Bill Stallworth and Reilly Morse: Public resources should be shared by all citizens

published in the Sun Herald

In late August 2005, one day before an obscure tropical depression formed over the Bahamas, almost 3,000 Coast residents turned out to protest state plans to drill offshore for oil and gas.

Within a week, that tropical depression had entered the Gulf of Mexico, intensified to a large and dangerous hurricane, and veered toward the mouth of the Mississippi River. On Aug. 29, Hurricane Katrina directed strong winds and a particularly high and deadly storm surge at the central Gulf Coast. The eye of the storm made landfall on the Mississippi-Louisiana border, but the most severe winds and storm surge slammed into the Mississippi Coast. Over one million Americans were displaced and hundreds of thousands of homes and businesses were damaged with losses that ran into the hundreds of billions of dollars.

Almost five years later, the spring of 2010 offered Gulf Coast residents the promise of a successful commercial fishing and tourism season. The Gulf Coast region was moving toward recovery, although many disadvantaged areas still struggled with barriers to opportunity.

Then on April 20, 2010, a well blowout, explosion and fire occurred on the Deepwater Horizon in the Gulf of Mexico, and spewed forth over 200 million gallons of oil that washed ashore into marshes, estuaries, and beaches along the northern Gulf coastline. This oil disaster killed wildlife, shut down fishing activities, and devastated the coastal tourism industry.

For coastal residents whose emotional health was already vulnerable from Hurricane Katrina, the combination of the BP oil disaster and the onset of a new hurricane season conjured up nightmarish visions of a toxic storm surge.

Today, seven years after Hurricane Katrina, East Biloxi continues its slow and persistent march towards recovery. Much progress is evident in the casinos, hotels and amenities that ring the Biloxi peninsula. In the interior residential core, where generations of immigrant and disadvantaged populations labored to achieve the American promise of opportunity, Biloxi’s African American and Vietnamese families still struggle to return to normal.

Community-based organizations have been essential partners in recovery in the aftermath of Katrina and the BP oil crisis, helping disaster victims to access programs that tend to be unfamiliar and bureaucratic. Even as public attention shifted to other crises in our nation and overseas, these organizations stuck to their objectives of rebuilding lives one household at a time, drawing on their own ingenuity and the great American resource of volunteerism.

Along the way, these organizations helped broaden public participation in issues that affect the common good. Topics like climate change, sustainability and environmental protection spread into communities that too often had been overlooked or excluded from public participation in these issues. At the same time, problems of equity and fairness in distribution of disaster recovery resources required attention in real time to ensure our leaders directed the assistance to those most in need.

As any Alaskan harmed by the Exxon Valdez will confirm, recovery can move at a glacial pace. All the more important, then, that areas which face the risk of recurring disaster have strong community organizations to meet those challenges.

Today, in East Biloxi, several community groups are working to ensure promises are kept to restore housing to residents who fell through the cracks or were left out of prior efforts. At the same time, other groups are pressing for greater fairness and participation in the BP oil compensation settlement and the programs to restore the health of our shared natural resources. On the anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, may we offer once more our thanks to the nation for its support, volunteerism and compassion, and to the organizations still diligently pursuing the goal of recovery outside of the public eye.

We also ask for a promise that is easy to make but not as easy to keep — that resources raised based on the plight of our most vulnerable citizens actually be spent on them, and not after everyone else’s needs have been met.

Bill Stallworth
Executive Director,
Hope Community Development Agency

Reilly Morse
Policy Director,
Mississippi Center for Justice