Freedom, Hope, and Opportunity: Mississippians' Response to Hurricane Katrina

On September 30, 2005, MCPP President Forest Thigpen delivered a keynote speech at the State Policy Network (SPN) Annual Meeting. SPN is the professional service organization for America's state-based free-market think tanks. MCPP is a member of SPN. This speech describes Mississippians' response to Hurricane Katrina and offers hope for rebuilding the Coast the right way.

Good evening. I bring you greetings from the other state that was hit by Hurricane Katrina.

Many of you have been so kind to ask about my family and my office and how we are doing. I am pleased to report that we are all well, our property didn't have damage, and it would be embarrassing to complain about the inconvenience of being without electricity or telephone for a few days and sitting in gas lines for an hour-and-a-half, and so forth, while many of my fellow Mississippians still have no electricity because they have no home.

World War II veterans have said that the ravages of bombed-out cities in Germany cannot compare to the destruction on the Mississippi Gulf Coast. The now-estimated 35-foot storm surge was not merely rising water like you've seen in New Orleans. It was a relentless battering ram against the homes and buildings near the Coast, and a salt-water destructive force for miles inland. It wasn't only the Gulf that was affected. The rivers and streams that flow to the Gulf overflowed their banks, leaving not only water damage but up to a foot and a half of mud in nearby buildings.

To give you an idea of the breadth of the storm, there were two major east-west bridges that carried traffic into the Biloxi/Gulfport area. Both were lifted off their base and dumped into the water. These bridges are 50 miles apart. A casino barge more than 600 feet long and weighing many tons was picked up and carried across the beach and the highway and set down on top of a two story Holiday Inn - proving that a rising tide truly does lift ALL boats.

In Biloxi, 5,000 of the 25,000 structures are gone - not heavily damaged, but totally destroyed, and many more will be condemned as unsafe for habitation. The beautiful, historic towns of Bay St. Louis and Pass Christian, which survived Hurricane Camille in 1969, are virtually leveled, with 90% of the structures gone. One hundred miles inland, in the city of Laurel, more than half the buildings were heavily damaged or totally destroyed.

You've seen how Louisiana and New Orleans officials responded. Let me tell you how Mississippi responded.

Governor Haley Barbour begged people to leave the Coast before the storm hit and acted quickly to reverse the southbound interstate lanes to aid in the evacuation effort. The governor announced early and often that he had ordered all law enforcement officers to "deal with looters ruthlessly." He then CALMLY appeared each day at news conferences, where he CALMLY gave his assessment of the situation, and he CALMLY reassured everyone that the Coast would rebound. He spent as much time as he could on the Coast to reassure people in person, but he also spent many hours each day doing what you know he does best - exhausting his vast Rolodex to get private donations of relief supplies that were so badly needed on the Coast. And, he knows a few people in government, and he called them as well.

You haven't heard a lot of complaints from Mississippi about the lack of federal response because there have been very few complaints. I've talked to reporters, legislators, volunteers who have been to the Coast, and people who live there, and they all confirm that there have been very few complaints. The prevailing attitude seems to be driven by some confusion: "Why should we be mad about the government not coming to help? That's not their job - it's ours."

The Chief Building Officer in Pascagoula, home of the Chevron refinery and Northrop-Grumman Shipbuilding, was quoted in the newspaper as saying, "We've always taken the opinion that outside help is nice, and we appreciate it. But we don't want to depend on it."

This week, the governor told the legislature about one of his wife's many relief missions to the Coast. She and some state law enforcement officers took supplies to a family with eight children whose house trailer had been destroyed. The family accepted some items, but they wouldn't take everything - they wanted to leave enough for others to have. They told Mrs. Barbour that there was a widow, a shut-in who lived down the road who would need help. They told her to be careful not to miss a little road just down the way - one that was easy to miss - because four or five families lived down that road and would need help, too. As the governor said, "These are poor people, who had virtually nothing before the storm, and lost what little they had, and their concern is for others to get help."

Folks, this is Mississippi, and it's why I'm proud to be a Mississippian. In my state, we are all family. (Not literally, of course..... that's Alabama.) We all help each other and would never dream of expecting government to do what the family is supposed to do. Of course, not everyone holds that view under normal circumstances. But I'm hoping that the response of the people in these unusual times will remind us of the way things are supposed to be in the normal times.

I believe this disaster can truly bring a renaissance not only in the way we build our infrastructure, but in the way we think of ourselves and what role we expect government to play.

Leisha Pickering, wife of Congressman Chip Pickering (and daughter-in-law of Judge Charles Pickering), responded to the immediate aftermath of the storm by working with many churches across denominational lines in the Jackson area to create a distribution center for goods that were being sent from all over the country. Every day, 400-500 volunteers would unload truckloads of stuff (everything from food to toys to clothes to cleaning supplies, most of which arrived unannounced), sort it, rebox it according to the needs that had been called in from shelters around the state, then put it in pickups, on trailers, or any other vehicle that would then be driven by volunteers to wherever they were needed. My favorite quote of Leisha's is this: "Because there's no bureaucracy, we are able to respond to within hours to every request for help."

Churches have responded very biblically to the storm. Virtually all of the shelters in the Jackson area were run by churches. The Southern Baptist Disaster Response Teams were on the ground within 48 hours of the storm, serving up to a half-million meals per day throughout the region, including Louisiana. Churches from all over the country have sent teams to help in the relief stage, now the clean-up stage, and there is a growing interest among churches to help rebuild the homes of people who were without flood insurance.

And, on that topic, the flood plains were drawn according to the water levels reached during Hurricane Camille in 1969, a category 5 hurricane. Since the Europeans settled what is now Mississippi, flood waters have never passed those lines. This storm surge went at least twice as far inland as Camille's. For people outside the flood plain to have bought flood insurance would be akin to your buying more health insurance or life insurance than you need.

Well, what's next?

Two weeks after the storm, Governor Barbour told the legislature, "The crucial thing we should never forget is that private capital, entrepreneurs, and small business people are going to have more to do with how the Coast comes back than all the governments in the world."

He has created a Commission on Recovery, Rebuilding, and Renewal - which he refers to as the "Renaissance Commission" - to develop a plan for revitalizing and revolutionizing the Coast. It's an advisory commission, and the plans will be up to the local folks to implement. But they are inviting the advice of experts.

The Commission's report is due to the governor by the end of the year, but the real work will be done in the committees they have created, and their work is due by early December. So, basically, we have two months to get free-market ideas into the plans. They have created 12 committees, covering topics ranging from land use and other infrastructure issues, to public finance, to education, health care, and several others. The primary goal is to create a region that will invite private capital to rebuild the area.

I've talked with the staff director of the commission, who is a friend of mine, and he invited me to solicit ideas from experts, including many of you, to help the committees find the best options for rebuilding. Bridgett Wagner [of the Heritage Foundation], Tracie Sharp [of the State Policy Network], Bob Williams [of the Evergreen Freedom Foundation], and Scott Hodge [of the Tax Foundation] have taken the lead in helping me develop a network of experts we can call on to advise the committees with white papers or personal presentations and also to help us at MCPP respond to issues that might come up along the way.

This is a very complex project involving every imaginable aspect of public policy, and I invite your help.

The Mississippi Center for Public Policy's newly-designed website was scheduled to go live in mid-September and feature some nifty new tools to help people see the data for their local school districts for the past twelve years, dynamically drawing graphs and comparing their districts with others. But right now, nobody cares how much money was spent in schools last year.

So, our site will now feature the papers that have already been produced by Heritage, NCPA, Reason, AEI, and others. We've also been working with Bob Williams, Ron Utt from Heritage, and Geoff Segal from Reason, among others, to help us do some papers that we will publish alone or jointly with their organizations.

Since many of these communities have no tax base, it's a good time to ask, "Since we can't do everything we want to do, what are the core functions of government - those things we should do." What are some alternatives to government financing of public structures, such as the deal struck a few years ago in the District of Columbia, of all places, where a private company built a school at no cost to the taxpayers in exchange for some land the school wasn't using anyway. The company built an apartment building on that land, and they are using the revenue from that to pay off the tax-preferred but privately-underwritten bonds they issued to build the school.

Many of you have sent ideas to me, and I appreciate that very much. Keep 'em coming. Even if it's just a passing thought, send it to me at [email protected].

As you can imagine, many of my financial supporters are now struggling themselves. And, since Mississippi is family, the people in the rest of the state have been giving generously to the relief effort. When I mentioned that just briefly in a message I sent out a couple of weeks after the storm, I was overwhelmed by the response. Lynn Harsh from Evergreen, Tracie, Bob, and Bridgett, all acted immediately, and we even had a number of personal contributions from people in this audience. Dan Peters and Shirley Roe saw the opportunity and responded generously, and I am grateful for that.

In Mississippi, we have a long way to go, and although I'm proud of our response so far, the story is still being written. But we have a chance now to dream of how to recreate communities in a way that restores our founders' views of what an American community ought to be.

If we do this right, then 10 years from now when you think of Mississippi, you will think not of the winds of a hurricane that brought death and destruction, but the winds of freedom that brought and hope and opportunity - winds that began in Mississippi in 2005 and swept across the land to your state as well.


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