MDA Still Waiting To Distribute Elevation Grants - - The News for South Mississippi

MDA Still Waiting To Distribute Elevation Grants

The government's post-Katrina pledge to help South Mississippians rebuild homes stronger and higher has so far been an empty promise for thousands. A WLOX News investigation has uncovered that not one dollar of the $250 million set aside to help elevate homes has made it to a Mississippi Katrina victim.

Shortly after the storm, federal and state officials began dangling the possibility of $30,000 in grant money. That money was to help people raise their homes to meet FEMA's new flood guidelines.

Though the federal government provided money, it's the Mississippi Development Authority running the grant program. MDA began taking applications in June 2006.

Two Moss Point homeowners told Action Reporter A. J. Giardina that since then, they've dealt with tons of red tape, unanswered questions, and have nothing to show for it.

Neighbors Joanie Waddell and Martha Watjus didn't want to leave their Forest Street homes, even after Katrina destroyed them. Both have rebuilt, stronger and higher. In June 2006, both applied for the $30,000 elevation grants the government promised for people who raise their homes out of the way of future floods. Both are still waiting.

"We've done everything we can, applied three different times and still no word that I've even been accepted into the program," Watjus told WLOX News.

"I've called, I have e-mailed. Every time I called, up until the first of this summer, it was, 'We've not been funded. We've not been funded. We've got to wait on the funding.'" Waddell said.

Waddell began rebuilding her home higher, a foot higher than the 15 feet elevation the city of Moss Point said was required in this area. When she called the Mississippi Development Authority about her elevation grant, she was assured she could start rebuilding.

"They told me I didn't have to wait on the grant program, just to make sure that I kept all my receipts. And for two years I have kept all my receipts and everything," Waddell said.

It cost Waddell more than $40,000 to build up. She waited several months to hear about the $30,000 grant, then finally called MDA to check on her application.

"To begin with, they didn't have the applications."

Waddell says every call to MDA brought even worse news.

"After a couple of months, they found the applications, and I said, 'What's going to happen now?'

'Well, we don't know.'

I said, 'What are you doing with the applications?'

'Well, we've just got them sitting on a desk.'

They're still just sitting on that desk because they have no procedures in place," Waddell said.

Watjas spent $55,000 to elevate her home, and says she and her husband Richard would still be living in a FEMA trailer it they'd waited on the elevation grant.

These women and 3,300 other Mississippians are all still waiting to hear something about grants. The Mississippi Development Authority's website has a long list of answers to frequently asked questions, but there are no answers to the question Watjas and Waddell have - When will the check arrive?

WLOX News Action Reporter AJ Giardina contacted MDA Director Donna Sanford for answers. She agreed to a phone interview from her office in Jackson.

"There's $250 million allocated to the elevation grant program. As of today we have about 3,300 people still interested in the program, and there has been no funds dispersed, as of today," Sanford told AJ Giardina.

Sandford said there are many reasons no elevation money has been awarded.

"The elevation grant is a grant that involved construction. And any time construction is involved with federal money, you have to do an environmental study on the site before you can obligate funds... And part of the environment is making sure that historic preservation takes place and that we don't disturb anything archeological."

Though MDA paperwork says each home will be inspected individually, Sanford said MDA is waiting on all 3,300 inspections to be completed before awarding the grants. She promises that process is almost finished.

The next step? MDA will run newspaper ads for 15 days to give the public an opportunity to make comments on the results of the environmental studies.

"After that, we will submit the release for funds to HUD, and then we will be sending out letters for people to come in and close their grants," Sanford said.

Sanford couldn't give a definite date for when the first elevation check might be issued. And after all the red tape, that's the one answer homeowners like Joanie Waddell and Martha Watjas want.

"The people of the United States and Congress gave the money to the state and Mississippians who had this devastating disaster, but we're not getting the money," Watjas said.

Donna Sanford says of the 3,300 people who first applied for the grant in June of 2006, only 1,900 responded to a mail out in June of last year to see if they were still interested.

She says MDA is in the process of notifying the others who didn't respond to the second request. If you are one of those people, you can call the MDA office at (601) 359-3449.

By AJ Giardina

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