Most days, Luvenia Thomas sits in a wheelchair outside her dank bungalow on 21st Street. She says she cannot breathe inside.
More than two years after Hurricane Katrina tore up her roof and flooded her home, brown water stains darken her ceilings, and her floors are bare. She has pulled up most of her carpeting, but still she says she cannot rid her home of mold.
“I don’t know what to do,” said Thomas, 54, who is disabled and living on a fixed income. She has not been able to receive state assistance because the damage was caused by wind rather than flooding. “The roof needs fixing, the walls need fixing, the floors need fixing. The whole house needs fixing.”
In low-income neighborhoods across coastal Mississippi, many homeowners are still patching their roofs with blue tarp, positioning plants to collect drips from living room ceilings, and taping paper over window cracks. Most say they have yet to receive financial assistance from Mississippi officials.
Advocates for the poor have long argued that Mississippi has skewed federal hurricane recovery funds toward the wealthy. But criticism has become particularly charged since the Mississippi Development Authority announced plans to divert $600 million in federal housing funds to restore and expand the port of Gulfport.
With nearly 15,000 Mississippi families still living in Federal Emergency Management Agency trailers, and many more struggling to repair their damaged homes, a growing number of ministers, aid workers and attorneys say the plan shortchanges the poor.
Reilly Morse, a senior attorney for the Mississippi Center for Justice’s Katrina Recovery Office, says officials are operating according to a “reverse Robin Hood logic.” Port officials, he said, have enough insurance and FEMA funding to recover from Katrina damage, and can explore further funding sources. “They do not need to rob the poor,” he said.
Yet many local and state officials say that housing is no longer the region’s most critical priority. They say redirecting funds to the port will reinvigorate the coastal economy.
“We can give someone a little money for new shingles or we can give them a job for the rest of their life,” said Gulfport Mayor Brent Warr. “Most people in Gulfport want this because it means jobs, jobs, jobs. The city could become the corporate headquarters of the state of Mississippi.”
The plan, which has yet to be submitted to the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, would create 1,300 direct jobs in the next 10 years -- 528 more than the port had before the hurricane. The Mississippi Development Authority is requesting a waiver from the requirement that one full-time, permanent job is created for every $35,000 of HUD funds used. Critics estimate that only one job would be created for each $460,000 spent.
Investing $600 million in the port, valued at $127 million before the hurricane and estimated to have incurred $50 million in damage, represents a significant expansion. Already, the port has hazard insurance coverage of at least $108 million, and it expects an additional $54 million from FEMA.
“We don’t want to recover just to the point where we were on Aug. 29, 2005,” said Donald R. Allee, executive director of the Mississippi State Port Authority. “We plan to get bigger and we plan to get better.”
Development authority officials say that enough housing money will remain to give grants to an estimated 30,000 homeowners to restore or rebuild property. This represents fewer than a fifth of the estimated 169,000 Mississippi homes damaged or destroyed.
“Our funds do not allow us to provide assistance to all of those 169,000 homes,” said Donna Sanford, director of disaster recovery for the development authority. “We have to make difficult decisions.”
Advocates for the poor have repeatedly questioned the manner in which the development authority has distributed the $5.4 billion it received from HUD through the Community Development Block Grant program.
Established to improve housing and economic opportunities for the poor, the program requires that at least 70% of funds benefit people with low or moderate incomes. After Katrina, Congress lowered that requirement to 50%. Mississippi has gotten this requirement waived for 80% of its programs.
Last year, attorneys with the Mississippi Center for Justice considered suing after state officials announced the first phase of their program to distribute federal aid. By offering grants of as much as $150,000 to homeowners who had insurance but lived outside the flood zone, they argued, officials denied help to many in the hardest-hit areas.
The second phase of the state’s program provided as much as $100,000 for people who had flood damage, regardless of whether they were insured. Yet the program in Mississippi did not cover wind damage, so tens of thousands of homeowners did not qualify.
Although nearly half of Gulf Coast residents lived in rentals before Katrina, only about a tenth of housing aid has gone toward rebuilding rental units. Now there is a shortage of units, and rents have increased by 30%.
Last week, U.S. Reps. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) and Maxine Waters (D-Los Angeles) urged the federal government to deny Mississippi’s request, describing it as an “unwarranted diversion of funds and a disservice to displaced Mississippians still in need of affordable housing.”
Yet patience is wearing thin among some residents who have rebuilt their homes.
In Gulfport’s dilapidated business district, Jerry Maddox, 56, said it was time to invest in encouraging businesses back to the city. “Some people just want the government to do everything,” he said. “I wouldn’t wait if it was me. I would be moving on.”
Several blocks west, William Janas, 65, walked through a FEMA trailer park, clutching a letter notifying him that the park would close by month’s end. “I got nowhere to go,” he said. “I don’t give a damn about the port. The housing recovery is not over.”