What Gulf Coast Congressman Gene Taylor wanted the Easter Bunny to bring him.
South Mississippi Living 4/07

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Hancock receives advice on aid

USDA official brings money, too


A U.S. Department of Agriculture official offered candid advice this week for local leaders struggling to replace big chunks of the county swept away in Hurricane Katrina: Hire an outside expert to track relief money and coordinate efforts, and don't hesitate to question FEMA.

Thomas Dorr, the USDA undersecretary for rural development, met with supervisors in his second trip since the hurricane.

He listened to the lament of supervisors: Two years after the storm, the county often seems still at ground zero. The jail, the emergency operations center and the Bay St. Louis courthouse are all still closed from heavy storm damage. The county operates from a fleet of trailers in a dusty, sand-and-gravel parking lot, and everything it tries to do seems tangled in red tape.

"The bureaucracy is terrible. All our buildings are gone," Supervisor Steve Seymour told Dorr. "If we had a hurricane bearing down on us right now, we'd be in a terrible situation."

Dorr suggested county officials push harder for innovative solutions that aren't solved by single-source federal aid. Dorr cited Greensburg, Kan., whose 50,000-gallon public water tank was destroyed when the town was wiped out by a tornado.

FEMA would only replace the old 50,000-gallon tank, although local officials needed 75,000 gallons to cover rebuilding and future growth. To make that possible, the USDA paid the difference.

Dorr and his staff also brought evidence of their concern. They presented supervisors with checks totaling nearly $600,000 for rural road improvements and for office equipment. They also gave $100,000 each to the Diamondhead and the Post 58 fire departments.

Dorr also told supervisors many federal decisions stem from regulations, not laws. As such, they can be questioned. "Regulations are made to be changed," he said. And of FEMA officials, "There's no reason not to call some of these folks on the carpet."

He recommended supervisors hire a "disinterested third party" to track down federal funds and coordinate efforts of consultants already on the payroll.

Dorr also said supervisors should seek help from his department and other agencies in rebuilding a permanent county complex, and consider tying in fiber-optic cable placement with new regional water and sewer systems. That will help attract new business, he said.

Supervisors seemed pleased with the advice. "This discussion has been like looking at a bigger picture," Seymour said.

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