Editorial: A false War Between the States

There is a particular sadness with which we consider the offensive launched against Mississippi survivors of Hurricane Katrina on the very somber second anniversary of the awful day in which the great storm devastated our state and caused a civil engineering failure of vast and deadly proportions in Louisiana.

On Aug. 29, 2005, South Mississippi and Southern Louisiana, geographic and cultural members of the family of Gulf Coast States, were united by a bond of common suffering forged in the destructive assault against our people and property.

In the days that followed, a coalition of political and social assets possessed by these neighbors was arrayed in a united effort to gain federal support for the recovery of a region that had suffered the greatest natural disaster in American history.

By most objective analyses of this strategic effort, Mississippi, though a poor state with meager resources, possessed the superior congressional team with Sens. Thad Cochran and Trent Lott situated especially well to spearhead the fight for the billions that would be necessary to help citizens of the Gulf recover and rebuild.

Louisiana seemed to recognize the value of the neighboring leaders, and gladly accepted the additional role that Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour played in obtaining the relief funding.

This newspaper has from the very beginning of the debate supported New Orleans and Louisiana as an ally and a friend in the full meaning that term implies.

Over the course of the two years since Katrina we have listened to the occasional signs of partisanship that have rumbled across the border but have remained silent, choosing to stay focused on our own knitting, understanding the frustration with many aspects of the difficult environment in which our neighbors were existing. But we must express concern about the emerging narrative put forward by Louisiana newspapers that suggest there is a competition for federal Katrina dollars, and that Mississippi has received an unfair share of those funds.

Much of the Louisiana storyline in the discussion is crafted around a set of numbers apparently compiled by the Louisiana Recovery Authority, numbers cited around the anniversary date to show that Mississippians received a disproportionate share of the funds.

The leading number cited by the newspapers involves the number of damaged homes, and the number is outrageously in error. The numbers, cited both in a chart accompanying a Times-Picayune editorial headlined "Treat us fairly Mr. President," reported that in Mississippi Katrina severely damaged only 15,610 homes and only 61,386 homes were damaged at all.

The numbers provided by FEMA show that more than 60,000 homes were totally destroyed, and an additional 55,000 were heavily damaged.

Given this obvious error, it is difficult to take any of the LRA report, repeated by The Times-Picayune and other papers, seriously.

The tone of the discussion relating to Mississippi took a serious step toward incivility with an op-ed piece in The Times-Picayune on Aug. 29, headlined "Cleaning up, the Mississippi Way." In the column, a staff writer sarcastically suggested that even though Louisiana is in line for $15 billion in federal funding to improve levees, "Mississippi might as well have grabbed the levee loot; it certainly grabbed everything else."

The column goes on to state: "Louisiana bore the brunt of Katrina, and its aftermath. Yet from health care to higher education, Mississippi won out every time."

So, it would seem proper for such a debate not to be one-sided and lacking in response.

Others in the media from across the land have attempted to engage us in the comparison between the recovery efforts in Louisiana and Mississippi. They have almost universally commented that they observe two distinctive approaches to the recovery efforts in each state, and that this goes back to the earliest days following the storm.

The lack of agreement between the mayor of New Orleans and the governor of Louisiana was the most noticeable early part of the Louisiana response.

Meanwhile in Mississippi a recovery plan started in the Sun Herald newspaper offices with local political leaders, civic and business leaders and the governor, meeting within the first week to create a recovery plan that resulted in a comprehensive plan to rebuild our coast, a plan that was completed and delivered to the public by year's end of 2005.

It was understood that getting our schools up and running was central to establishing a sense of orderliness and normalcy in the life of our communities, and though half our schools were destroyed, all but one had been re-established and were up and running by November. In comparison, by the end of that year no school had re-opened in New Orleans. This may speak to the functionality, planning and execution of a vision that existed within the framework of the two regions. It should also be noted that one of the most significant early roadblocks to the recovery effort in both states involved the effort by Louisiana's members of Congress when they said their state should be given $250 billion for disaster assistance. This high number created a chilling political response in the Congress and the administration and has been described by some as the low point of the effort to obtain the funding needed in both states.

The principal fact concerning whatever success Mississippi has enjoyed is that our state had a plan, and Louisiana did not. Indeed without Mississippi's effort, Louisiana would not have received as much as it has.

Both Louisiana and Mississippi have received billions in federal assistance, and both have been aided by the unbelievable help of hundreds of thousands of volunteers without whom we could not have recovered anywhere near our current state.

Louisiana has received significantly more media coverage, and far more aid delivered by national foundations.

But the most notable component of South Mississippi recovery is the spirit and hard work of our people who grabbed their chainsaws and started digging out from day one. More than 90 percent of our citizens have returned to the region and are re-establishing roots in their homeland, although many who formerly resided on the coastline will rebuild inland.

So to our friends in Louisiana we respectfully say their desire to receive more funding is understandable, and our prayers and support for those efforts will continue. However, we believe this focus on what someone else has or has not gotten, as a means to that effort, will only diminish their future hopes, and ours, as such a competition will not likely provide a more charitable or generous mood in either the public or private sectors.

We believe today, as we did on Aug. 29, 2005, that Louisiana and Mississippi will stand or fall together. This war of words between neighbors should cease.