Thursday, January 3, 2008

Attention Spans

It has been 30 months since Hurricane Katrina devastated the Mississippi Gulf Coast. The numbers are still mind-boggling. Mississippi towns like Waveland were wiped off the map. Katrina's winds and storm surge annihilated 65,000 homes. Nothing but slabs were left. Another 30,000 had to be demolished because of the storm damage. To put it in perspective, before Hurricane Katrina, the population in the 6 coastal counties was around 400,000. There were only around 3,000 homeowners who did not have to file any insurance claims because of Katrina. I count myself fortunate to be one of the lucky 3,000. But that wasn't due to not having any storm damage. It is just that the storm damage from the wind my home sustained equaled my insurance deductible.

The Mississippi Gulf Coast has made remarkable progress. But we are facing another problem. Along with the homes destroyed, the Mississippi Gulf Coast lost 25% of its rentals. The majority of people who are still in FEMA trailers used to be renters. And rents have skyrocketed. An apartment that rented for $400/month before Katrina, was $1,200/month after Katrina. The rent prices are starting to stabilize a bit because there has been new construction. But it is still out of reach for many.

A new problem is facing us along the Mississippi Gulf Coast: homeless people. The FEMA trailer parks are being shut down. Yes, some are probably drug addicts and/or alcoholics, but the majority are the working poor.

Some of these homeless have tents that offer scant protection. But it beats living under what's left of the beach boardwalks like some are doing.

Part of the problem is local resistance to building more low-income apartments and houses. And I'm ashamed to say that my hometown of Gulfport is one of the worst cities. It is always a case of NIMBY at city council meetings. In an effort to rebuild better and stronger, the poor are being left behind.

Developers are encouraged to make 25% of proposed homes low-income housing. Tax breaks are some of the incentives. It is a good idea but again NIMBY rears its ugly head. People fear their property values will drop and crime will increase. These are understandable fears. But something needs to be done.

Before Hurricane Katrina, there were pan-handlers. But the majority of those were the ones with "will work for food" signs. Today, I see more and more young people on the streets. Some who ask for money tell of being kicked out their homes. Some are with still with their families living on the streets or in the woods, or under overpasses, or under boardwalks or in cars.

While I rejoice at the rebuilding of the Mississippi Gulf Coast, I'm deeply saddened by the increased number of homeless. After Hurricane Katrina, together, we faced the 66 miles of debris along the Mississippi Coast. Together, we faced the destroyed homes along rivers, creeks, and bayous. Together, we faced the rebuilding of electrical, water/sewerage, and telecommunications infrastructure. Together, we faced the rebuilding of roads and bridges. And we vowed we will rebuild, together. And after 30 months, maybe our attention has moved on to other things, but together, we must rebuild housing for our working poor.

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