By Karin Fleming
When Katrina hit Gulfport and Biloxi, Miss., the storm surge pushed a 25-foot wall of water into the area, causing neighborhoods as far as six miles inland to flood. Ninety percent of the buildings in the area were damaged and eighty percent of the state was left without power.
Now, 20 months later, organizations such as Hands On Gulf Coast who deal with the rebuilding effort are watching their funds dry up.
Hands On volunteers arrived in Biloxi one week after Katrina hit. Setting up a temporary residence in the community center of a church that survived the storm, they went right to work providing the area with short-term needs, such as food, medical supplies and temporary housing.
Today, Hands On - which is now part of the Hands On Network, a worldwide network of nonprofit organizations - can still be found in the back of Beauvoir United Methodist Church. Posters and memorabilia from past volunteers hang on the walls of the large center, and bunks were placed in the second-floor loft as accommodations for the 50 “long-termers” and constantly changing numbers of short-term volunteers.
“They’re saying it will take about 15 years to rebuild the coast,” said Carrie O’Neil, the community affairs manager of Hands On. “A lot of the funding for the Gulf is drying up, and there’s also the fear that within the year there will be another disaster.”
O’Neil said in addition to funding issues, it’s hard for community members to navigate the bureaucratic system to receive grants.
“The Red Cross has a 30-page application for a $10,000 grant,” she said. “It’s very hard for people to know what they qualify for or if they qualify at all.”
Tonja Lacey, of Gulfport, was shocked when she heard she was ineligible for FEMA assistance.
“I’m a single mom with two kids,” said Laney who is an auditor for the department of defense. “My neighbor, a single guy with no children who owns a company and makes $200,000 a year got FEMA assistance, and I’m like, ‘What happened here?’”
O’Neil said the ideal situation is for everyone to have their own case manager, who would provide the guidance most residents need. But a shortage of case managers prevents this from happening.
In order to combat this, Hands On, in addition to other local organizations, works with a case management system. People who need help just have to register, and a point system is used to determine how much need each individual requires.
“It’s a well run system,” said O’Neil. “[It] indicates who has the resources coming in from different groups.”
However, many people seem to be falling through the cracks.
Residents say some people received assistance who didn’t need it, and others who needed help were too proud to ask. Still others who received funds or could afford to make repairs were taken advantage of.
“Everybody’s had a bad contractor who’s run away with their money,” said Laney.
Though it’s been a year and a half since the storm waters receded, the effect Katrina had on the Gulf Coast can still be seen. The lingering destruction lines the main streets, with washed-out plots juxtaposed with freshly painted houses. However, the residents continue to work on rebuilding their cities.
Whenever something needed to be done, locals just “rolled up their sleeves and did it,” said Laney.
But with approximately 15 years worth of rebuilding left to do, the situation in the Gulf Coast still needs to be addressed. The million-dollar cash flow has been significantly reduced, and the attention of the nation is needed to fill this void.
Karin Fleming is a sophomore journalism major who single-handedly demolished a home. GRRR. Email her at kflemin1[at]ithaca.edu.