May 13 2011
By Gerald Blessey, guest columnist
Mississippi's response a model for disaster recovery
Mississippi's response to Hurricane Katrina is a model for disaster recovery. Gov. Haley Barbour's pragmatic and compassionate leadership set a new national standard for managing disasters.
In Mississippi's Katrina response, something historic is happening, defying the stereotype of "Mississippi last" - the spirit and leadership of Mississippians are turning adversity into renaissance.
Before the debris was cleared, Gov. Barbour, U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran and former Sen. Trent Lott and our entire congressional delegation urged the federal government to fund an unprecedented public/private response to this massive storm, much like the post-World War II Marshall Plan that our nation used to remake Germany into an economic powerhouse. Six years later, I'm pleased to say Mississippi is nearing completion of such a plan, to national acclaim.
Our generous nation granted more than $5 billion in discretionary Community Development Block Grants. The state chose to fund three overall recovery priorities: replenish housing stock; rebuild and strengthen public infrastructure; and create projects that retain and attract jobs.
From the start, Gov. Barbour made it clear that Mississippians, especially in impacted communities, would lead this effort. He established the Governor's Commission on Recovery, Rebuilding and Renewal, which brought together local leaders to craft a plan to help their towns recover.
He established a Disaster Recovery Division within the Mississippi Development Authority led by financial professionals from the private sector. Chief Operations Officer Jon Mabry and the MDA team implemented a management model based on both internal and external performance timelines, budgets and accountability - all with a remarkably low fraud rate of less than one-tenth of one percent.
Mississippi has targeted much of the recovery spending toward housing needs. Homeowners Assistance Grants helped almost 30,000 Mississippi families who suffered hurricane surge damage. Of the 40,000 families that were living in FEMA trailers, less than 25 remain. About 7,000 affordable rental units have been constructed or rehabilitated. For very low-income families, Public Housing Authorities are near completion of nearly 3,000 units, nearly 1,000 more than pre-Katrina. About 1,200 Mississippi Cottages have been converted from temporary to permanent homes.
The Gulf Coast Business Council established the Gulf Coast Renaissance Corporation, a community-based non-profit organization that has leveraged public funds with private sector mortgages for more than 600 working families.
These are families, who because of higher post-storm insurance premiums and other factors, otherwise could not obtain financing to buy a home.
For our final housing program, primarily home repairs for elderly and disabled, the state collaborated with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Mississippi Center for Justice to design the Neighborhood Home Program. In conjunction, MCJ dismissed the lawsuit that challenged HUD's approval of the $600 million State Port at Gulfport restoration and expansion project.
More than 250 brick and mortar CDBG projects to rebuild or strengthen municipal services - fire, police, water, sewer - are either complete or under way. Programs are restoring our business climate, protecting jobs at places like our state's largest employer, Ingalls Shipyard, and laying the groundwork for what will likely become our state's top employment generator: the port at Gulfport.
Meanwhile, we were hit with two of the country's worst man-made disasters: a severe national economic downturn and last year's Gulf oil spill.
South Mississippi must now use our Katrina recovery efforts not just to offset the stagnant economy and oil spill, but to be the catalyst for long-term growth as well. It's time to fully transition from a successful housing recovery into a robust economic recovery.
Going forward we need two things: continued community-wide collaboration and renewal of the beauty and quality of our communities.
Governments, non-profits, advocacy groups and private business must continue working with one another, as we have for the past five years, with mutual respect and innovation.
We must concentrate on common interests and common goals for community development. Especially today in a global economy, we Mississippians must not allow ourselves to become divided by jurisdictional, ideological, ethnic or geographic boundaries. Essentially this cooperative attitude is about putting our communities first, taking pride in their beauty, and taking pride in diversity and inclusiveness to ensure that all share fairly in progress.
Leland Speed, who led MDA in the aftermath of the storm, recently returned as MDA director. He is one of the state's most accomplished business leaders, head of publicly traded real estate companies. As Leland often points out, communities that take pride in themselves look better, feel better and overall create an aura of success that attracts people and new business.
When economic development prospects come calling, the first communities on their list are places with revitalized downtowns where lots of people live and where nightlife and entertainment are commonplace. They have many attractive parks and public spaces and have walkable, beautifully landscaped neighborhoods, shopping centers and other amenities that say this is a great place to visit and a great place live.
To be sure, job development also depends on good public facilities, good transportation, affordable housing, excellent schools and higher education. Indeed, we've applied our recovery funds to those things. But, the next and perhaps most critical step in our recovery will be making our communities attractive, exciting places to be.
Downtown Gulfport is already at the forefront, implementing many of the principles of New Urbanism. At the request of Gulfport's leaders, Gov. Barbour provided recovery funds to repair and restore the facades of historic downtown Gulfport buildings.
Coastwide, we need other new initiatives like renovation of old strip malls and empty commercial buildings. Just about every town has old strip malls and other old buildings that are empty and blighted, often at the gateway to communities. Well-landscaped restoration of these facilities with mixed use for housing and business enterprises will make them attractive and integral to community life.
Gov. Barbour's recovery plan has set us on the right track, addressing a variety of critical needs, setting a national standard for recovery. Yet the plan alone isn't enough. The Marshall Plan alone didn't turn Germany into the world's fourth-largest economy
It is the people's enthusiasm and pride in their communities, working together, led by visionary business and governmental leaders that turn recovery into renaissance.
From the misfortune of Hurricane Katrina lies an incredible opportunity. The plan has given us a foundation. It's up to us to build upon it. If we do this work well, Mississippi will become first on every good list.
Gerald Blessey is director of Gulf Coast Housing for the Mississippi Development Authority. He is a former state legislator and former mayor of the city of Biloxi.