U.S. lawmakers try to stop Katrina funds from going to port

Rep. Bennie Thompson and other lawmakers have asked a key House committee to block Gov. Haley Barbour’s move to redirect $600 million in hurricane housing money toward enlarging the Port of Gulfport.

“This transfer is unreasonable in light of the fact that the state has not met all of its housing needs,” the lawmakers wrote in a letter to Rep. David Obey, D-Wis., chairman of the House Appropriations Committee.

Thompson, D-2nd District, chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, joined 11 other Democrats in asking Obey to insert language blocking the transfer into the spending bill that will fund the Department of Housing and Urban Development next year.

Mississippi received $5.4 billion in HUD Community Development Block Grant money to help flooded homeowners restore their properties or pay off mortgages. Some of that money also was used to cover utility company losses and for economic development needs.

HUD officials said they had reservations about Barbour’s request to shift $600 million from a low-income housing program to the port, but they felt they had to comply under the terms of law that provided Mississippi with the grant money.

Thompson wants the Appropriations Committee to change the law and require HUD to deny Barbour’s request.

“The state has made decisions in designing its housing programs that leaves renters and low-income families out in the cold,” the lawmakers said.

Lee Youngblood, spokesman for the Mississippi Development Authority, said the request to use grant money to repair and improve the Port of Gulfport was approved by Congress in 2005 as part of Mississippi’s recovery plan.

“The plan hasn’t changed,” Youngblood said.

He said Thompson seemed to want Congress to take away money already appropriated for Mississippi.

“That would be very unfortunate, particularly because it involves a project that is so critical to the Coast’s recovery, job growth and economic development,” Youngblood said.

News that Thompson and the other lawmakers had requested action from the Appropriations Committee was revealed at a subcommittee hearing Thursday about the progress Mississippi has made in recovering from Hurricane Katrina.

Rep. Chip Pickering, R-3rd District, who testified at the hearing along with Thompson and Rep. Gene Taylor, D-4th District, defended using housing grant money for the port.

“We need housing but we also need jobs,” he said.

Witnesses at the hearing, held before the House transportation subcommittee on economic development, said federal grants and church and charity groups did much to help homeowners on the Coast, but little was done to help renters. Restoration of public buildings also is lagging, they said.

Taylor said HUD should have helped rebuild public housing and schools.

“That offer was never made and should have been made,” Taylor said.

Under questioning from subcommittee chairman Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C., Mike Womack, executive director of Mississippi’s Emergency Management Agency, said he would support extending a FEMA program that helps displaced people pay for transitional housing and provides counseling – “if there’s a need for it.” The program is scheduled to end in March.

But Sid Melton, director of FEMA’s Mississippi Transitional Recovery Office, said he opposes an extension.

“There’s no need for it,” Melton said.

Waveland Mayor Tommy Longo said there’s no federal money to restore damaged public housing units in his town, leaving 300 low-income elderly and disabled residents without a way to return home.

Longo and other witnesses pleaded for Congress to do more to streamline FEMA’s practices and recommended FEMA send funding experts to help local officials apply for federal aid.

Sherry-Lea Bloodworth, director of the Hancock County housing authority, wept as she described the frustration of trying to help displaced hurricane victims, including an elderly couple living in a shed.

She and other witnesses reminded lawmakers that Mississippi’s recovery is far from complete.

“We live with the fear that you have forgotten us because we are so far away,” Bloodworth said.

Clarion Ledger
6/20/8