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Paying for our future — now or later?

We made a trip to the Coast during the holidays. It’s part of our Christmas marathon, which begins in Arkansas, brings us back through Clinton for Christmas Day, and ends in Gulfport, with my family. Our previous trip to Gulfport was within days of Katrina’s appearance, so we were anxious to see how the area was faring.

Nearing the Coast, we saw billboards announcing the return of a few casinos. Isle of Capri was open, and Imperial Palace was soon to follow. We were hopeful.

Usually, we exit off U.S. 49 at Interstate 10 and head toward my parents’ house. They live a short distance from the Biloxi line, between Highway 90 and Pass Road. This time, though, we followed 49 as far south as we could go, running into Highway 90 (or what we call The Beach Road).

Our hopes quickly faded. Old downtown Gulfport looked like it had been bombed. Buildings had windows busted out, brick and mortar were strewn about. Few businesses were even operating. The closer we got to the Gulf, the worse it looked.
Highway 90 was open, but only for two lanes. Electricity was still spotty, so there were no traffic lights to help with the steady stream of cars, just stop signs and patient drivers.

Driving down the beach, we were hit with the full effect of the storm. First Presbyterian and First Baptist were shells, exposed steel beams, some bent like flimsy wire, entire brick walls demolished, steeples half gone. Here’s the church. Here’s the steeple. Open the doors. Where are all the people?

The landscape opposite the beach resembled World War II footage. The few trees left standing were gnarled and bare. The color was gray, everywhere just gray. Looking closely, we could see the remnants of those fine old homes. In some places, a few brick steps remain. In others, there is just a concrete slab left to commemorate the occupants’ former life.

FEMA trailers dotted the bare and gray landscape, small, shiny, egg-like domains. One had a full deck built around it, its occupants optimistic and prepared for a long stay. Another had a sign in front thanking FEMA for their modest dwelling.

We passed a beachfront lot with a large, cheery Christmas sign posted facing the highway. It read, “Dear Santa, Please put Farm Bureau on the naughty list. We still haven’t received our insurance check.”

The Coast has always been about the tourist. But now, I was the tourist, and I had come to see their pain and their loss. It was the same feeling I had when I went through Ripley’s tent at the fair. I wanted to see what Katrina had done to my hometown, but seeing it for myself was more than I could bear.

I was ready to exit Highway 90. The problem was that the usual landmarks were gone. I couldn’t tell one street from another. I guessed. We turned left. We went two blocks north before I realized we were on Courthouse Road, the road I traveled every day in high school.

When we reached my parents’ house, we were greeted by other family members. They spoke of the great progress that’s been made since the storm. I knew they were right. Great progress has been made. The problem is there is just still so much work to be done.

Sales tax in several of the municipalities is up, but that’s only because everything has to be replaced. Despite the increase in revenue, it’s not enough to cover the replacement of infrastructure. The federal money, which will begin flowing into the region, is much appreciated, but there is concern it won’t be enough. Rebuilding will be a monumental task.

Subsidizing risk?

Some have suggested that government not assist families and businesses as they struggle to rebuild. The theory is that this is asking government to subsidize risk. Living on the Coast carries risk. Hurricanes are forces of nature which cannot be averted. “You pays your money. You takes your chances.”

But to turn our backs on these people is to decide to write off the southern third of the state. Do we really have an option? Insisting these people go it on their own means we will pay later. We’ll pay because more will become dependent on the state, and I don’t think Mississippi can afford this. We’ll pay because this region, before the storm, was prosperous, adding to our coffers through the increased tax base. The rest of us will have to make up the difference, either through increased taxes or decreased services. For a state that is struggling to get off the bottom, the timing could not have been worse.

We need South Mississippi to recover and prosper again. It is in all our best interests. The theory is that those living on the coastline should bear all the risk. The reality is that this risk is borne by the entire state.

Digging a deeper hole?

Gov. Barbour and Treasurer Reeves have decided to fund the recovery with bonds. They plan to borrow the money to help rebuild the Coast and cover our current budget needs. I think that’s bad financial management. You can’t get out of a hole by digging a deeper hole.

It’s time for us to suck it up and do the right thing. The people of Mississippi have always been the most generous, and I think we want to help our neighbors to the south. Enact an increase in the sales tax. Designate it for relief efforts, and put a 10-year sunset clause in the bill.

Republicans in power can justify such action by pointing to the unprecedented event of Katrina. I believe the public will forgive… no, they will embrace such a tax, because it makes sense. I would gladly pay a few pennies more on my purchases, knowing the money was helping to rebuild the Coast.

Haley Barbour won me over after the storm. He showed compassion when he walked among those victims. He displayed courage when he risked his own political life to speak up for the people of Mississippi. Governor, there’s one more thing you need to do. Understand that theory and reality don’t always mix. Set aside your political ideologies just this once. I promise you that Mississippians will stand beside you.

Nancy Lottridge Anderson, CFA, is president of New Perspectives Inc. in Clinton. Her e-mail address is nanderson@newper.com, and she’s online at www.newper.com. Her column appears monthly in the Mississippi Business Journal.

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