The 10-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina's devastation has understandably come with a deluge of retrospectives and remembrances—what went right and wrong, what lessons were learned, what work remains and how we all pulled together.
The triumphs and obstacles overcome should be celebrated. At the same time, despite the way Mississippians came together in the immediate aftermath of Katrina, we're struck by the ever-widening gulf of opportunity separating Mississippi's residents. These divisions were largely not the creation of the state's people, but of her elected officials—then and since—whose post-Katrina policies fueled socioeconomic and racial disparities in housing, employment and opportunity.
In a 2010 report, the Mississippi Center for Justice concluded that five years after Katrina made landfall, Mississippi had missed its housing targets by 5,000 units "due to unjust decisions by Mississippi policymakers, irrational interpretation of federal audit, elevation, and environmental rules, and discriminatory zoning decisions by local governments."
Even after that, Mississippi officials convinced the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to "reprogram" community development block grants, which should have gone to rebuilding poor neighborhoods, to the Port of Gulfport expansion project on the promise of creating jobs.
A 2013 legislative report determined that the port would be unable to meet its objective of "creating or retaining 2,586 permanent direct maritime jobs by 2015." This fact was affirmed this summer when the federal government agreed to give the state until 2019 to hit the goal. Even worse, The Hattiesburg American reported that not much more than half of the 98 jobs created since the expansion project began in 2008 have gone to low- and moderate-income residents.
Not coincidentally, Gov. Haley Barbour is currently on tour to promote the book he co-wrote with Democratic strategist Jere Nash.
While Barbour apparently calls the Port of Gulfport the "one that got away," the truth is, the project stands with other shining beacons of the "Haley Barbour Victory Tour"—Silicor, Kior, Twin Creeks, HCL Cleantech—as corporate-welfare projects that failed to deliver on Barbour's empty trickle-down promises of jobs and prosperity.
Hurricane Katrina offered Barbour (and others) a real opportunity to lead on housing, education and opportunity in the so-called opportunity zones; with his stronghold on Mississippi politics, he could easily have creating stability and opportunity by fully funding public education and expanding health care to the state's citizens during his eight-year political career.
Instead, he spent that time crafting his reputation as Mississippi's Corporate Welfare King, writing checks to business buddies that were payable by the Mississippi treasury. (Oh ... and getting the coast casinos back open on dry land.)
As we celebrate the heroes of Katrina and remember those who lost a great deal in its wake here and in Louisiana, let's remember to put Haley Barbour in his correct slot in history, even if it's not the one he's trying to write for himself.
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