MS, AL, LA say feds too tight with hazard mitigation money

By Danielle Thomas - bio | email

BILOXI, MS (WLOX) - When it comes to hurricanes, leaders in Mississippi, Louisiana, and Alabama say what happens in one state affects them all. So they're making a greater effort to work together. For the first time all three states are collaborating in the Gulf States Hurricane Conference, which got underway in Biloxi on Wednesday.

Representatives from all three states are working on a comprehensive plan to deal with everything from evacuation traffic to shelters. But they say what they need most is more cooperation from the federal government in how states are allowed to spend hundreds of millions of dollars in hazard mitigation money.

Hurricane Katrina washed away Mississippi coast homes, businesses, and infrastructure. It also knocked out most lines of communication. That left emergency responders, who were responsible for saving lives, unable to talk to one another.

"My head of the National Guard might as well have been a Civil War general. He could not talk to anybody except face to face," said Gov. Haley Barbour.

Governor Barbour said Mississippi needs a communication system it can rely on after a natural disaster. He said that's how hazard mitigation money can help.

"We're entitled to $400 million. Our whole system would cost about $140 million statewide," said Gov. Barbour. "The federal government is not allowing us to spend it on the thing that would do the most good."

Louisiana and Alabama have also been allocated millions in hazard mitigation money. Both states say the feds won't allow them to put the money into what they consider their most pressing needs.

Mark Cooper works with the Louisiana governor's office.

"Our issue is sheltering. We're right now trying to look at those mitigation funds to see if there is a way that we can build shelter capacity, which obviously impacts Mississippi and Alabama. What we would like to see is flexibility from this administration with regards to mitigation, as well as a lot of the programs FEMA has in place," Cooper said.

Alabama Governor Bob Riley said, "If we get a hurricane in July and August when all of our beaches are full, all of the hotels are full, we've got several bottlenecks. We've asked the federal government to come in and use some of the mitigation money to four-lane these, to tie them into I-65 or I-10, so we can evacuate people."

"We can replace anything else," said Gov. Riley. "We can't replace a life."

Governor Haley Barbour said it is time for Congress to fund the $1.2 billion plan put forth by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to restore the barrier islands that help protect Mississippi in a hurricane.

"The Corps has done their best. They've got a plan," Gov. Barbour said. "We want to see it implemented. If we are going to do something about storm surge, we believe our barrier islands are crucial to dealing with that. This plan was devised by the Corps at the direct instruction of the Congress, and the time is coming for Congress to fund it. "

The conference continues on Thursday.

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