A Year Later, Gulf Coast Asks 'Where's the Money?'
Hurricane Katrina hit rural Hancock County, Miss., with stronger wind and higher water than anywhere else along the Gulf Coast. More than half of the county's 19,000 homes were destroyed. Most public buildings and businesses were also wiped out. A year later, little of it is back, despite $33 billion in relief funds expected for the Mississippi Gulf Coast.
Millions of dollars have flowed in for emergency response and cleanup. Three million cubic yards of debris have been removed. Power lines are back up and buzzing. The water, sewer and gas systems have been patched together. Some old businesses have reopened, and a few new ones have moved in, including a Lowe's home improvement store, a Home Depot and a Super Wal-Mart.
But few houses have been rebuilt, and the county and town governments are close to bankruptcy. Homeowners and public officials are having difficulty tapping the billions of dollars in funds allocated for recovery.
Visitors to the area are still shocked by what they see. And what they don't see.
"We're looking at an entire neighborhood that's completely destroyed right now," said Charles Varnell, a chaperone for a Virginia church group, as he stood on the skeletal remains of the town pier in Waveland, Miss., in the first week of August. "If you told me this hurricane happened last week, I’d probably believe you; not that it happened a year ago."
Varnell's group of young volunteers had arrived the day before to clean out damaged homes and help with the rebuilding.
"You assume you live in what's supposed to be the greatest country in the world," Varnell said. "And somebody’s going to do something. And here it looks like zero progress."
'All We Got Is Memories Now'
The notion of progress is much more personal for the Bourgeois family, who live seven miles inland from the Waveland pier. Their four-bedroom, two-story home was pushed off its foundation by Katrina's storm surge, leaving it a tattered and moldy mess. Melody Bourgeois, 46, couldn't hold back the tears as she flipped through a small photo album of "after Katrina" pictures showing smashed walls, furniture, an upended car and pickup.
"All we got is memories now," she said. She said the loss of her home has left her "anxious and depressed."
Since November, the Bourgeois family has lived in an 8-foot-by-30-foot trailer provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). They said they are grateful for the shelter but they're desperate to get back into a real house.
"It's miserable," Sandy Bourgeois, 15, said as she pointed to a cramped corner with two bunk beds. "It's making me claustrophobic being in this box."
The Bourgeoises are among 17,000 Mississippians who have applied for $3 billion in grants that are supposed to help hurricane victims rebuild. Congress allocated the money back in January, but checks didn't go out until late August. David Bourgeois still doesn't know if, or when, he'll get help.
"(It) puts a lot of stress on me wondering if things are going to work out, when they're going to work out, what I am going to have to do," Bourgeois said. "It's a serious ordeal. I go sleepless at night a lot of times worrying about what tomorrow's going to bring."
State Slow to Disburse Homeowner Grants
The homeowner grants are designed to help people who lived outside federally designated flood zones, but were flooded anyway by Katrina's unprecedented storm surge. As much as $150,000 is available to each homeowner, minus insurance payments and other money they may have already received for rebuilding.
The Bourgeois family received $16,000 from their insurance company for the loss of their home. They used that money to pay off the mortgage on the home they lost. Then they put up their lot as collateral for a new loan. That loan got them a new foundation and frame. The homeowner grant, they hope, will be enough to finish and furnish the new house.
Thousands of others have also been waiting. Some have given up and moved on. But the long wait for the homeowner grants may be the single biggest reason that lots are still empty a year after the storm. Most people can't rebuild without them.
The money is being distributed by the state of Mississippi. The state is struggling with this Herculean challenge.
"For an agency that normally handles $125 million a year, having to distribute $3 billion is a task," said Scott Hamilton, spokesman for the Mississippi Development Authority. His agency has doubled in size to handle the work. "Getting money into people's hands as soon as possible ... and getting it to the right people is a difficult task."
Fraud is a major concern, said Mississippi Congressman Gene Taylor. He represents Hancock County, and lost his own Bay Saint Louis home during the storm.
"We want to help the people in Mississippi. But we don't want to squander any money," Taylor said. "So, one of the reasons it has taken awhile, is to make sure those people who are asking for it really qualify for it."
Letters notifying applicants of their grant amounts were supposed to start arriving in mailboxes in late August. Checks were expected to arrive shortly thereafter.
Construction on 'Katrina Time'
But even those with the resources to rebuild now face obstacles. Labor and materials costs have doubled, said retiree Bill LeBlanc, who is the volunteer construction foreman for a neighbor trying to rebuild in Bay Saint Louis.
"The cost of building right now is whatever the market bears," LeBlanc said. "The contractors are getting, from what I'm told, anywhere from $100 to $150 a square foot to build right now. Before the storm, you could get a house built for $45 to $60 per square foot."
LeBlanc's neighbor is Mary Perkins, a Hancock County librarian who had lived in the home she lost to Katrina since the age of 5. She didn't wait for a homeowner's grant. Perkins took out a hurricane victim's loan to buy materials. A church youth group is providing labor. But she still needs the homeowner's grant to pay off the mortgage on the house she lost to the storm.
When asked why she decided to rebuild, Perkins said, "Because it's home. Because I’ve been on this ground for 57 years! And I don't want to leave. I'm not leaving!"
Perkins said that people in Bay Saint Louis slip easily into tears.
"It's called 'bay-polar!'" said Jean Larroux, a Bay Saint Louis native who returned after Katrina to establish a church mission. "We laugh and we cry, and we do it back and forth, and everybody here is 'bay-polar.'"
Perkins' determination and ingenuity will probably get her a house before most. But she still faced unexpected delays. Getting a crew to pour the slab for the new house took six weeks because concrete crews are so busy. Electricians and plumbers are also hard to come by. Locals joke about "Katrina time."
"Katrina time is when you have the contractors come by on a Monday, but Monday can be in June or July, or August," Larroux explained.
It's not just contractors. Building inspectors and utility crews can also be difficult to schedule. Some homeowners can't find the water and sewer lines that fed the homes they lost. Katrina washed away utility maps. Crews can spend days searching and digging for lines. But finding the lines is only half the battle. There are often delays waiting for the town or county crews who do the actual water and sewer hookups.
Jimmy Necaise, a utility supervisor for Bay Saint Louis, said he has a waiting list that is four weeks long.
"Trying to get the water and sewage to them, it's hard right now with the labor force we got," Necaise said. "We went from 33 employees to 10. And the amount of work that we got has tripled. We're just way behind."
Local Governments Deep in Debt
Many public workers in Hancock County lost their homes to Katrina. Some chose not to stay. And some were enticed away by recovery jobs paying more than their city or county wages.
Necaise stood above an open pipe clogged with putrid sludge, toilet paper and swarms of cockroaches. He and his crew were waiting for a truck to pump out the sewage so they could replace a pump station ruined by floodwater. Bay Saint Louis, Waveland and the rest of Hancock County have spent millions patching the water and sewer system. But pumps are still failing, with breaks and leaks occurring daily. The entire system needs to be replaced.
Katrina relief money is available for such extensive infrastructure repairs. Officials in Waveland, Bay Saint Louis and Hancock County say they need about $270 million in repairs. Waveland mayor Tommy Longo said that's the legacy of being Katrina's "ground zero."
"There were only 21 houses in the City of Waveland (out of about 3,000) that didn’t receive water," Longo said. We lost every single city building. We lost every city vehicle, every city piece of equipment, every backhoe, track hoe, trencher, even the public works tools. Everything was just obliterated."
But local governments are having trouble tapping the available funds. That's because most of the federal recovery programs require local matching funds, and Hancock County's local governments are just about bankrupt. They can barely meet payroll and provide public services.
"This area needs help," said Rocky Pullman, a tugboat captain who is also president of the Hancock County Board of Supervisors. "I think if we can spend federal dollars to rebuild Iraq or another third-world country, we ought to be sure to rebuild (the) America that we live in."
The towns and the county are in such dire straits because Katrina didn't just bring wind and water. It brought layers of financial ruin. It was the perfect financial storm.
With so many homes and businesses gone, tax revenues are down sharply. Sales tax revenues dropped to zero the first few months after Katrina, when there were few places in the county to actually buy anything. The reopening of some businesses, the arrival of new businesses and the rebuilding that has occurred has resulted in a partial recovery of sales tax revenues. But they were still down 15 percent this summer, compared with a year ago.
The bigger problem is property taxes. With so many homes lost, there are far fewer homes to assess. Property tax revenues are expected to plunge as much as 60 percent next year.
The projected deficits through 2008 for the county and towns are sobering: $30 million for Bay Saint Louis; $45 million for Waveland; $44.5 million for Hancock County. And don't expect the state or federal governments to help, said Charlie Williams, chief of staff to Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour.
"Most all of these federal programs prohibit you from taking care of these administrative expenses, and paying the payroll and so forth," Williams said. "So the federal government can't do it. And I don't think the state government is in a position to do it."
Looking to the Future
In late August, appeals from county and town leaders prompted the Mississippi legislature to provide some relief. The county and towns are now eligible for grants of up to $3 million each to pay their bills. That will help, but it won't erase the current budget deficits. Hancock County governments are still about $11 million short of operating funds for the fiscal year ending Oct. 1.
So town and county officials are still struggling to pay employees and provide basic services. Gov. Barbour has told local officials to cover their operating deficits with borrowed money until tax revenues rebuild. A state and federal program encourages lenders to provide loans to local governments. Bay Saint Louis, Waveland and Hancock County have already borrowed to keep operating. But local officials say that borrowing can't continue indefinitely.
Waveland mayor Tommy Longo believes continued borrowing will burden future generations with today's problems.
"We don't want to strap our grandchildren 25 years down the road, under this heavy debt that they can't come out from under," Longo said.
Mayor Eddie Favre of Bay Saint Louis has a more direct response. He simply doesn't expect to pay back any of the borrowed money.
"We'll borrow everything we can. But we can't guarantee any repayment whatsoever," Favre said. "Unless something drastically changes, we won't be able to."
Neither mayor sees a way out.
"We keep being told, 'Remember no city's ever gone bankrupt because of a natural disaster,'" Waveland's Longo said. "The problem with that is we've seen a lot of firsts because of Katrina. And that's not a great deal of solace to me, quite frankly."
Waveland, Bay Saint Louis and Hancock County need about $27 million combined in local matching funds to get moving on their infrastructure projects. That's less than 1 percent of the $33 billion expected for Katrina recovery in Mississippi.
Private money has helped some. Waveland has 41 sister cities raising money and gear for the city. They're sending police cars, rescue gear and other equipment. The city has also received a little more than $2 million in charitable contributions. Most of that came from a grant by the Bush-Clinton Katrina Fund, managed by former President's George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton.
Waveland is still roughly $7 million short of matching funds. Bay Saint Louis has raised about $150,000 from private groups. Most of the assistance the county and towns have received has been in the form of desperately needed donations of relief supplies and labor from church and charitable groups.
"We're a very resilient community, and we hate to ask for help," Longo said. "This is an old fishing village, basically. So we don't like to ask for help. But we need that boost. You just can't make something out of nothing."
A Real Estate Boom
But signs of progress can be seen in Hancock County. Hollywood Casino is set to reopen in Bay Saint Louis in September, restoring 1,000 jobs and $2 million in annual tax revenues. Home Depot, Lowe's and Wal-Mart have new stores in Waveland. Some smaller stores and restaurants have reopened. And a homebuilding boom is expected when the homeowner grants do arrive.
In fact, there's already a real estate boom. Empty lots, and homes with little damage, are skyrocketing in price. Waveland Mayor Longo has an explanation for the strong interest in a place so completely devastated just a year ago.
"They know this is a 1,500-year storm event. [And] they're not making any [more] waterfront property [elsewhere]," Longo said. "It's a beautiful area on the Gulf of Mexico. And this is a good deal, even though property values are going up."
So, chances are good that tax revenues will rise. The big challenge for Waveland, Bay Saint Louis and the rest of Hancock County, is hanging on until then.
Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.