EDITORIAL: USDA's response

The federal role in helping Mississippians cope with double natural disasters – major tornado damage from April storms and massive flooding along the Mississippi River – continues expanding as agencies join forces and the probability of special federal appropriations appears to be increasing.
Most people know about FEMA – the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and MEMA, its state partner – but another, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s division called Rural Development, also plays a major role.
USDA Rural Development in a normal year invests about $500 million in Mississippi. State Rural Development Director Trina George said the regular program, “rural home loans (the old Farmers Home program) and home repair loans; rural water and wastewater loans and grants; programs to help rural towns and cities build or buy things that benefit the community as a whole, such as fire truck or police cars, hospitals, day care or senior citizens centers, etc.; multi-family housing apartment complexes…” and many other applications are adapted for emergency needs.
Loan repayments, for example, can be suspended while borrowers assess damage and measure losses, and housing owned by USDA is made available as temporary emergency residences.
Today, USDA Under Secretary for Rural Development Dallas Tonsager and USDA Under Secretary for Farm and Foreign Agricultural Services Michael Scuse are visiting flood-damaged areas, and last month Secretary Tom Vilsack visited Smithville after a powerful tornado razed the Monroe County town.
George, who has been in the field most days since the tornadoes hit April 27, said USDA takes a varied and flexible approach to assistance, which is necessary in any effective response:
- In the immediate aftermath of a disaster, resources are mobilized and focused to address emergency needs.
- USDA looks at “how to help our current borrowers, who may be suddenly displaced and without the immediate resources to make their payments. This has in the past included a moratorium on payment for a number of months for our single-family home loan borrowers and for borrowers that are water and wastewater systems that received major damage. Each situation is different, so we think creatively and analytically …”
- USDA also pursues special funds that Congress or the agency may set aside for helping those affected.
- USDA will continue to have regular funding.
George says she has faith USDA officials will “address the needs of these victims here in Mississippi,” encouraging words based on eyewitness inspections.
The federal government, often criticized in a political context by many Mississippians, is indispensable for our state after its numerous natural disasters.

NEMS Daily Journal