 20 percent of his union members are back to work since Katrina, so he says the port expansion will be a big help.

Mr. EVANS: Like I say, you know, there's not a whole lot of jobs in Gulfport, especially in Mississippi, that pay $30 dollars an hour, you know, for unskilled and basically uneducated labor.

LOHR: Two thousand jobs are tied directly or indirectly to the Port of Gulfport now, and state officials say that number will double when the expansion is finished in about five years. But some question the estimates and whether those who live here will actually get the jobs.

Kathy Lohr, NPR News.

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