Haley Barbour's Katrina Special-Session Speech | Jackson Free Press | Jackson, MS

Haley Barbour's Katrina Special-Session Speech

[verbatim transcription]September 27, 2005—Thank you. Governor Tuck, Speaker McCoy, ladies and gentlemen of the Legislature*. Fellow Mississippians.

Just over four weeks ago, Hurricane Katrina, the worst natural disaster in American history, struck our Gulf Coast and South Mississippi a grievous blow. Our state,k our citizens, bore the brunt of a hurricane more devastating than Camille, and the miles upon miles of utter destruction is unimaginable, except to those who have witnessed it with their own eyes, on the ground. In her wake, Katrina left literally tens of thousands of uninhabitable, often obliterated homes; thousands of small businesses in shambles; dozens of schools and public buildings ruined and unusable; highways and ports and railroads; water and sewer systems, all destroyed.

Whole communities, such as Waveland, were essentially wiped off the Coast by a storm surge in excess of 35 feet—not only from the Gulf but, as those in Bay St. Louis and Pass Christian know, from the bay side as well. The winds and waves slammed Long Beach, Guflport and Biloxi but also D'Iberville, across the Biloxi Bay. Its destruction went to Ocean Springs, Gautier, Moss Point. Even Pascagoula, 75 miles from the eye of the storm, was crushed by a storm surge 15-20 feet high.

I never thought there could be a storm worse than Camille, but this hurricane was far, far worse—spreading decimation not only across the entire Coast but extending its wrath more than 150 miles inland. Katrina is not just a calamity on the Coast, it is a major disaster for so much of South Mississippi.

Tuesday morning, the day after the storm, I was astounded by what I saw on the Coast. All of you who've been there must remember the gut-wrenching sights and the heart-rending experience.

But in the last month I've learned that an awful disaster, with its myriad of tragedies for individuals and families, also brings out the best in most people. And that has surely been the case in our state.

What a debt we owe those first responders who risked all to save lives that Monday evening. The local firemen and policemen, EMTs - many of whom lost their own homes that day in the storm - were that night rescuing their neighbors. The column of state law enforcement officer - highway patrolmen, narcotics agents, investigators - who, with several hundred National Guardsmen, left Hattiesburg Monday afternoon led by MDOT crews who cut a lane open on Highway 49—7 1/2 hours to go 60 miles—but that night they joined local police and firemen in search and rescue, and to crack down on looting.

The stories of ordinary people displaying extraordinary courage and uncommon selflessness are, well, extremely common. The conservation officers in their boats searching the trees and roofs and rescuing people from the flood waters Monday; the Waveland police, whose plan was to ride out the storm in their headquarters, who got up on the roof when the building flooded and swam off into the raging sea when the building collapsed*clung to trees or debris to save their own lives*and that very night, their own homes destroyed, were on duty, saving their neighbors; or the Coast Guard helicopter crews from Mobile, who flew in Monday to conduct search and rescue operations on the Coast . . . fearless young men, who hung from helicopters, on ropes, dangling through air, in the dark that first night, pulling people from roofs and trees. By the first Friday these Coast Guard daredevils had lifted 1700 Mississippians to safety by hoisting them into helicopters.

Some of the men and women who performed these heroic deeds are with us today. To them, and the literally hundreds and thousands of genuine heroes whom they represent, your state and a grateful people thank you.

Because of heroes like these the death toll from Katrina, while too high and still not final, is remarkably low compared to the immense destruction. The local officials, who ordered mandatory evacuations, saved lives. And the thousands of inland families who took in friends and families, before Katrina struck, made it possible for their friends and loved ones to be safe.

Before I discuss the agenda for this extraordinary session, I am obliged, honored and pleased to thank our sister states, the federal government and the American people. Katrina is the biggest disaster ever, and the outpouring of support and generosity from our fellow citizens is also the largest in history. Here, today I want our fellow Americans to know all your efforts and your contributions have helped tremendously, and we are tremendously grateful.

The State of Florida's elite search and rescue team was on the ground the first night, joining our local and state people, saving lives. For weeks there were 600 Florida law enforcement officers, helping protect lives and property on the Coast. Sheriff Steve Garber of Hancock County says they were indispensable. Indeed, Governor Bush and Florida have set the curve, but so many other states have done so much. North Carolina's Med-One portable hospital; Georgia's investigators and Ohio's search and rescue teams; National Guard units from nearly 20 states had boots on the ground . . . Alabama sent two MP units while Mobile was still flooded. As Governor, I'm personally moved by it all.

When President Bush was here the third time we toured a faith-based feeding station; where hundreds of displaced people were eating a hot meal. I met a fellow from Vermont, a truck driver. He and 16 other truck drivers had driven down from Vermont, a small state, very far away, to deliver 17 trailers of food to Gulfport. I couldn't believe it . . . 17 tractor-trailers all the way from Vermont. Then, he told me it was his third trip.

Yes, the American people are being very generous, and I want them to know we need the help to get through this disaster, and we genuinely appreciate it.

We appreciate, too, the efforts by the federal government. From those young Coast Guardsmen that first night to the U.S. Department of Transportation, which provided all the fuel for all our emergency operations and responders from the end of week one to the Seabees, who've just been spectacular in helping get us on the road to recovery.

During the relief and recovery stages the federal government has pumped resources in to help us. Their efforts have been enormous. Those efforts haven't been perfect, but our efforts haven't been perfect either. I expect every mayor or supervisor will tell you local governments haven't been perfect either.

But I'll tell you this: Those local officials are trying; they're serving their people; they're leading in the midst of a carnage they never expected to confront. They make me proud.

And the people they represent make me even prouder.

>From Pascagoula to Pass Christian, from Waveland to Waynesboro, from Meridian to Moss Point, from Pearlington to Petal, Mississippians consistently display resilience and self-reliance. Our people aren't whining or moping around, they're not into victimhood. From the very beginning Mississippians have been helping themselves, and God bless them, helping their neighbors. The unselfish, even selfless attitude of people who've lost everything is awe-inspiring to me. Katrina did not discriminate. It leveled rich neighborhoods and poor neighborhoods. It knocked down the mighty as hard as it clobbered the lowly. Black or white, Vietnamese or Hispanics*Katrina leveled them all.

And it seems they all came through the devastation with a commitment to their neighbors as well as to their home communities. One consistent theme I hear from those who volunteer a lot in the disaster area is how unselfish the affected people are, and how they are concerned for others.

The first person who put me on to this was Marsha. Marsha went to Gulfport to help on Monday night, the night of the hurricane. She's been back to the affected areas 23 of the 28 days since. First delivering water or ice, then baby food and diapers, helping with logistics and recovery efforts. I'm so proud of her, and she's my barometer. She kept telling me how unselfish people are, people who've lost everything. She told me about the family with eight kids, whose house trailer was destroyed. She and some state law enforcement officers took them a bunch of supplies. The people took a part, and told Marsha they didn't want to take everything*.that they wanted to leave enough for others to have. They told her there was a widow lady, a shut-in who lived down the road that would need help, and they told her to be careful not to miss a little road just down the way*that it was easy to miss, but four or five families lived down that road and would need their help, too. These are poor people, who had virtually nothing before the storm, and lost what little they had, and their concern is for others to get help. For their neighbors, for their communities. This Mississippi spirit makes me proud, and it makes me strong in my determination to make sure we help these great people recover and rebuild and renew South Mississippi and the Coast to heights that are equal to that spirit.

And my great optimism about the future stems from the fact that rich or poor, black or white, worker or businessman or the person who had nothing before the storm hit; all of them are focused on the future*.cleaning up, reopening, rebuilding the Coast bigger and better than ever.

Prime evidence of this is the following: of the 431,000 households who have registered with FEMA for disaster assistance, 77% are still staying in the zip code in which they lived before the storm hit; 88% are still in the state. Our people aren't leaving. They're hitching up their britches and rebuilding Mississippi.

To help them, I'm asking you in this Special Session to authorize the establishment of a small business emergency bridge loan program and $25 million of interest-free loans to small businesses in the affected areas so they can have working capital to get back on their feet. Small businesses employ most workers in our state, and it is essential we get our people back to work. Many are already working; this program will greatly increase that number.

The program will be administered by local banks, which will not receive fees or interest payments. Florida successfully operated such a program after its hurricanes last year, and I have asked Howard McMillan, retired President of Deposit Guaranty, to run this program, which he's agreed to do so on a dollar a year basis.

In this Special Session I'm asking you to authorize a short-term line of credit up to $500 million to bridge state and local governments finances over until we see what the federal government will do in terms of long-term support for our state's renewal. This amount should be enough to plug the state's fiscal hole caused by the storm and to allow the state to lend affected local governments and school districts enough money to meet their cash flow needs.

I have not included in the Call appropriations or bonding issues because we will not know our needs until the federal government passes legislation that appropriates funds for the rebuilding of local and state infrastructure, fulfills the President's request for a Gulf opportunity zone and decides how to proceed on critical issues such as Medicaid.

Last week I spent three days meeting with Senate, House and Administration leaders, and discussing the best ways for the government to help us in the near and long terms. I was pleased with the response. Like the American people, our leaders in Washington are genuinely concerned and want to help in every way they can. They are determined to be, and should be good stewards of the taxpayers money; and we're going to be accountable for our stewardship, too.

Working with our Congressional delegation and others, we are finalizing proposals that fit into current law and some that required some tweaking of the law. We're not asking for the moon, and we're not going to.

We need, and I emphasize need, the federal government's help to rebuild our infrastructure and to help us make it stronger and more secure against future hurricanes. We simply cannot do this by ourselves, and it is essential the government fulfill that disaster assistance program.

The French settled the Gulf Coast in 1699, and a lot of infrastructure has been build and rebuilt and rebuilt over the last 306 years. That infrastructure was mostly destroyed*.not damaged but destroyed* and I'm grateful federal leaders seem to understand how much we need their help on this.

Even with all the help of the federal government, the real key to rebuilding the affected areas of South Mississippi and the Coast will be the private sector. Entrepreneurs, small businesses and large employers in the private sector will be the crucial re-builders.

The President's Gulf Opportunity Zone proposal would create three major and very positive initiatives to help this rebuilding become a great renewal. I have suggested a couple of additional ways to make the Gulf Opportunity Zone proposal even more likely to stimulate job creation and economic recovery in the Gulf region. It's clear Congress and the administration realize the private sector and the availability of capital will make the difference.

While the federal government is deciding what it will do, there are things we can do in addition to the small business emergency loan program and the line of credit.

The Call includes several small bills to allow local and state governments and school districts to function. Most are ministerial, like extending deadlines and the statute of limitations, and giving state agencies and local government's flexibility to relieve them from the disaster's effects. I urge you to make these adjustments.

There is another adjustment that has generated some controversy, and I want to address it head on. This is the issue of whether or not to allow casinos to come off the water and on shore.

You have seen that in the Call and publicly I have adopted the proposal of the Harrison County Board of Supervisors to allow casinos to be located on the shore. I have accepted the Harrison County Board's recommendation that the definition of "on shore" will mean within 1500 of the water's edge.

Eleven of the 12 casinos on the Coast are in Harrison County, and they are far more familiar with the terrain than I. There is no magic to the exact number of feet, but I don't believe I should substitute my judgment about the proper distance from the water for that of the local people.

Frankly, when we're talking about the distance from the water in terms of hundreds of feet, a couple of hundred this way or that is irrelevant. In a state like ours, 400 miles from end to end, a few hundred feet is neither significant nor material.

What is relevant is that, in allowing casinos to come on shore, we must keep them tied to the water. The proposal does that by requiring that any casino located on shore must not only be within a few hundred feet of the water but also tied to the water. That is, no casino could be located on shore unless it also has facilities at the water's edge. All the existing casinos on the Coast already comply with that, but new ones would also have to be tied to the Gulf or the Bay of St. Louis to Biloxi Bay in the same way, with a hotel or similar facilities at the water.

When I ran for Governor, I said I opposed the expansion of gaming beyond the counties where it already existed. That remains my position, and this proposal is entirely consistent with that "no expansion" platform.

The legislation will have no affect whatsoever on any county other than Hancock or Harrison. None at all, on any other county.

And in the two affected counties, it will not allow gaming to move to I-10 or anywhere else, except for a few hundred feet on shore right next to where it is allowed already and where it has been since gaming was legalized fourteen years ago.

So why do this; this few hundred feet move?

First, of all of you who have been there, you've seen the catastrophic destruction of the casinos and the destruction wrought by those behemoths when they crashed into buildings and vehicles. We can't return the casinos to the way they were. It would be irresponsible.

How about putting them up on stilts, but still over the water? That would be better than it was, but it would greatly limit rebuilding and, in my opinion, result in a return to the old status quo.

If we want to see much better quality development by the casino companies; if we want world-class resorts that will be about much more than just gaming, if we want to rebuild the Coast bigger and better than ever; I believe we will fail if we don't allow the casino to come on shore, even if only a few hundred feet.

Making the casinos sit over the water on stilts will not stimulate the investment we want. A small adjustment of a few hundred feet, but consistent with the original law of being tied to the water, is the best chance, not only for getting the thousands of employees back to work sooner, but to have even more employees later and make our Coast a world-class destination resort.

Many will see the vote on shore-based gaming as the first defining vote of where Mississippi is headed. Will it be business as usual; the same old same old? Or are we going to lift our horizons and take advantage of this opportunity to have something better.

They say that in the Chinese language, the symbol for danger is the same as the symbol for opportunity. If so, that is also the symbol for Katrina.

Out of this terrible disaster, beyond all imagination, comes our opportunity, and I beg you not to let Mississippi miss it. I'm determined we will not fail to seize this opportunity.

I am a seventh generation Mississippian. My family has seen us survive disasters before.

The worst disaster, man made not natural, was the Civil War. We were devastated, and back then there was no one to help us. It took till after World War II to get back to recover.

After the great flood of 1927, the federal government tried to help us. The Hoover Commission's work got lost in the Depression, and we stayed on the bottom.

After Camille in 1969, another opportunity was lost. Nothing changed. After two months they were building service stations on the beach.

I'm determined we will not miss this fourth chance. We must not fail our citizens.

I've appointed a Commission on Recovery, Rebuilding and Renewal. Jim Barksdale chairs it. It is composed of capable people who love Mississippi. A number of Legislators are helping steer it.

The Commission will lead, but local governments and the private sector will decide. The Coast and South Mississippi will decide their own destiny, but with strong support from the Commission and from the rest of us.

We're putting our all into this because the stakes are so high.

In 30 years, when I'm dead and gone, people will look at what the Coast and South Mississippi have become. If it is simply a newer version of today, we will have failed those people*our children and grandchildren. If on the other hand, it has become what it can be*.bigger and better than ever*.world-class and looked up to by the nation as an example of what a great areas can be, then those people in 30 years will say, "These folks after Katrina. They got it right, and we're grateful to them."

Let us not fail them. Let's lead a renaissance for Mississippi, buoyed by the spirit of our people.


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