It’s been more than eight years since Hurricane Katrina slammed into the Gulf Coast, and Mississippi still has not spent $872 million in federal recovery funding.
Haley Barbour was governor when Katrina hit and when the state received federal aid from the Department of Housing and Urban Development — he decided that half of the $5.5 billion in federal money had to go to economic development. The aid did not come with those preconditions, and with HUD’s approval, the state could reallocate the money to other projects but has not chosen to do so.
Louisiana prioritized housing and infrastructure, and has been able to get 91 percent of the more than $10 billion in federal aid out to those affected by the storm.
One grant of $8 million is going to build a parking garage for the city of Starkville, a city more than 200 miles north of where Katrina made landfall and home to Mississippi State University’s main campus. The garage would be part of a hotel-convention center complex that’s based around a former cotton mill.
Though Starkville did see strong winds and flooding, and most of the city lost power for a day after the storm hit, most of what constituted an emergency was helping to care for evacuees from farther south. AP reports that though Starkville is still in the presidentially-declared disaster zone despite being in the northern half of the state, there is still more need on the coast:
While Mississippi funds the Starkville project and can’t seem to find uses for millions in other available funding, some recovery programs in coastal areas still visibly affected by the storm are out of money.
For example, a $3 million forgivable loan program in Hancock County has committed all its funds to local businesses trying to rebuild. Storm surge was at its most extreme in Hancock County, where Katrina made its final landfall.
“We had far more applicants than we had funds,” said Tish Williams, executive director of the Hancock County Chamber of Commerce. “We were the hardest hit and the last to get.”
$581 million of the Mississippi aid is earmarked for an expansion of the Port of Gulfport, but that project has been dragging along without much progress. First the plan to raise the port 25 feet to adapt to future storm surge was abandoned. Then the scope of the project dropped from a goal of 3 million cargo containers a year to 1 million. $463 million has yet to be spent.
Gulfport city councilman Rusty Walker thinks even the 1 million cargo container target is too optimistic, and would like the unspent port money shifted to repair storm-damaged sewers. “It’s time to take the money back,” he said.
Direct economic development grants have also had spotty records of success, with $150 million of $384 million unspent. Some of the $234 million that has been handed out went to companies that have not created a single job and in some cases companies did not even construct buildings they agreed to construct.