June 5, 2008
Few up-state Mississippians paid notice in May when former President Jimmy Carter and his wife Rosalyn led a week-long house-building and repair project on the Gulf Coast, with 2,000 volunteers who were stunned by the expanse of empty lots they found three years after Hurricane Katrina.
Carter's re-visit to the Coast spotlighted how little the federal government (and state government, for that matter), has done to relieve the housing crisis in the coastal region and how much volunteers and foundations have been relied upon for heavy lifting in recovery efforts.
The former president laid down his hammer and saw long enough to offer a sensible - and reachable - solution to alleviate the huge problem of doubled and tripled insurance rates stifling many homeowners from rebuilding.
He proposed that the federal government subsidize insurance for homeowners struggling to rebuild in the aftermath of Katrina's devastation. Since billions of dollars in federal crop subsidies have been paid to Delta cotton farmers (and farmers elsewhere) for years, Carter's proposal is obviously no heretical idea.
Katrina destroyed 64,100 homes in the coastal region and damaged 77,670 more. At its peak, FEMA placed some 45,000 trailers in the area to shelter storm victims. Some 7,000 still occupied were slated to be closed June 1, sending hundreds of poor desperately hunting for an affordable place to live. Take Tameca Carter for instance: She will now pay $900 monthly to rent a place in hard-hit East Biloxi, double the rent she paid pre-Katrina.
Out of the $5.2 billion Katrina recovery grant Congress gave the state, Mississippi's Development Authority has set a target of helping provide 21,000 affordable housing units - all it says that are needed. However, Coast housing advocates, principally the Steps Coalition, strongly reject the MDA goal, contending it meets only half the need.
On his Coast stay, President Carter argued that the federal government has an obligation to help struggling homeowners obtain insurance, a necessary stimulus to fill the hundreds of now-empty home sites and bring back family communities. "It would be like a reverse cancer... spreading from one block to another and eventually everybody is trying to put their homes in better condition," he said.
It was Carter's second Habitat for Humanity visit to the area since the hurricane. One difference this time was that the work project also bore his wife's name. At a gathering of volunteers at Biloxi's Yankie Stadium, Carter praised the grit of Coast residents, saying, "The people here have performed nobly... . You've not only helped yourselves but have been an inspiration to others."
All the volunteers either paid their own way or had private sponsors and came from many places far away, even a former Romanian president. Some 50 foundations and private organizations helped sponsor volunteers for the Carter Project. Mary Morgan came from Northern Ireland on her own, spending 24 hours on airplanes before arriving in Biloxi.
The Sun Herald assigned Megha Satyanarayana, a health reporter interning at the Coast newspaper on a Kaiser Foundation fellowship, to cover and take part in the Carter project. She daily filed reports of its progress and recorded responses of project volunteers.
One common impression she found was that Katrina devastation on the Coast has dropped off the national media radar screen, indicating that rebuilding of the Mississippi Gulf Coast must be a done deal.
Volunteer Cindy Herzog from Michigan, making her first visit to the region, simply said, "It's worse than I expected." Her fellow volunteer, Janice Bormuth, from Ohio, said she was stunned to see all the empty lots where homes once stood. "Somebody's house was there... it's heartbreaking."
Just the fact that the 83-year-old former president of the United States in work clothes and hard hat had come back to the Coast to aid in its recovery brought new hope to many low-income residents who lost their abodes in the storm. As Satyanarayana wrote, "Many can finally stop bouncing around from FEMA trailer to hotel to overpriced rental to friend's couch."
At the end of the week-long Habitat for Humanity work project, Carter thanked the 2,000 volunteers for building or repairing 60 houses from Pascagoula to Diamondhead. "I've only cried three times," Carter confided, after meeting future occupants of the homes. Local Habitat volunteers will finish some houses not completed because of rain storms, and 48 more homes will be framed in a new blitz. In all since Katrina, Habitat for Humanity has built 1,300 homes along the Gulf Coast.