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."
"People are looking at this as, 'This is year five and we're done,' but an important slug that's missing is housing," says Reilly Morse, an attorney for the Mississippi Center for Justice. "There is an awful lot of media pressure and public relations pressure to tie this up in a bow and say it's done, but the information out there says that the best-case scenario is that this will take at least another year."
Money for Housing Taken Away
One of the more controversial financial decisions of the state came when Governor Haley Barbour decided in 2007 to pull more than $600 million from housing allocations — with the U.S. Housing and Urban Development agency's blessing — to put into a port-expansion project. This frustrated housing advocates, especially those working on behalf of families who were still out a home. The state went on to pull another $200 million from housing for an economic-development project.
The demand for affordable housing got so bad that the state's business community wrote a letter to the governor telling him that he had to fund places for their workers to live. A Gulf Coast housing czar was appointed in 2008 to get the state back on track, and since then, spending on housing has improved but still pales in comparison with non-housing spending.
"I understand that port expansion and economic development are supposed to bring jobs, but the job to produce housing is still left undone," says Bill Stallworth, Biloxi's lone African-American city councilman, and one of just three in the city's history. "The money came down with full gubernatorial discretion, and the understanding was that he could cut through the red tape and get money straight to the people more quickly. It didn't happen that way."
"If it had not been for the faith-based organizations, the Gulf Coast would not be at the level of recovery that it currently is," says Dr. Alice Graham, executive director of the Mississippi Interfaith Disaster Task Force. "The churches are still the first place that many go to for help, so church budgets have been strained."
A lack of media coverage has also affected the recovery by leaving the impression that there's been no urgent need here. This slight has not escaped Mississippi advocates' attentions. "We've had to fight to get the recognition that this was ground zero, just 30 miles from where Katrina hit in Bay St. Louis," says James Crowley, president of the Biloxi NAACP. "The worst of what those winds did was in Biloxi, and we had no Red Cross here. FEMA was out in west Biloxi, where little damage occurred. Here, where people lost homes, cars, family members — there was nothing."
While there's been no HBO drama series like Treme that tells Mississippians' stories, director Spike Lee did travel here to film for his new documentary, If God Is Willing and Da Creek Don't Rise, a sequel to his first Katrina documentary, When the Levees Broke. However, there is a fear that if non-New Orleans communities don't secure more resources and attention now, they'll soon be forgotten altogether.
"It's the fifth anniversary of Katrina, and people are sick of hearing about it," says Stallworth. "People in government are sick of talking about it, and everyone wants to move on. The problem is that there are a whole bunch of people who can't move on, and so as the press moves on and the government closes the door, there are plenty of folk here who will be left out in the cold."
Brentin Mock, a frequent contributor to The Root, is based in New Orleans.