By Bill Minor
JACKSON – “Pure politics” is what Clarion-Ledger columnist Sid Salter last week called a motion in a federal appeals court by a Gulf Coast housing advocacy group and the NAACP. They were seeking to reverse an action by HUD during the Bush Administration to divert over a half million dollars in Katrina low income housing funds to a grandiose expansion of the state Port of Gulfport.
The question is, whose politics: Gov. Haley Barbour’s or the hundreds of Coast residents whose homes are still in shambles from Katrina’s wrath?
Barbour, for whom Salter frequently serves as media apologist, two years ago had gotten the Department of Housing and Urban Development to divert $570 million in post-Katrina housing funds to an ambitious port development expansion. The plan first was conceived before Hurricane Katrina hit the Mississippi coast in August 2005. The state was handed $5.4 billion for recovery and relief by Congress after Hurricane Katrina.
The Barbour people contend that implementation of the massive port development plan would eventually create some 6,000 jobs. They argue ample relief money has already been allocated to several housing restoration programs.
The Mississippi Center for Justice and the state NAACP had filed a lawsuit against HUD to reverse its diversion of the $570 million from low income housing but a federal district court had dismissed the suit in January. Last week, the plaintiffs asked the Washington-based court of appeals to reinstate their case. This prompted the “politics” Salter comment.
Some have observed that part of the $570 million in diverted funds would go to repair damages at the port from Katrina. Actually, the port has already received $90 million in insurance payments for damages and has four of its previous six berths back in operation to handle banana and fruit shipments.
But the port, for whatever reason, has made no effort to restore its storm-destroyed refrigerated cargo installation which pre-Katrina made Gulfport a premiere chicken exporting terminal, handling Mississippi’s No. 1 agricultural crop, chicken broilers. Consequently, Gulfport has lost its chicken exporting business to ports at Pascagoula and Mobile at a time when China and Russia have greatly expanded chicken imports.
In its annual report to the Legislative Budget Office, the port authority showed revenue of $48.6 million in 2009, and had on hand $78 million at the beginning of last year. The authority estimated revenue of $117.3 million in 2010, which included the $90 million recovered from insurance.
The “Port of the Future” plan which has captivated Barbour (and is seemingly the legacy he wants to leave) would cost millions of dollars and would require at least four to six years for completion. It envisions raising the docks from the present elevation of 25 ft to 36 ft. above sea level (and eventually to 45 ft.). Plus, the plan would create by landfill additional building sites which are contemplated as locations for a casino and hotels. However, why Barbour wants to hold hostage the $570 million from Katrina housing relief as part of the ambitious port scheme has never been clear.
Rep. Billy Broomfield, D-Moss Point, who heads the House Committee on Ports and Harbors, takes a dim view of Barbour’s Port of the Future concept. “We want to make sure the port is utilized for maritime purposes and not for private endeavors,” he said, adding: “we’re not going to support any more casinos at the port.” (One casino that had existed at the port before Katrina was heavily damaged and has not reopened.)
A report last October by the Mississippi Housing Data Project showed 8,276 storm-damaged houses had not been repaired. Last September a USA Today reporter who visited the Coast to report on recovery progress said he found some residents who lost their house, and now their jobs, are having to camp out in the woods.
Bill Minor has covered Mississippi politics since 1947. Contact him at P.O. Box 1243, Jackson, MS 39215-1243, or e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.