JACKSON — Mississippi took a direct hit from Hurricane Katrina in 2005 though the state is often overshadowed by the catastrophic flooding of New Orleans, the city President Barack Obama visits Thursday to assess recovery on the Gulf Coast.
Some Mississippians are disheartened Obama is skipping their state.
“I’m greatly disappointed he’s not coming to Mississippi,” said Tommy Longo, mayor of Waveland, Miss., a town where almost every standing structure was destroyed or damaged.
“There was no city hit harder than Waveland,” he said.
This is Obama’s first trip to New Orleans as president, though he visited Louisiana several times before his inauguration, promising to speed up recovery from the 2005 storm. Obama also visited several Mississippi cities during his presidential campaign, but not the heavily damaged coastal areas. Several members of his administration, including Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, have visited the area.
“President Obama’s commitment to Mississippi’s recovery is demonstrated by his tireless work to cut through the bureaucratic red tape and improve coordination among federal agencies and local partners who have too-often failed to collaborate in the past four years,” White House spokeswoman Gannet Tseggai said in a statement Wednesday. “As a result, public assistance projects that had been stuck for years have moved forward since the start of the Administration.”
Tseggai said the Federal Emergency Management Agency has obligated over $160 million for Mississippi recovery and more than $2.5 billion in Recovery Act funds have been announced for Mississippi since Obama took office.
U.S. Rep. Bennie Thompson, a Mississippi Democrat and chairman of the House Homeland Security committee, said in a statement that Obama “has made significant commitments to Mississippi’s rebuilding and mitigation efforts and I’m sure this will not be his last trip down there.”
But U.S. Rep. Gene Taylor, a Democrat whose district includes the Mississippi coast, wrote a letter to Obama this week that began by pointing out the president hasn’t visited the area.
Taylor criticized the administration for opposing legislation to reform the National Flood Insurance Program, which Taylor believes would prevent gaps in coverage for millions of people who live areas vulnerable to hurricanes.
“If you visited the Mississippi Gulf Coast today, you would find that some areas have recovered, but in the cities of Waveland, Bay St. Louis, Pass Christian and in portions of other cities and counties, only one-half to two-thirds of the homes have been rebuilt,” Taylor wrote.
Katrina made landfall near Bay St. Louis and Waveland, about 50 miles east of New Orleans. It cut a path of destruction for miles inland and left thousands homeless. Casino, tourism and other industries on the Mississippi coast were left in ruins.
“I wish he would come put his feet on the ground and see what we’re doing and what continued support that we need,” said Longo, a Democrat who has been Waveland mayor since 1998.
Biloxi, Miss., Mayor A.J. Holloway, a Republican in his fifth term, is “a little disappointed” that Obama won’t be coming to Mississippi but he said the president is a busy man.
“We made a decision after Katrina that we are not going to be into victimhood and blame and pointing fingers,” Holloway said. “I don’t think that we’ve been overlooked with the billions of dollars in federal aid” spent in Mississippi.
In nearby Gulfport, first-term Republican Mayor George Schloegel wrote in a city newsletter this week that he’s glad Obama is visiting Louisiana, but he hopes the struggles there are taken as an example of challenges across the region.
“It’s no secret that the eye of Katrina rolled ashore in South Mississippi — our communities received a direct hit with high winds and a massive storm surge,” Schloegel wrote. “So with that, we feel confident the president understands that if New Orleans has yet to recover from its broken levees, then certainly we here at ground zero have not begun to reach the finish line.”
Katrina lashed southern Louisiana before taking aim at Mississippi. Many people in New Orleans were temporarily relieved, thinking the city had escaped with a strong, but glancing blow.
Then the levees failed and much of the city was flooded. Officials estimated that more than 1,600 people died in Louisiana and Mississippi, with many of the deaths in New Orleans.
Holbrook Mohr/The Associated Press