Bay St. Louis — Since Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast August 29, U.S. Rep. Gene Taylor, a Democrat from Bay St. Louis, has been leading the charge for federal assistance in rebuilding efforts.
The 52-year-old shares the suffering of Coast residents because his family’s home was washed away, too. In his 17th year in the House of Representatives, he serves on the Armed Services and the Transportation and Infrastructure Committees, two assignments he feels will be key for Mississippi in the coming years.
The congressman took time from his busy schedule to answer questions regarding the challenges facing coastal Mississippi and his impressions of the various efforts underway.
Mississippi Business Journal: What is the single largest challenge facing the Mississippi Gulf Coast?
GT: The biggest immediate challenge — and there are so many — is the large number of people who lived outside the flood plain and did not have flood insurance. They’re finding that their wind storm coverage doesn’t pay for their damages. I’m disgusted with the insurance industry and working with Sen. (Thad) Cochran (R-Miss.) and my other colleagues to find solutions to this problem.
MBJ: What solution do you prefer?
GT: I prefer to go through the Federal Flood Insurance Program and allow home owners to pay premiums back 10 years and sign a contract for that parcel to stay in the program. They could only file a claim up to the amount of their wind policy or the amount of the Federal Flood Program. If they have $150,000 on wind storm, that’s all they can claim.
If Congress wants to tie payments to communities that raise flood levels, that is good too. I’m not in discussion with my colleagues on that but it will give these communities incentives to adopt the new flood levels.
MBJ: Which solution has the best chance of passing in Congress?
GT: The bill that Sen. Cochran is proposing. The Katrina recovery bill will be written in his office. He wants to help those people who fall into this insurance trap and is proposing to use the Community Development Block Grant Program. I am really pleased that he has agreed to sponsor this bill and met with him last week. Whatever he’s comfortable with is fine with me. He’s chairman of appropriations and will get what he wants.
MBJ: Does helping Coast residents have good support in Congress?
GT: Yes. We’re up to 77 co-sponsors on the Federal Flood Program bill that I proposed. Now Sen. Cochran has made a commitment to sponsor this other bill and that’s great news.
MBJ: When will the Cochran bill be presented?
GT: I sure hope it’s before Christmas, in early December when we go back into session. After the California earthquake, there was a quick response to help people and I hope this is that way, too. In fairness, the scope of this hurricane is huge and Sen. Cochran, being the good guy that he is, won’t ask for anything that he thinks is not right. He has it clear in his own head.
MBJ: Will there be any federal help for the area’s infrastructure?
GT: Before the storm, the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality was asking for $250 million for priority water and sewer improvements in the Fourth Congressional District. Now, those priorities must be enormous with so many lift stations and water lines destroyed. A good suggestion is to use this opportunity to get people on central water and sewer and do away with septic tanks.
I have reminded my colleagues that we should do the same thing for our people that we’re doing in Iraq where we’re building roads, schools and water and sewer systems. Our people need the same things.
MBJ: How do you evaluate the response at the local level?
GT: Keep in mind the enormity of this disaster. Locally, there was no communication, no fuel and no transportation. The first responders went under water and had nothing to work with. They had to make do and did the best they could with what they had. Help had to come from elsewhere. With so many Mississippi troops in Iraq, the Guard’s response was limited, but I will say that those who came have done an outstanding job.
MBJ: What is the situation now?
GT: It’s frustrating. A lot of the debris has been removed but it’s low-hanging fruit that has been removed. There’s still a lot to remove and a lot to do.
MBJ: What do you think of the state’s response?
GT: I like Robert Latham (MEMA director) and I think he did the best he could with what he had. MEMA was prepared for a single tornado or flood, not something like this. The real darts in this go to FEMA.
MBJ: How do you rate FEMA’s response?
GT: Michael Brown was the stereotypical federal bureaucrat. A big problem in Hancock County was having one single distribution point for food when people had no transportation or fuel to get there. However, the Guard, Navy and SeaBees did great and we were glad to have them.
I was at a town meeting last night and the big questions was why we’re still waiting for trailers this long after the storm. There are still a lot of people living in igloo tents and FEMA doesn’t have any answers. Long term, I have concerns. President Bush made a commitment to be here as long as it takes and I want to hold him to it.
MBJ: How do you want the post-Katrina Coast to look?
GT: I loved the place the way it looked before the storm. I look at the way Gulf Shores looks with all those high-rise condos and I don’t want the Coast to look that way. I hope single-family dwellings will remain. The sense of community is what saved us. My brother had four families staying with him and I don’t want to lose that sense of community. I don’t think Gulf Shores has that.
We’ve lost a lot aesthetically — beautiful homes and trees. We must be keenly aware of that and keep it. It must look good. That’s very important to tourism and economic development.
MBJ: Will the area recover economically?
GT: Yes. Trinity Yachts employs 400 people and those are good jobs. They’re leaving New Orleans and coming to the Coast. Another company is coming with 100 jobs for starters. It’s a mixed bag and has sure caused a lot of people to look at us.
We’ve gone from being a place where most guys my age had to leave to find jobs to one where they could stay and find jobs. That’s great news. We need a good mix of tourism, defense-related industries, technology and others. We have more people discovering Stennis Space Center now.
MBJ: What message do you want to send to residents?
GT: I want everyone to know how proud I am of the people of Mississippi and the way they’ve handled this adversity. They’ve shown tremendous courage, resiliency and strength, and the extent to which they took care of each other was great. Now, they’re asking for help from our nation and they should get it. They deserve it.
Contact MBJ contributing Lynn Lofton at email@example.com.