Hurricane Katrina

A WAR (of words) BETWEEN THE STATES

Numerous recent national and regional media reports and opinions stop just short of saying Mississippi has stolen federal Katrina-recovery dollars from Louisiana.

"Mississippi might as well have grabbed the (New Orleans) levee loot; it certainly grabbed everything else," penned Times-Picayune staff writer James Gill in a column titled "Cleaning up, the Mississippi way." Although national media reports weren't as blunt, the message was similar: Per capita, Mississippians have made out like bandits in federal Katrina-relief spending.

But is it true? Per capita, have we received more?

That's questionable.

About 65,000 homes in Mississippi were destroyed (not just "damaged" as numerous news outlets are reporting) by Katrina. About 205,000 homes in Louisiana were damaged either with "major" or "severe" damage, according to the state's Web site. It also noted that of the 205,000 homes, 169,000 had major or severe flooding. The number includes 82,000 rental units.

The U.S. Government Accountability Office says federal hurricane-relief spending to date is about $116 billion.

Mississippi has received about $23.5 billion of that total, including money that went to repair federal facilities here.

Though no one in Louisiana appears to have a firm number on how much has been spent there, it would be reasonable to assume the bulk of the remaining $92.5 billion Mississippi wasn't able to "grab" went to Louisiana.

Conservatively assuming Louisiana received only $75 billion of that spending, that would put Louisiana slightly ahead, per capita, of those who lost their homes, at $366,000 in federal spending for each. Mississippi's total federal spending amounts to $361,000 per devastated homeowner.

Now, some pundits who are lamenting Louisiana being shortchanged use the total population of Louisiana, which dwarfs that of Mississippi. But another way to look at that would be that a far larger percentage of Mississippians were harmed by Katrina.

Those leveling the complaints about Mississippi also use only federal Community Development Block Grant funding, from U.S. Housing and Urban Development, as their basis. Louisiana received $10.4 billion; Mississippi, $5.5 billion. Using the number of destroyed homes, Mississippians averaged $84,600 each; Louisianians, only $50,500 each.

So if there is a disparity, why?

Louisiana 'whining'

Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour believes it's because Mississippi had a plan when it went to Congress, hat in hand, after Katrina.

"We presented a very specific, reasonable request... ," Barbour said. "We didn't ask for everything we ever dreamed of, multiplied by two."

Louisiana, Barbour noted, "said they should get $250 billion, about two months after the storm." Barbour and others at the time said this request from Louisiana, made by Sen. Mary Landrieu, made it hard to get any additional relief funding from Congress at the time. "Everybody in Washington was offended," Barbour said.

Louisiana's initial request after Katrina included spending for improvements at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge and other projects of dubious relation to Katrina.

During a recent meeting with the Sun Herald, Barbour went off on what he called the "whining" in Louisiana that Mississippi got too large a share.

"One of the things they used was that the number of schools in Mississippi that were still closed by December in 2005 compared to the number of schools that were closed in Louisiana was just a tiny fraction," Barbour said. "Of course it was, because we had all our schools back open. We worked our tails off. We had all our schools back open before New Orleans had one back open."

And though Mississippi schools were open, children were, and are, attending in temporary trailers used as classrooms because their schools were destroyed.

"So what's the idea? Are they supposed to punish us for getting our schools back open quickly? That's their mentality: 'Somebody do this for me,'

" Barbour said. "Down here, people said, 'We're going to do this for ourselves, and we hope you'll help us,' and that's what happened."

But, Barbour said, he doesn't bear any ill will toward New Orleanians.

"New Orleans was a very important part of many people in Mississippi's lives," Barbour said, noting he "went to New Orleans seven times" during one semester of college which, "is probably why my grades weren't what they should have been."

Ironic envy

Of the Louisiana complaints, U.S. Sen. Trent Lott said, "I don't know if it's justified, but I don't think it's helpful." He said such sniping is not going on between Mississippi's and Louisiana's congressional delegations.

"Our congressional delegations work well, across party lines," Lott said. "I think Louisiana people would have to acknowledge that a good chunk of the money they have gotten is because of the efforts of Sen. (Thad) Cochran, with some help from myself and others."

Lott said, "I'm not going to say anything negative about Louisiana. I feel sorry for them. But one thing they are going to have to answer for is the difference in attitude. They have complained and whined and focused on who else got what. If they would just focus on what they need, they'd be better off."

Reilly Morse, a member of the Steps Coalition community advocacy agency, said, "There's merit to the complaint," when you look at per capita spending on housing. But he said Louisiana and Mississippi sniping at each other about it is "heartbreaking."

"I think there have been some successful efforts to divide advocates for a fair and equitable recovery along state lines, along party lines - because Louisiana's delegation is primarily Democratic and Mississippi's Republican - and along racial lines and class lines," Morse said. "Any time we do that, we are failing ourselves. We are all United States citizens.... My view is that, if Mississippi residents need that much (CDBG spending) to recover, then that ought to be the benchmark for the entire region. If Mississippi has indeed gotten more, then even it out and help them."

Gulf Coast Business Council President Brian Sanderson, as a guest on a national TV news show last week, found himself having to defend Mississippi over the Louisiana disparity claims.

"The point I made was that we had a reasonable, well-laid-out plan, a thoughtful plan, and we didn't just go out and ask for $250 billion thinking we'll figure out what to do with it once we get it," Sanderson said. "We've been too busy doing the work of recovery rather than keeping score."

Sanderson said any fighting between the two states would be sound and fury at best, and possibly hurt both states in the long run.

"We have a lot of historical and cultural ties with New Orleans, and economic," Sanderson said. "It doesn't serve anyone good to get into that type argument."

Marty Wiseman, director of the Stennis Institute for Government, notes the irony of any state being envious of Mississippi.

"For once in Mississippi's life, I think we were in the best position to take advantage of who we are and the people we know," Wiseman said. "It was how the stars were aligned - we had as our governor the former chairman of the Republican National Committee, who has helped a number of powerful people in Washington. We had the chairman of the Appropriations Committee and a powerful former majority leader.

"For once, we were standing first in line. Gov. (Kathleen) Blanco was a Democrat coming before what was then (2005-'06) Republican-held (Congress) with a Republican president. She had to introduce herself at our family reunion."

Related stories from Biloxi Sun Herald

  Comments