BILL MOYERS: We turn now to some other people who, like those outraged residents of Seattle, also think they are being shafted by the government and are doing something about it.
Since Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast two years ago, the media has largely focused on New Orleans struggling to get back on its feet. But nearby Mississippi was also hit hard, and its being praised for its recovery efforts. But there's a story in Mississippi that's not been told. A couple of months ago I received a letter from a woman on the Gulf Coast who heads the organization called the Steps Coalition. She invited us to come down and see what the recovery of Mississippi looks like from the perspective of people who have been left out of it. I asked producer William Brangham to go down there and check it out.
WILLIAM BRANGHAM: This is what you see when you're not on the official tour of Mississippi. Houses that were flooded sitting empty and unrepaired. People still living cramped inside those slim FEMA trailers. Across this state, tens of thousands of people are in similar circumstances. For these places, the heralded recovery in Mississippi seems to have skipped on by.
DERRICK EVANS: You know, the popular myth is that Mississippi's doing fine. But it doesn't take a whole lot of time spent here to realize that there is no recovery to speak of in this state, when you talk to people, when you go into homes, when you go into communities.
DERRICK EVANS: This is what I showed you on the map.
WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Derrick Evans runs a local community preservation group. And he can point out plenty of things that are changing down here but he says those changes are leaving a lot of poorer people behind.
DERRICK EVANS: See, this has all been cleared since Hurricane Katrina. This here, you can see is wetlands. This is the airport, and there's hotels coming up over here now. This is not "re-building." This is not "re-covery." This is new stuff with federally subsidized tax credits and CDBG funds. And it needs to be going into these people's houses, and that's not housing for nobody that's down here.
DERRICK EVANS: This was an environmental disaster of Biblical proportions. This was a housing disaster unprecedented in, you know, our history. This is probably going to be the biggest land grab in American history since the 1930s right here along this beach. And it amazes me that people don't get it. That it's such a big story.
ROSE JOHNSON: At all costs we have to stop wetlands fill..
WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Last year, Evans and a band of other local activists, got together to push for a recovery that would help all Mississippians.
ROSE JOHNSON: Our parents worked themselves from sunup to sundown for that land in North Gulfport, we can't allow speculators to buy up our land.
WILLIAM BRANGHAM: They've come from across the Gulf Coast. There's clergy and local merchants civil rights activists and environmentalistsall banded together because they say the recovery from Katrina has put the needs of the wealthy over those of the poor. They call themselves the 'Steps Coalition.'
DERRICK EVANS: Some people think Steps is an acronym. And it is not. I suppose it's a word that has multiple meanings. Like the steps that need to be taken to get us where we need to go. The steps are often the only thing that people have left of their homes. It could've been an acronym, you know, the world doesn't need another acronym, right, does it?
SISTER MARTHA MILNER: I would like to invite you...
WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Sister Martha Milner works for a Catholic housing group. And she was one of the first members of Steps.
SISTER MARTHA MILNER: From the very beginning, the people had no voice. We really came to realize that we had to get all the organizations together and see if together we'd have enough strength to push some doors open.
MEMBER: If you come up to speak ...
WILLIAM BRANGHAM: They've had some successes already. One of their groups helped expose the abuse of immigrant workers. Another held off the destruction of local wetlands. Another guided hundreds of people through the bureaucratic chaos that followed Katrina. But these were just skirmishes in the bigger battle.
MELINDA HARTHCOCK at podium: From the beginning we have known that any recovery...
WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Melinda Harthcock is the executive director of the coalition.
MELINDA HARTHCOCK at podium: .. .we have to include affordable housing, economic justice, environmental justice.."
WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Harthcock's the one who wrote us the letter, saying 'come down here, see what we're doing."
MELINDA HARTHCOCK: What we have is an attempt at an awakening. We had an affordable housing crisis before the storm. Corporations were importing workers. Developers were filling in wetlands. And basically, our quality of life was tanking before the storm. But few noticed the danger. Katrina dramatically accelerated everything.
WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Everywhere you look down here, the contrasts are striking. New condominium towers sprouting up next to storm wreckage. Along the beach in Biloxi, brand new casinos so big and so shiny that for a few blocks at least, you can almost forget what Katrina did to this place.
DERRICK EVANS: When Hurricane Katrina hit, legislators went to Jackson in their pajamas and immediately enacted legislation to allow casinos to rebuild on land, so as to not lose any of them and to increase there number. In the meantime, it took the governor's commission weeks, to realize that in addition to tourism infrastructure and finance, they needed to have a committee on housing, affordable housing, to deal with the fact that over 70,000 houses were destroyed, rendered uninhabitable by Hurricane Katrina. So, housing was not anything that was on their mind.
WILLIAM BRANGHAM: That's what you notice next. What's not here. Occasionally you'll get a glimpse of what used to be. But in so many places along the Mississippi coast, it's the weeds that have made the biggest comeback.
SISTER MARTHA MILNER: When I ride down those streets, it's a terrible sadness. It is like a ghost town. I take people on tours, I keep saying over and over again, "And this area was house after house after house after house after house." A person who didn't have a guide wouldn't understand the dense population that was in these areas. It's like your memories are erased. And, and what's in place of them is sort of a twilight zone.
REILLY MORSE: Hi Dorothy
WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Reilly Morse came to the Steps Coalition as a civil rights lawyer. He's been working in Mississippi practically his whole life.
REILLY MORSE: What people still don't get two years after the hurricane is that tens of thousands of Mississippians and people in other states across the Gulf Coast still are displaced. They're not in their own homes. They're not in a new, permanent residence of some form or another. People are stuck in limbo and there doesn't appear to be a solution to them returning to a normal life in sight.
CONGRESSMAN: Governor Barbour.
GOVERNOR BARBOUR: Mr. Chairman and Distinguished members of Congress I thank you for the opportunity
WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Mississippi's governor Haley Barbour has received a lot of money to rebuild homes. Congress gave the state over $3 billion dollars specifically for housing. Federal rules required that half that money be given to lower income families.
PRESIDENT BUSH: It's good to hear people hammering isn't it.
WILLIAM BRANGHAM: But governor Barbour wanted to loosen those federal rules. He argued he could do a better job if Washington wouldn't tell him how to spend the money.
GOVERNOR BARBOUR: Let me just thank you.
WILLIAM BRANGHAM: In his former life, Haley Barbour was one of the most powerful corporate lobbyists in the county. He was also chairman of the Republican National Committee, so he has friends in Washington. When Barbour asked for waivers of those federal rules, he got them.
ANNOUNCER: The Governor of the great state of Mississippi
WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Mississippi was the only state granted this kind of freedom with its recovery funds.
GOVERNOR BARBOUR 2007 State of the State speech: I especially appreciate and want to thank HUD Secretary Jackson who has not tried to substitute Washington's judgment for judgement of Mississippians about how best to rebuild and renew our state.
WILLIAM BRANGHAM: The Steps Coalition argues that the governor has either excluded poor families from his recovery plans, or put them to the very back of the line. Here's what happened: Katrina hit in the summer of 2005. Eight months later, Phase I of the governor's housing grant program starts. Over a billion dollars goes out mostly to more affluent families. But it took more than a year after the storm for Phase II to begin - that's the program specifically targeted to lower income families. And to date, it's given out a lot less money. And now, two years on, not even half the people who've applied for Phase II have received grants.
SISTER MARTHA MILNER: There's no oversight whatsoever on the expenditure of funds. Everything is, it seems like everything is okay. Where the intent really was to help lower income families. And that's mostly who suffered in this.
MELINDA HARTHCOCK: The people who have the least amount of backup, the least cushion in their budget, have been asked to wait two years before they got any help.
WILLIAM BRANGHAM: The prominent research group the Rand Corporation echoed the Steps position. Rand reported that the recovery of affordable housing was lagging in Mississippi. Today, according to the federal government, there are 14,000 families still living in FEMA trailers across the state.
State officials told us they know the recovery feels too slow to people. But they say there was no textbook showing them how to respond to a disaster as big as Katrina. But two months ago, those same recovery officials did something that astounded the Steps Coalition they announced they were going to redirect $600 million dollars from housing funds to the state port. They said there's plenty of money for the housing grants, so this money could be moved.
REILLY MORSE: It's a four-fold expansion of what was there previously. And it is an extraordinarily rich expansion. I think a lot of the homeowners down here wish they could do a four-fold expansion of their meager homes. And it wouldn't cost $600 million to do it.
WILLIAM BRANGHAM: The money would be used to repair and improve the port's shipping and container facilities - a move which could also open up space for cruise ships and more casinos.
REILLY MORSE at press conference: So we learned about that on a Friday, by the following Monday, people started mobilizing.
WILLIAM BRANGHAM: The local press didn't pick up the story until the Steps Coalition protested. But soon even the national media was taking notice the LOS ANGELES TIMES ran this story. THE NEW YORK TIMES wrote this editorial urging the feds to "take a hard look" at the governor's plan. Two Democrats in Congress joined in as well - asking federal housing officials to block Barbour's proposal.
SISTER MARTHA: None of us are against the expansion of the port. We know it's needed. But the money should not come from the housing monies because we have so many people in need of housing.
WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Governor Barbour is now denying that this is a diversion of money from the housing fund. His officials are now backing away from their earlier comments. Officials also stress that a revitalized and safer port is a crucial part of this state's recovery: it will create more revenue and create more jobs. But with a $600 million dollar price tag, Reilly Morse says those are some pretty expensive jobs.
REILLY MORSE: So, you're buying a 1,000 new jobs for $600,000 per job. That's an extremely rich ratio. And most federal programs would turn you down flat on that. In fact, the state's asking the federal government to waive those requirements. It would normally be $35,000 per job created, and we're doing something that's almost 20 times that.
WOMAN at STEPS meeting: We depend upon our government to protect us.
WILLIAM BRANGHAM: To the Steps Coalition, the bigger issue is this: tens of thousands of people across the state are still badly in need of help, so using $600 million dollars to expand the port is just the wrong priority.
MAN at STEPS Meeting: So that's what happens when you give Haley Barbour $3 billion dollars with almost no controls.
BILLIE RAYBORN: This is our kitchen. This is where we cook. This sink is not even in a permanent base. It moves.
WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Billie Rayborn and her husband Travis are both retired, and both on disability. Like thousands of others, they've applied for phase 2 recovery funds to help rebuild their home.
BILLIE RAYBORN: The water was up to approximately here in the in the house. Our bathtub had sewage matter in it when we got back home. Needless to say we never used it again.
WILLIAM BRANGHAM: The Rayborns did get some help early on, but the $20,000 has been nowhere near enough to bring their house back together. Their local church has had to help out too. But for now, the Rayborns are stuck. Waiting.
BILLIE RAYBORN: Do we have faith in the government? No, not anymore. There's too much greed.
TRAVIS RAYBORN: We're doing everything possible we know how to do. But we're butting against a stone wall. And that's, you know it's, we're getting no help from nowhere. So we don't want everybody to give us a doggone thing. You know? But we do need help. And it's not just us. It's several thousand people here on the Gulf Coast.
MELINDA HARTHCOCK: One of the most profound shifts that's happening down here is that people, even solidly middle class people who thought that they were respected members of society, who thought they'd done the right thing to protect their assets, who thought their voices counted for something - are finding that they don't.
SISTER MARTHA MILNER: This is a good test for democracy, I believe. The will of people were that we were to get help here. And the way that the help is being administered is not working. And I believe that if the American people really knew what was going on, they'd be up in arms that their will is not being carried out.
BILL MOYERS: Last year, Haley Barbour was awarded GOVERNING magazine's "Public Official of the Year" for his stewardship of Mississippi in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. And last week, he easily won re-election for a second term and is now being talked up as the Republicans' vice presidential nominee next year.