Signal Hill Councilmember Ed Wilson tells of trip to Mississippi

wilson-biloxi.jpgBy Nick Diamantides, Staff Writer

Signal Hill City Councilman Ed Wilson traveled to Biloxi, Mississippi, recently, and while there he got an eyewitness view of what happens to a region after a major disaster. “It’s been almost two years since Hurricane Katrina struck Mississippi’s Gulf Coast, and there are still large numbers of people there who cannot return to their homes,” he said. “The rebuilding effort continues, but much of the work remains to be done.”
Wilson was in the Southern city from July 31 to August 5 to attend the National League of Cities’ National Black Caucus for Local Elected Officials (NBCLEO) annual conference. “The theme of this year’s conference was ‘Helping Rebuild Biloxi After Katrina’, but we also had sessions on municipal finance as well as other issues,” he noted. “We discussed ways of getting more federal funding for Biloxi, but we also talked about some of the challenges facing cities throughout the nation.”
Wilson said that what has happened on the Gulf Coast since Katrina should serve as a warning to cities and counties that federal and state assistance might be very slow in coming after a disaster and it could take years for a region to rebuild after a major catastrophic event.
“No one has a full count of the number of buildings lost, but when Katrina struck the Mississippi Coast, some towns and cities were completely wiped out and others had 50 or 60 percent of their buildings destroyed,” he noted. “The contractors are focusing most of their efforts on rebuilding the businesses, because there’s more money in that, while many homeowners are scrambling to get help rebuilding their houses.”
According to Wilson, volunteer disaster relief workers are building or repairing about 90 percent of the homes on the Gulf Coast. “They are coming from all over the world and more than 6,000 of them have gone there since the hurricane made landfall,” he said. “This includes church groups, other relief organizations, political groups and individuals who just show up and want to help.”
About 80 people attended the NBCLEO conference and about half of them volunteered to help in the rebuilding for a day. Wilson was one of them. “I spent a day building a sub-floor for a woman whose house was severely damaged by the storm,” he said. “I was working with a crew of about seven volunteers.”
The councilman noted that Hurricane Katrina destroyed and damaged more buildings on the Mississippi Coast than it did in New Orleans. “Progress is very slow in the rebuilding of the coast and more federal funds are needed,” he said. “But money alone will not solve the problems; that whole region desperately needs an army of volunteers to just go there and do the work that needs to be done.”
He noted that while most homeowners had insurance on their houses, they have not been able to get enough money to pay for the rebuilding. “Some of the insurance companies are not willing to pay the actual costs,” he explained
Wilson said what he saw in Mississippi persuaded him that Southern California is not prepared for a major earthquake or other catastrophic event. “In the 1980s, studies showed us that we did not have enough hospitals to handle the large numbers of people who would be injured by such an event,” he said. “The region’s population has grown significantly since then, but we have fewer hospitals now than we did in the 1980s. We are putting ourselves in a position where we will not be able to effectively respond to a major disaster in this region.”
Wilson added that cities and counties also need to have plans in place for providing shelter for the large numbers of people who might lose their homes in a disaster.
“Right now several thousand people in Mississippi are living in FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) trailers, but they have been informed that the deadline for them to move out has passed,” he said. “Right now, no one knows where they can go if they leave those trailers.”
Yet, in spite of all the unsolved problems and unanswered questions, Wilson said that volunteering in Biloxi for a day was a very rewarding experience. It was hard work in hot temperatures with very high humidity, but at the end of the day, we all felt good,” he said. “In this life, you’re always blessed when you help someone else.”

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