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Community Leaders Discuss Future of Gulf Coast

August 29, 2007 at 12:00 AM EDT

GWEN IFILL: It was a day of observance along the Gulf Coast — sad, angry, hopeful — as residents and officials gathered to mark Hurricane Katrina’s second anniversary. In Waveland, Mississippi, it began with an interfaith service at daybreak, the same time the hurricane came ashore.

HURRICANE KATRINA VICTIM: Don’t forget about us. Don’t forget about us. There’s still a lot of need here; there’s still a lot of hope here. Don’t let it pass.

GWEN IFILL: Down the coast in Biloxi, also hit hard, the sentiments were similar.

HURRICANE KATRINA VICTIM: We have a new outlook on life and a new appreciation of what’s really important in life. It’s not your car, or your clothes, or your possessions. It’s being alive and knowing the importance of family and friends.

RAY NAGIN, Mayor of New Orleans: Ladies and gentlemen, if you have a bell, we want you to ring it.

GWEN IFILL: In New Orleans, hundreds gathered and rang bells outside Charity Hospital, which has been closed since the storm. Mayor Ray Nagin helped break ground on a memorial at the hospital that will be the final resting place for more than two dozen unidentified victims. Nagin conceded that his city has not rebounded as much as he would like.

RAY NAGIN: I know it’s hard, and we struggle, and we fight with insurance companies, and we fight with Road Home people, and fight each other, but at the end of the day, let’s come together in this third year.

GWEN IFILL: Across town, President Bush marked the anniversary by visiting the region for the second time this year, the 15th time since Katrina hit.

GEORGE W. BUSH, President of the United States: We’re still paying attention. We understand.

GWEN IFILL: The president spoke at a rebuilt charter school in the Lower Ninth Ward.

GEORGE W. BUSH: New Orleans, better days are ahead. It’s sometimes hard for people to see progress when you live in a community all the time. Laura and I get to come — we don’t live here. We come on occasion. And it’s easy to think about what it was like when we first came here after the hurricane and what it’s like today. And this town’s coming back. This town is better today than it was yesterday, and it’s going to be better tomorrow than it was today.

GWEN IFILL: Mr. Bush also toured a new home development in the city before heading east to Mississippi, where he applauded the construction of a new bridge in Bay St. Louis.

More than 1,600 people died in the storm’s aftermath throughout the Gulf Coast.

KATRINA VICTIMS: We want help!

GWEN IFILL: Nearly 800,000 lost homes. It was the worst natural disaster in the nation’s history.

Federal recovery officials say the government has committed $414 billion in aid, $96 billion of which has been made available to local governments. Much of that was spent on immediate disaster relief rather than long-term recovery, and many residents say they have not received enough of it.

Several neighborhoods in this city remain in ruins, and clean-up is still a daily ritual. Today, the population in New Orleans is just under two-thirds of what it was before the storm.

RAY BELLINGER, Hurricane Katrina Victim: They’ve asked us to come back home, but sometimes I wonder if there’s a reason why. Why are we back here, you know? I don’t feel safe. I want to cry sometimes when I come out and just look at the houses, the homes. You know, it don’t look like people are ever coming back.

GWEN IFILL: Many of the residents feel stranded.

ELIZABETH TAYLOR, Hurricane Katrina Victim: I’m not used to living like this. And I want to get away. The only thing is, I just don’t have the money to get away. But I wish I could get away.

GWEN IFILL: It’s a different story along the Mississippi coast, where 11 of the state’s 13 casinos have reopened, providing jobs for 18,000 people. That’s about 1,000 more than before Katrina.

Many residents in the six affected Mississippi counties have now returned. The population is now 450,000, about 12,000 fewer than before. But many residents share the same concerns their neighbors in Louisiana do about getting the money to rebuild.

HURRICANE KATRINA VICTIM: It was gone. Both locations were gone.

GWEN IFILL: It took a year for Darlene Kimball (ph) to finally reopen one of her restaurants.

HURRICANE KATRINA VICTIM: I said, “Well, they don’t want to help me? I don’t need it.”

GWEN IFILL: Volunteers continue to flock to the Gulf Coast, helping communities and families rebuild their lives.

ABIGAIL YOUNG, Hurricane Katrina Victim: We’re meeting all these people and finding so much love from people we don’t even know. It’s great.

GWEN IFILL: Presidential candidates critical of the federal recovery effort flocked to New Orleans this week.

SEN. BARACK OBAMA (D), Illinois: I just don’t think that there is a sense of urgency in the White House, where the president is cracking the whip.

GWEN IFILL: Fellow Democratic candidates Hillary Clinton and John Edwards attended a Katrina anniversary forum.

FORMER SEN. JOHN EDWARDS (D), North Carolina: We need to make sure that the levees are built in a way that the people of New Orleans both feel secure and are secure.

SEN. HILLARY CLINTON (D), New York: I will pledge to you this: If we don’t get done what you deserve to have done by the time I’m president, then when I’m president this will be one of my highest priorities.

GWEN IFILL: Republican candidate Mike Huckabee said Katrina cost his party credibility.

FORMER GOV. MIKE HUCKABEE (R), Arkansas: How do you calculate what it takes to rebuild confidence in a person who has essentially felt that they were abandoned by their own government? And that’s one of the realities that we have to address.

Views from the Gulf Coast

Latoya Cantrell
Broadmoor Neighborhood Improvement Ass'n
We proclaimed that Broadmoor would not be a green dot, that our homes would not be razed, in terms of being mowed down, and we would come back, and be viable, and be stronger than we were pre-Katrina.

GWEN IFILL: Two years on, the rebuilding, the recrimination, and the remembrance are a part of the fabric of the Gulf Coast. Memorial observances continued in New Orleans this evening.

So how do things look on the ground for the residents of the Gulf Coast? For that, we turn to four community leaders in Louisiana and Mississippi: Jim Amoss is editor of the New Orleans Times-Picayune; Latoya Cantrell is president of the Broadmoor Neighborhood's Improvement Association in New Orleans; Brian Sanderson is president of the Gulf Coast Business Council in Gulfport, Mississippi; and Felicia Dunn Burkes is an attorney in Gulfport, Mississippi, although tonight she joins us from New Orleans.

Welcome to you all.

Latoya Cantrell, I want to start with you telling me the story of your neighborhood, the Broadmoor neighborhood in New Orleans, and how it came back.

LATOYA CANTRELL, Broadmoor Neighborhood Improvement Association: Well, Broadmoor in January of 2006, a recommendation was made to the mayor by the Bring New Orleans Back Commission that Broadmoor be slated to be a green space, a drainage park of some sort.

And so residents galvanized ourselves. We proclaimed that Broadmoor would not be a green dot, that our homes would not be razed, in terms of being mowed down, and we would come back, and be viable, and be stronger than we were pre-Katrina. And that has -- it's been proven.

Today we're implementing our redevelopment plan that was completed by the community in July of 2006. We have over 66 percent of our residents or properties that have been restored and are under active renovation. So there is indeed progress that has been made. We are united; we are back; we are viable. However, there are some things that still need attention.

GWEN IFILL: Let's talk about some of those things, Jim Amoss. In today's edition of New Orleans Times-Picayune, among other things in your anniversary coverage, carried this headline: "Treat Us Fairly, Mr. President." Well, President Bush was in New Orleans today. And maybe you can explain to us what you meant by that.

JIM AMOSS, Editor, New Orleans Times-Picayune: That was the headline of an editorial that we published in today's paper, and it referred to the federal aid that has flowed to Louisiana. And while much of the country has been generous, especially in the kind of volunteer efforts that have been shown, by comparison to some of the other damaged areas -- and in particular by comparison to Mississippi -- Louisiana has not received aid that was commensurate with the damage.

For example, we had well over 90 percent of the severely damaged homes in the New Orleans area, and yet only 60 percent of the federal housing relief money flowed to Louisiana, flowed to New Orleans. And likewise, about 97 percent of the hospital beds that were lost were in New Orleans, and yet only 50 percent of that medical relief aid flowed. And so we think that fairness dictates that that be righted.

GWEN IFILL: Brian Sanderson, has it looked similarly to you on the Gulf Coast in Mississippi?

BRIAN SANDERSON, President, Gulf Coast Business Council: You know, to a certain extent, certainly. Mississippi was Ground Zero for Katrina. The hurricane hit Mississippi, over an 80-mile stretch, from Waveland in Hancock County, 80 miles to the east in my hometown of Pascagoula. And the level of federal aid that the American taxpayers have been generous in giving us is appreciated. It has certainly -- we wish it has flowed faster than it has.

But we have to understand, under the Stafford Act that governs any other natural disaster, Mississippi would have received $7 billion to $8 billion in federal aid. But through the generosity of the taxpayers, Mississippi has been allocated $24 billion. Certainly not all of those dollars have flowed yet.

But from day one, Mississippi, from the local officials to our congressional delegation, and certainly at the state level, had a reasonable, well-thought-out plan of how they were going to use the money. And our homeowners grant assistance program, 87 percent -- almost nine out of every ten people -- that were eligible to receive those funds have received those to date.

And that's because of the steadfastness of our local leaders and our state leaders in making sure that happens. We're proud of that. We still have a long way to go, but we've made significant gains in the two years.

GWEN IFILL: Felicia Dunn Burkes, can you give us a sense of what the biggest challenge you would identify that are facing the residents of the hurricane zone in Mississippi now?

FELICIA DUNN BURKES, Attorney: I think it's not just Mississippi, but throughout the hurricane-affected areas. Our biggest challenge clearly is insurance. People are still battling insurance claims that have not been yet resolved, where they felt they had coverage and insurance companies have denied coverage, or questioned coverage, or nickeled and dimed coverage.

And then, for those that are beyond the coverage question and in the rebuilding, repairing, remodeling mode, the difficulty in securing affordable insurance coverage on new construction or rehabilitated construction is almost insurmountable. Many insurance companies have quit writing in all of the Gulf Coast areas that are directly affected by hurricanes.

Residents struggle with insurance

Jim Amoss
New Orleans Times-Picayune
I think the long-term goal of our community, and we think it should be something that the federal government would value, is to ultimately provide us with that system of [hurricane] protection.

GWEN IFILL: It sounds like a vicious circle in some respects: People who could not get insurance coverage to cover their lost property now also can't get it to build something new?

FELICIA DUNN BURKES: That is correct.

GWEN IFILL: So what is underway to do something about that?

FELICIA DUNN BURKES: Senator Lott and Congressman Taylor, particularly Congressman Gene Taylor from Mississippi, has introduced multi-peril legislation into the legislature.

We had a town hall meeting in Bay St. Louis approximately two weeks ago, where Speaker Nancy Pelosi and House Whip James Clyburn and other members of the congressional delegation came down, met with property owners, business owners, and home owners, and were able to create a record to take back to Congress to talk about how sorely needed this multi-peril insurance legislation, from a federal standpoint, is to getting all areas that are subject to and have been devastated by hurricanes back on their feet.

GWEN IFILL: Latoya Cantrell, let's go back to New Orleans for a moment. Tell me, if you can, what you consider to be the biggest improvement in your situation that maybe many of us have not heard about?

LATOYA CANTRELL: Well, the biggest improvement is the fact that people have galvanized themselves to rebuild their lives. As I stated, we're about 66 percent of our home owners that have come home and have been able to secure their properties and put their kids in school. So things in that regard are happening.

We have been able to form a public and private partnership in order to seek the additional resources that are necessary, simply because there is a lack of resources from the federal level. We have a partnership with the Clinton Global Initiative that committed over $5 million to the redevelopment of Broadmoor in 2006 and an active partnership with the Kennedy School of Government that has allowed us the assistance to help us plan and rebuild.

So the people are resilient. And it is because of residents and also volunteers that have poured throughout our community and other communities throughout the city to help us regain our lives.

GWEN IFILL: What about the biggest drawbacks?

LATOYA CANTRELL: The biggest drawback is the -- I would say one right now that we're dealing with, neighborhoods like Broadmoor have to submit a proposal to the state to make a plea for your public school that's in your neighborhood to be rebuilt, simply because there's not enough dollars to rebuild all of the educational facilities throughout the city of New Orleans.

So we are down with five that will be placed on a fast track prior to the end of this year, and other communities would have to wait until about 2010 to 2012 to see a rebuilt school in their neighborhood. So because of the lack of adequate funding, these are the pressures that have been put on communities.

GWEN IFILL: Jim Amoss, the same question to you, but in the context of what in particular the local government and the federal government and the state government's responsibilities ought to be in helping build up the things that are doing well and support the things that aren't?

JIM AMOSS: Well, I think the thing that's foremost in the minds of people who live in our area is protection from future storms. And the federal government's record is spotty in that regard.

On the one hand, we have floodgates that have improved our protection since Katrina, and I don't think anybody who has seen them can argue with that. On the other hand, we are protected from a 100-year storm and, while that sounds grandiose, if you compare it to the Netherlands, they enjoy protection through a system of dikes, and levees, and barriers, and sluices from a 10,000-year storm. So it's many, many times more the protection than the United States affords one of its prime cities.

And I think the long-term goal of our community, and we think it should be something that the federal government would value, is to ultimately provide us with that system of protection. In my view, everything flows from that, repopulation and bringing the economy back up. All are derivative of people's confidence that they can live in this community and not have to constantly think about the next hurricane season.

Gaming industry flourishes

Brian Sanderson
Gulf Coast Business Council
[T]he real story is not what's happening on the gaming floor; it's the multiplier effect that has in our community. It means 18,000 jobs for the people of the Mississippi Gulf Coast. It means great source of funding for our schools.

GWEN IFILL: Brian Sanderson, one of the things that seems to be going right in New Orleans is the rebuilt tourist areas. Is that the same thing that's happening with the revival of the casino districts along the Gulf Coast in Mississippi?

BRIAN SANDERSON: It is, Gwen. The gaming industry has certainly been a leader in our economic recovery. We had 13 gaming facilities before Hurricane Katrina; today, we have 11. The gaming industry's invested over $1.7 billion in investing.

And the real story is not what's happening on the gaming floor; it's the multiplier effect that has in our community. It means 18,000 jobs for the people of the Mississippi Gulf Coast. It means great source of funding for our schools. And so that's certainly been a driver in our economy: The casinos have been great corporate citizens. And we've been able to rebuild our non-gaming attractions.

I'll mention that over three-fourths of today's gaming customers in our casinos come from out of state. So it's not our local residents there; it's people that are coming back to visit the state. We brought in over 36 million tourists last year to visit the Mississippi Gulf Coast. They enjoy our $100 million-a-year golf industry, the cultural attractions. The museums that were devastated by Katrina are returning. Frank Gehry's Ohr-O'Keefe Museum is rebuilding in Biloxi. And so that's certainly a high mark of what we attribute our success to over the past two years.

GWEN IFILL: Felicia Dunn Burkes, tell us a little bit about the volunteerism which we have seen. And we have heard a lot about the number of people who have packed up, churches and other groups, to go down and help rebuild. Has that been a critical part of what you've seen happening in your community?

FELICIA DUNN BURKES: It has been absolutely essential. Again, because of the problems with insurance and particularly denial of insurance claims, many people who are in their homes post-Katrina or well on the way to getting back into their homes post-Katrina are at the point of recovery that they are because of volunteerism.

We have groups that make their mission to come down in droves that have been here for the whole two-year time period post-Katrina. We have organizations that donate materials. We have organizations that donate free volunteer labor.

And it is through that volunteer spirit that is one of the treasures of the American culture -- we all look out for and support each other when we're down -- that volunteer spirit has brought the Mississippi Gulf Coast, and I would dare say residents of the city of New Orleans, a lot further than they would be if we had not had these volunteers that we have had to come into our areas.

Goals for next year

Felicia Dunn Burkes
Insurance is absolutely the most essential accomplishment that has to be achieved over the next 12 months if any of the coastal areas that have been devastated by Katrina hope to rebound.

GWEN IFILL: Latoya Cantrell, I want to ask you and each of you finally briefly, if you had to look forward to the next year before we celebrate or observe another anniversary of this storm, and you wanted to be able to look back on the things you would most dearly like to have seen accomplished in that year, what would it be?

LATOYA CANTRELL: Well, surely, as Jim mentioned, more progress on the levees. Our protection is essential. And I would say that would be number one. And also the resources to pour into communities to help us continue to rebuild and restore our lives.

GWEN IFILL: Jim Amoss, same question to you.

JIM AMOSS: Well, I agree absolutely with Latoya and also with Felicia Dunn Burkes who made the remarks about volunteerism. People think of that as a footnote to the main action, but here it has been absolutely essential, as she said, and I hope that America continues to support us and doesn't give up on us. We're a bootstrap community, as Latoya Cantrell exemplifies, and I think an investment in New Orleans will pay off.

GWEN IFILL: Brian Sanderson, same question to you.

BRIAN SANDERSON: Sure, and I'll echo what Felicia mentioned a minute ago. During this next year, we hope to see lower insurance rates. Insurance is really the linchpin for our continued recovery. Along those same lines, more affordable housing for our workforce, for those residents of our communities who cannot afford to be back in the same homes or apartments that they were before the storm, more capacity for that rental market, as well as the home ownership market.

And, lastly, a rebuilding that recognizes the confidence that the American taxpayers have placed in us to rebuild stronger and better and in a smarter way, one that recognizes the dangers we have by living in a coastal area. And we're doing that. The state has committed that, and the local governments have committed to enacting tougher building codes. So we're being good stewards of the money that's been generously given to us, and we'll see more of that over the next year.

GWEN IFILL: Felicia Dunn Burkes?

FELICIA DUNN BURKES: Thank you, Gwen. Insurance is absolutely the most essential accomplishment that has to be achieved over the next 12 months if any of the coastal areas that have been devastated by Katrina hope to rebound, because you cannot get a construction loan if you don't have insurance to secure that loan.

And then the other thing is, as Jim indicated, we need, and we hope, and we pray that Americans across this country will not forget us, will be mindful and be vigilant, and continue to send their volunteers here to assist us in our effort to rebuild, because this is your America, too.

New Orleans is one of the greatest cities in the world. The Mississippi Gulf Coast is just blossoming into a beautiful resort area for all of us to enjoy. I think the two areas enhance each other, and it is in America's best interest to see both the Mississippi Gulf Coast and the city of New Orleans come back.

GWEN IFILL: Thank you all very much.