WASHINGTON – In his maiden speech today on the floor of the U.S. Senate, Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) drew attention to the challenges still facing Mississippi’s Gulf Coast and called on Congress to act in order to help South Mississippi fully recover from Hurricane Katrina.
In his remarks, Sen. Wicker outlined the continued challenges facing many in Mississippi, saying, “For most citizens on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, Katrina is not just one issue; it is virtually every issue.”
Sen. Wicker outlined major issues impeding recovery along the Gulf Coast, including the need for affordable insurance and housing, the extension of tax incentives that have helped spur economic growth in South Mississippi as well as the need to reduce government red tape that is holding back progress.
The following excerpts are from Sen. Wicker’s maiden speech:
- “While there are a number of issues, accomplishments and challenges facing my constituents, today I will speak about the most pressing issue facing my state: The rebuilding and renewal of the Mississippi Gulf Coast and the ongoing need for this Congress to follow through until recovery is indeed a reality.”
- “Over the last two and a half years, a lot of progress has been made. South Mississippi is not just recovering; South Mississippi is building back from the worst natural disaster in American history bigger and better than ever before.”
- “I say this to my colleagues in the United States Senate: Katrina is not over. There are tall hurdles still to overcome. There is more the United States Congress must do.”
- “The most urgent issue facing the Mississippi Gulf Coast is insurance. If you can’t insure it, you can’t build it or finance it. The rising cost of insurance cripples the efforts of small businesses, increases the cost of home-ownership, and drives rental rates beyond affordability.”
- “The CDC recently announced that those still living in FEMA trailers could be exposed to formaldehyde levels 40 times the normal level. This news only serves to underscore the fact that while FEMA trailers were a benefit immediately following the storm, we must redouble our efforts to move the remaining citizens from them.”
- “Another key initiative we must focus on in order for the Gulf Coast to continue rebuilding is the extension of tax provisions included in the GO Zone legislation.”
- “Congress and the federal government’s bureaucracy need to get out of the way so the state, cities, and counties can use the resources already provided to them.”
Below is the text (as prepared for delivery) of Senator Wicker’s maiden speech delivered on the floor of the Senate this afternoon:
As I address the Senate today for the first time, I could not be prouder of the people I represent. From the Northeast Mississippi hills and DeSoto County suburbs down through the Delta, from metro Jackson across to East Central Mississippi and down through the Piney Woods, from Southwest Mississippi to the Gulf of Mexico, with over 50,000 new jobs in the past four years, my native state of Mississippi is on the move.
But we are also in the process of recovering from the most devastating natural disaster ever to hit the North American continent – Hurricane Katrina. With its nearly 30 foot storm surge, its winds of over 125 miles per hour, and an eye that stretched the entire coastline of Mississippi, Hurricane Katrina reshaped not just the landscape of our Gulf Coast; Katrina reshaped how public officials must approach every quality of life issue in our state, be it housing, insurance, economic development, education, health care, or public safety.
While there are a number of issues, accomplishments and challenges facing my constituents, today I will speak about the most pressing issue facing my state, the rebuilding and renewal of the Mississippi Gulf Coast and the ongoing need for this Congress to follow through until recovery is indeed a reality.
Steady progress has been made, but great challenges remain that cannot be overcome without a partnership from the federal government. Continued federal resources are needed before our state can truly recover.
For most citizens on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, Katrina is not just one issue; it is virtually every issue.
Every Mississippian remembers what they were doing on August 29, 2005. My wife, Gayle, and I were at home in Tupelo, in the path of a storm that would cause damage 300 miles inland and in the path of thousands of Mississippians and Louisianans fleeing Katrina. Like citizens across the country, we joined our community in opening arenas and churches, preparing Red Cross shelters and organizing gifts of clothing and supplies. Our family and friends were among the foot soldiers in the army of compassion that responded to the devastation in South Mississippi.
Days after Katrina’s landfall, Gayle and I had the opportunity to deliver an 18-wheeler of supplies to Jackson County. What we saw was indescribable to those who had seen the coverage only on television. Tens of thousands of homes obliterated. Businesses and schools destroyed with no trace of previous existence. Bridges wiped away, cutting cities off from one another. And an eerie silence because of the lack of electricity for hundreds of miles.
The federal government’s response to this disaster has come under an immense amount of criticism, much of which is justified. But it would be irresponsible for us to ignore what went right.
The night of the storm, Coast Guard helicopter crews saved hundreds of my fellow Mississippians.
Katrina generated twice as much debris as any hurricane in history, but it was picked up in half the time.
Our school superintendents, principals, teachers, and parents led the effort to get every one of Mississippi’s public schools open as quickly as possible.
Our business community responded, reopening shops, restaurants, and manufacturing plants so our people could get back to work.
And our citizen volunteers and the faith community shined. 500,000 volunteers have offered help to Mississippi since Katrina, and that number continues to climb.
Over the last 2 ½ years, a lot of progress has been made. South Mississippi is not just recovering; South Mississippi is building back from the worst natural disaster in American history bigger and better than ever before.
As a member of the other body, I was glad to be a part of the team that worked to produce much needed appropriations and economic development incentives for our state and others impacted by Hurricane Katrina. Our Governor, Haley Barbour, our Senior Senator, Thad Cochran, my predecessor in this body, Senator Lott, and our entire Congressional delegation – Republican and Democrat – were a part of this effort. Katrina was not a partisan storm and in Mississippi, we are working in a bipartisan way to rebuild our communities.
On behalf of a grateful state, I thank the Senate for its support of our rebuilding efforts. In return, Senators, - and the taxpayers - deserve a report on our progress.
Housing is still being rebuilt, as evidenced by the shrinking number of families in FEMA-provided temporary housing.
The CDC recently announced that those still living in FEMA trailers could be exposed to formaldehyde levels 40 times the normal level. This news only serves to underscore the fact that while FEMA trailers were a benefit immediately following the storm, we must redouble our efforts to move the remaining citizens from them.
The State of Mississippi is deploying “Mississippi Cottages,” which are real homes built to HUD standards that are free of formaldehyde contamination.
It is imperative that FEMA work with the State of Mississippi to purchase and deploy Mississippi Cottages for all individuals along the Gulf Coast who live in FEMA trailers.
We are also rebuilding our infrastructure. The bridges connecting Bay St. Louis to Pass Christian, and Biloxi to Ocean Springs have been rebuilt, literally and spiritually reconnecting communities to one another.
The GO Zone economic development incentives have been an essential boost to our job creation initiatives. Our state’s largest employer, Northrop Grumman, has made great progress and is working to get back to pre-Katrina employment levels; Chevron has announced an expansion of its refinery in Pascagoula; PSL has announced its first plant in North America in Hancock County where they will manufacture steel pipe; and Trinity Yachts has a new facility in Gulfport.
Much has been done, but there is much left to do.
Chairman Donald Powell, the Federal Coordinator for the Office of Gulf Coast Rebuilding, acknowledged these challenges last week when he announced he was stepping down. He said it would be “some time before the area recovered.”
I say this to my colleagues in the United States Senate: Katrina is not over. There are tall hurdles still to overcome. There is more the United States Congress must do.
The most urgent issue facing the Mississippi Gulf Coast is insurance. If you can’t insure it, you can’t build it or finance it. The rising cost of insurance cripples the efforts of small businesses, increases the cost of home-ownership, and drives rental rates beyond affordability.
This is not just an issue for Mississippi. From Bar Harbor, Maine to Brownsville, Texas, millions of Americans live near the coastline, in the path of a future hurricane. For many years, insurance companies have refused to offer insurance protection for water damage caused by hurricanes; this led to the creation of the National Flood Insurance Program. After Katrina, the most important question for a homeowner or a small businessman was “wind or water?”
Wind versus water. That is the debate which still occurs today in courtrooms on the Mississippi Gulf Coast between insurance companies and storm victims.
This debate is what necessitated the multi-billion dollar supplemental appropriations package this body approved after Katrina, and unless Congress changes the law, the wind versus water debate will result in a multi-billion dollar supplemental appropriations package after the next big hurricane – wherever it may land.
Even worse, since Katrina, it is also common practice for insurance companies to not offer wind insurance at a rate that is even close to affordable. This is driving more and more homeowners and business owners into a state-sponsored wind pool, which acts as an insurer of last resort. But this is not a reasonable long-term solution, because too much risk is being placed in a too small of a pool.
The best solution available is to allow homeowners to purchase wind and flood insurance coverage in the same policy.
This will not only help the storm victims so they can know their hurricane damage will be covered; it also will protect the United States taxpayer. The American people are the most generous in the world, and their elected representatives will continue to respond to natural disasters, whether it is a hurricane on the East Coast or an earthquake in California, with supplemental disaster appropriations packages. But the size of these packages will be smaller if more people have insurance.
As a member of the House, I voted for Congressman Gene Taylor’s multi-peril insurance legislation when it passed last September. I am committed to achieving the same success here in the Senate.
Another key initiative we must focus on in order for the Gulf Coast to continue rebuilding is the extension of tax provisions included in the GO Zone legislation. I mentioned earlier the boost this legislation has given the Gulf Coast, and I want to ensure this body that it has provided much-needed help.
However, in order for the legislation to be fully utilized by families and small businesses who have not yet been able to begin rebuilding, these important tax provisions should be extended.
Other issues remain, especially at Katrina’s “Ground Zero.” Hancock County, and the cities of Pass Christian and Long Beach in Harrison County, bore a direct hit from Katrina, and their issues are not the same as the rest of the Gulf Coast.
With their property tax base decimated, basic government operations are still are run out of trailers. Hancock County has no jail, an essential part of maintaining public safety. Mayors, supervisors, and other community leaders now are forced to completely rethink their economic development and planning strategies because the new FEMA flood plain maps will make rebuilding next-to-impossible in many areas.
Ground Zero needs extra help. In many cases, Congress has provided the necessary resources, but the federal government’s current rules and regulations do not recognize the reality on the ground. The federal government needs to be flexible, and if it can’t or won’t, Congress needs to step in. At some point, as Chairman Powell stated, “commonsense has to come to the fore.”
My Senate office has been in existence for only a few weeks, but we are already at work trying to help constituents wade through the bureaucratic process to receive the permits from federal agencies, such as the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, that are necessary to rebuild.
This is obviously not the first time that federal government red tape has needlessly caused problems, and it won’t be the last. But that does not make the problems any easier to bear when people are hurting.
For example, affordable housing initiatives developed by the state are being delayed needlessly because Congress has refused to give the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development the authority to waive environmental regulations which require an archaeological dig for remnants on each property – property that already had a home on it before Katrina!
This red tape does not make sense.
In this case and in others like it, Congress and the federal government’s bureaucracy need to get out of the way so the state, cities, and counties can use the resources already provided to them. But there are some cases where this Congress needs to provide more resources.
Off the coast of Mississippi lies a chain of barrier islands and coastal wetlands which provide a first line of defense against the storm surge of a hurricane. According to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, a storm surge is reduced by one foot for every one acre of wetland. Without the barrier islands, the storm surges would be 8 to 12 feet higher.
Hurricanes like Camille and Katrina -- two of the most powerful storms ever recorded -- have caused significant damage to Mississippi’s natural defense systems. If they are not restored, this problem will only get worse, putting more people and property at risk during future storms.
Gulf Coast ecosystems are also threatened. The barrier islands and wetlands provide a natural regulator of salinity levels, which is vital for shellfish and other marine life to have a vibrant habitat.
I don’t hail from Louisiana, but I strongly support the restoration of the levees in New Orleans. Those levees are necessary for the restoration and protection of a great American city. Our barrier islands provide the same purpose for the Mississippi Gulf Coast.
In the coming months, I look forward to working with my colleagues in the Gulf region to provide the funding necessary to restore the natural habitats that protect not just the environment and its ecosystems, but also protect our citizens from harm’s way.
Through the leadership of many in this body today, the Congress has stepped up to the plate time and time again to provide assistance to the people of the Gulf States after Katrina. It is appreciated, but I remind my fellow Senators, we are not finished.
We should celebrate our progress, but keep our eyes on the work that needs to be done. When there is a clear and compelling case for additional federal involvement, I will be persistent in making that case.
The people of the Mississippi Gulf Coast, who have demonstrated such untiring resilience and strength over the last 2 ½ years, deserve no less.