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The Money’s Coming, But Who’ll Do the Work in Mississippi?

Mon February 27, 2006 - Southeast Edition
Maybelle G. Cagle



Second in a Series:

As Mississippi prepares to make the transition from clean-up to reconstruction, some are left wondering if there will be enough contractors to handle the work once the state begins spending its money from the federal government.

Think of it as the quiet after the storm.

While there’s still unthinkable amounts of debris to be removed from Mississippi’s towns, contractors are gearing up for the influx of new construction work that will gear up once the state starts spending its part federal allocations.

“It’s kind of a strange situation,” said Danny Guice, a state legislator and the manager of the Mississippi Associated General Contractors (AGC). “Most of what’s going on right now is that people are trying to repair homes. What little construction that is under way are jobs in place prior to the storm. People are trying to finish them up.”

He said there is not a great deal of bid work because the money isn’t yet able to be spent.

“Some people haven’t gotten their insurance money and federal money hasn’t come in. I suspect when the money starts coming in it will be utter chaos. There will be so much going on,” Guice said.

But attracting workers away from clean-up/recovery efforts could prove daunting.

He said local contractors can’t match the pay in those jobs, so “until the federal money dries up, it’s going to impact labor.”

Guice noted one AGC member that had 65 employees before the storm. It’s now less than 30.

“When the monies finally come in and they start bidding jobs, there will be so much work that people will be overwhelmed,” said Guice. “Part of the problem will be resolved when the cleanup is waning. The deadline for cleanup is March 15.”

But even when the money arrives, the work won’t begin until the planners and architects do their jobs.

“Literally, no one has experienced a disaster of this proportion in this country. It’s going to take such a long time. We’re all waiting for the money and the planning process to be over. It’s one of those things that when it gets under way, it’ll be monumental,” Guice said.

Mississippi and the other Gulf Coast states impacted by last year’s hurricanes are still waiting for billions of dollars in federal money, including a $29-billion supplemental budget package that was passed Dec. 31.

Mississippi Sen. Trent Lott had pleaded for its passage.

He was concerned the legislation might not pass, because of disagreements about other unrelated issues in the bill, H.R. 2863, the Fiscal Year 2006 Department of Defense Appropriations Act.

“People are living in tents in south Mississippi who don’t know what they’re going to do with their lives. They have a mortgage and a slab. They’ve hit a wall at the moment of exhaustion, frustration and decision. I can’t let this day go without pleading that we get it done now,” said Lott.

Approximately $5 billion will aid uninsured homeowners outside the federally-designated flood plain whose homes were destroyed by Hurricane Katrina. These grants will be administered by state and local governments through the existing Community Development Block Grant Program.

The package also includes:

• $740 million to repair Mississippi’s roads and bridges.

• $1.6 billion to rebuild schools in the disaster zone including $95 million for colleges and universities.

• $1.6 billion to ensure continuation of shipbuilding.

• $1.3 billion to repair and rebuild military installations and provide military family housing including

• $950 million to replace the Stennis Space Center.

• $1.1 billion for agricultural programs, including funds for oyster reef refurbishment.

• $441 million for small business loans in the disaster counties.

• $65 million to repair the Armed Forces Retirement Home in Gulfport.

• $125 million for job training programs.

• $110 million for rural development programs including repairs to water and wastewater infrastructure and

• $125 million for law enforcement recovery.

The $29 billion was for specific needs arising from Hurricane Katrina that are not covered by the Stafford Act. The money includes funding for activities in Mississippi, Louisiana and Alabama ranging from homeowner assistance to social services; helping states which are housing evacuees; and replenishing the accounts of federal agencies which have been involved in the recovery (i.e. the Department of Defense).

Additional hurricane relief assistance is provided through other pieces of federal legislation.

In a statement, Lott called December’s appropriations bill, “just one component of our hurricane recovery effort in Congress.”

Gov. Haley Barbour told the Senate Homeland Security Committee Feb. 2 that the supplemental bill along with assistance from the Stafford Act is providing between $25 to $27 billion for support and rebuilding the state’s infrastructure.

Barbour traveled to Washington to discuss his state’s relief and recovery activities.

His first recommendation was the lack of temporary housing on the coast.

“FEMA and its contractor Bechtel have installed more than 34,000 travel trailers and mobile homes that serve as temporary housing for about 100,000 Mississippians. Even with the fastest pace of delivery and installation ever, and that has been the case in Mississippi over the last five months, not enough people can get temporary housing fast enough with this single solution,” Barbour said.

“FEMA should quickly develop alternatives to this one solution for temporary housing. Modular or other non-stick-built design traditional housing exists that can be built faster than a contractor can move in 35,000 travel trailers, and the structures are not only stronger and safer, they also live better,” Barbour said.

He informed the federal government of the labor shortage on Mississippi’s Gulf Coast.

“Clean up such as debris removal, repair and rebuilding are labor-intensive, and even with a major influx of non-local labor, a lot of jobs go unfilled,” said Barbour.

While Barbour said the state has made progress in removing debris, he noted more removal remains to be done.

“In Mississippi alone, Katrina left in its wake nearly 45 million cubic yards of debris from barges and ocean going containers to the remnants of what had been 70,000 homes. In less than five months, more than 30 million cubic yards of Katrina’s debris in Mississippi has been cleared. We still have 12 or 13 million cubic yards to go,” he added.

“I suggest you and the administration consider some ways to improve the debris removal program. Using local contractors is a big plus, but the current system doesn’t encourage that. While local contractors have proven faster in our case, the system actually discourages local governments from hiring them. It does this by creating financial risk for the community,” Barbour said.

Corps of Engineers

Playing Big Role

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has been part of the recovery effort on the coast. “Our FEMA-assigned missions in the wake of Hurricane Katrina have included Operation Blue Roof, water, water, ice and emergency power, debris removal, temporary public structures and technical assistance,” said Corps spokesman Frank Worley.

He added, “On Operation Blue Roof, the Corps of Engineers has installed a total of 47,989 temporary roofs. This mission is not just a roofing mission, but is part of the overall housing mission; the more people who can stay in their homes, the fewer that are left in need of temporary shelters or housing.”

The Corps has removed more than 24 million cubic yards of debris, most of that from public rights of way.

“The mission continues now, with removal of debris from private property and demolition of structures deemed a hazard to public health and safety by the local officials,” Worley said.

He added, “Early in the response, the Corps helped deliver hundreds of trucks of ice and water and provided technical assistance. After assessing 45 waste water systems, we were asked to help with restoring 18 systems. We also conduct 441 power assessment and installed 31 temporary generators.”

One Contractor’s Job

Key Constructors, a Madison, MS, construction company, provided temporary housing and food for a 100 person crew that repaired the Popps Ferry Bridge just north of Biloxi after Hurricane Katrina.

“We set up a campground on city-owned property, bought some camper trailers and set them up,” said Key President David Trevathan.

The project cost under $8 million and took Key approximately 60 days. It had 100 days to finish the work.

The company also was involved in some design/build work on another Gulf Coast bridge.

“We would like to do some more work down there,” Trevathan said.

MDOT to Request More Federal Aid

Carrie Adams, a spokeswoman of the Mississippi Department of Transportation MDOT) said the department has been appropriated a total of $765 million by the federal government.

“In order to receive any more funding, we will have to make a request for it. MDOT does plan to request more funding, but at this time, we do not know how much,” she added.

Federal funds for MDOT will pay to reconstruct federal highways such as Highway 90 and Interstate 10. These projects will be totally federally funded and there is no time limit on when MDOT must complete the projects.

Plans are still in the works for the U.S. 90 bridge involving St. Louis Bay, Hancock and Harrison counties and the U.S. 90 bridge across Biloxi Back Bay, Harrison and Jefferson counties. CEG