Bake Sales for Biloxi

Out of the media spotlight that New Orleans enjoys, Mississippi's Gulf Coast towns depend on fragile private efforts to come back from Katrina -- five years later.

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Mississippi - Photo by Shawn Escoffery

In Moss Point, Miss., about 30 miles east of Biloxi, the Prairie family needs materials to finish repairing their home destroyed by Hurricane Katrina. Unlike New Orleans, where 80 percent of the housing stock was flooded because of faulty levees, areas in coastal Mississippi took a direct hit from Katrina. In their case, 175-mph winds tore roofs off houses, emptied homes of their contents, and sent cars and trees through spaces where roofs once existed. And they sustained flooding.

The Prairies are victims not only of that carnage but also of a system of neglect in Mississippi that five years later still hasn't provided enough replacement affordable housing. For $8,000 you can adopt the Prairies through the Adopt-A-Family Project, set up by the Mississippi Case Management Consortium. The Prairies will use the $8,000 to finish the house themselves.

But they are just one of more than 5,000 families who have been overlooked by government recovery funding in cities and communities that have been overlooked by national media coverage. So while Mississippi coastal communities have suffered from an incomplete disaster recovery much like their Big Easy sister, they, along with other Gulf Coast communities like Mobile, Ala., and Houma, La., have not been placed under a national lens in the same way.

So in some ways their recovery prospects are worse. The window for federal Katrina recovery money closes this year, with Congress seeking ways to take back what hasn't been used. There are no Brad Pitts in Mississippi to build fancy houses or Lenny Kravitzes to do benefit concerts.

You Can Always Have a Bake Sale

The Adopt-A-Family program is well-intentioned, and without it many families would be adding to the growing list of homeless people in the state. However, it transfers the responsibility from government to already overtaxed citizens and overburdened charities to make Katrina-devastated families whole again. On its Web site, the program suggests creative ways that an adopter can come up with the cash, including "Host a bake sale/car wash/lemonade stand to collect money to Adopt A Family."

It's going to take a lot of lemonade to help struggling communities such as Moss Point, East Biloxi and Gulfport, where the highest concentrations of low-income and African-American populations live. According to the Mississippi Center for Justice report "Hurricane Katrina: How Will Mississippi Turn the Corner?" these are also the communities with the largest concentrations of families with unmet recovery needs.

The report also makes the case for "invisibles," those who never sought state assistance because of their own lack of access to the programs, their lack of knowledge or their own disability. At the same time, money spent by the state on housing also became more and more invisible as the years went by. The U.S. Government Accountability Office reported in 2009 that Mississippi decreased allocations for housing by almost $800 million from 2006 to 2008.

Spending on state economic-development programs has far outpaced that spent on housing in the past two years. Mid-2010 goals to produce 5,740 units of affordable housing ran short by more than 2,500 houses. Even the "Katrina Cottage" program -- low-cost, modular homes -- touted as one of the state's more successful programs, has produced only 550 of those units, when 2,242 were scheduled for completion this year.

There's always those bake sales, an idea for which the report says, "As well-meaning as this online appeal may be, Mississippi cannot be permitted to place further demands upon private charity to house our citizens when the state diverted vast housing resources to other uses that still remain unspent."

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