Former Biloxi Mayor Gerald Blessey says there is an over-arching question transcending all of the specific legal issues about insurance, employment contracts, delayed debt payments and reconstruction contracts related to Hurricane Katrina.
“The fundamental question is this: Will the normal economic, administrative and judicial systems, even with generous private charity and federal emergency aid available under current law, be able to meet this extraordinary challenge in time to save Mississippi’s economy from collapse?” Blessey asks. “I think the answer is, ‘No, we need more help, beyond current law and conventional wisdom.
“We need visionary leadership. We need a Marshall Plan for the Gulf states. Not just Louisiana, Alabama and Mississippi, but also Florida, Texas, Arkansas, Tennessee and Georgia, where hundreds of thousands of homeless and jobless citizens have relocated. Most importantly, the critical areas — the Southern areas of Mississippi, Alabama and Louisiana —need enormous capital to be invested quickly, with little red tape but with visionary planning to recreate permanent jobs and new storm-proof residential neighborhoods in completely devastated pockets like Point Cadet in Biloxi, downtown Gulfport, Bay St. Louis, Pass Christian, Waveland and many others.
“Capital injection on the scale needed, but without cumbersome regulation, will require new federal and state laws.”
The Marshall Plan was named for General George C. Marshall, who as Secretary of State after World War II, proposed the plan to invest U.S. capital to rebuild business and industry in Western Europe. The plan injected capital and technical expertise to get business and industry back on their feet to employ millions, whose paychecks then resurrected the economies of Europe. In return, the U.S.’s major trading partners began buying U.S. goods again.
“My gut feeling is because the economy has been so devastated, what we really need is a federal Marshall Plan,” Blessey said. “Britain, France and Germany would still be Third World countries without the Marshall Plan. It will take extraordinary steps to restart these coastal economies. The $50 billion currently proposed by Congress won’t get it.”
Chicken and egg problem
There is a major “chicken and egg” problem. Say you get your business open, but your customers are all out of work and don’t have money to spend. Or, perhaps you could open your business, but the road infrastructure hasn’t been repaired. Another difficulty for businesses is that an income stream is needed to get a loan, but businesses can’t get the income stream until they are able to reopen their businesses.
Blessey says the government can’t be timid about addressing the problems. It will take bold, new steps beyond what has been done for previous disasters.
“I don’t think we should be timid,” Blessey said. “The governor and the Legislature need to move immediately to tell the federal government that we can’t do this alone. We need help now, not a month from now. Secondly, we need to pass special legislation to allow our local cities and counties to carry out these things quickly without a lot of bureaucratic red tape. We don’t need a new bureaucracy. Local governments know how they want to rebuild their neighborhoods. And it is a no brainer that the first thing we need to get back in place in Gulfport and Biloxi are casinos to get people back to work and the tourism economy running.”
Blessey said the unprecedented scope of Katrina destroyed the whole Gulf States tourism economy. So, it requires an unprecedented economic solution.
“I’m not talking about financial assistance for clean-up, temporary aid and temporary jobs, which are part of the current law for emergencies,” he said. “That’s good, but not enough to save the economy. I’m talking about jump starting the permanent, private sector of the economy on a massive scale with clear, simple authority to get the job done.
“Mississippi’s governor should call a special session of the Legislature to (1) ask, respectfully but firmly, the President and Congress to adopt such a Marshall Plan, and (2) pass enabling state legislation to permit city and county governments to work in public-private partnerships to implement such a plan…”
Blessey said this strategy will require bold, compassionate, enthusiastic, fair leadership at every level, but particularly within the small cadre of federal, state and mostly local city and county managers who should be recruited from the private sector and should start thinking and working immediately.
“The economies of South Mississippi and the Gulf States, and maybe even the nation, do not have the luxury of time to mend and restore in the same manner as after Camille,” Blessey said. “Actually, the Mississippi Coast did not recover from Camille until the casinos came 20 years later. For Mississippi, the key to restoring the economy is restoring the casinos, right away, in storm-proof structures.”
The buildings along U.S. 90 weren’t just lucky. They were modern buildings built to post-Camille building code standards. Most were built on pilings to allow water to flow underneath the buildings rather than allowing waves to bash against the walls.
“For instance, the Beau Rivage, Isle of Capri and Hard Rock, Sea Breeze condos and the Mississippi Power Company building, among others, remain because they were designed to new standards of strength and allowed water to wash through the lower floors,” Blessey said. “The governments should assist every casino company in getting back into business quickly — restoring jobs, tourism and hope.”
Newer and better
As tragic as Katrina was and still is, Blessey said there is now an opportunity to build a newer, better economy and community life all up and down the Coast and throughout the region. For example, Point Cadet could be rebuilt with a mix of traditional neighborhood developments, casinos, open space, condos, churches, affordable energy-efficient housing, parks, neighborhood commercial (food stores, pharmacies, shops, theaters) within walking distance, mass transit, public piers, marinas connected by boardwalks to casinos.
“All pre-storm residents should be guaranteed affordable homes in the new neighborhood,” Blessey said. “Such a new community will require venture capital backed by the federal government and implemented quickly by new state and local government rules and oversight. Similar new neighborhoods could be built in Gulfport, the Pass, Hancock County, D’Iberville, Ocean Springs, and so on.
“On a regional basis, there are similar opportunities for larger scale reconnection of communities and economies. For instance, a new rail line with commuter trains could be built from Gulfport through Hattiesburg and on to Jackson, tying these economies closer and integrating them in a new way.
Hattiesburg and all of Piney Woods Mississippi were hard hit by this storm. A new rail line would spur new growth while restraining urban sprawl.
“There are many other good ideas out there. The people are battered but optimistic. It is time for us all to act like men and women of thought, and think like men and women of action.”
Contact MBJ contributing writer Becky Gillette at firstname.lastname@example.org.