For most South Mississippians, revisiting Hurricane Katrina brings to mind images of homes stripped to their foundation, cities replaced by debris, bridges in ruins and our fellow Mississippians huddled near each other as they sifted among the rubble…
For most South Mississippians, revisiting Hurricane Katrina brings to mind images of homes stripped to their foundation, cities replaced by debris, bridges in ruins and our fellow Mississippians huddled near each other as they sifted among the rubble. Our memories aren’t pleasant and, thankfully, are being replaced by a new, thriving Gulf Coast that is rebuilding itself. However, the hurricane stands in the national spotlight again due to accusations of corruption made by state Sen. Chris McDaniel in a recent story in the Washington, D.C., publication Politico. In the article, McDaniel insinuates that U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran acted hastily in expediting passage of $5.5 billion in Katrina relief funds to help Mississippi families and businesses recover from the worst natural disaster in our country’s history.
In Politico, McDaniel said it would not have been “an easy vote to cast” and described the bill as “laden with pork,” arguing the disaster money was largely misspent.
Later, McDaniel commented on Facebook that, “Independent studies on Katrina relief have demonstrated more than $2 billion in waste and misspent funds. Some of the waste went for such ‘necessities’ as guns, strippers and tattoos.” Worse, he cited a New York Times article in which not one example comes from Mississippi.
With all due respect, Chris McDaniel, who is Cochran’s opponent in the upcoming Republican primary, got this wrong and his insinuations about massive fraud related to Katrina recovery in Mississippi are not accurate.
McDaniel and I are both from Jones County and our hometowns were hit hard by Hurricane Katrina. Sustained winds of more than 110-miles-per-hour ripped through the area where 12 people were among the 235 statewide who lost their lives in the fury. Yet, before the sun had set on that infamous Monday, Aug. 29, 2005, chainsaws were roaring as neighbor helped neighbor in our rural community.
Even though many in our county were without water or electricity for more than two weeks (and I personally had to ask for diapers, water and formula from out-of-state friends because our local stores were shuttered), what we suffered was dwarfed by the destruction on the Mississippi Gulf Coast. I went to the Coast, and I saw the unbelievable damage and listened to the strongMississippi hearts of our citizens there.
Katrina relief funding ultimately was an easy vote to cast. The U.S. Senate unanimously approved Sen. Cochran’s plan after an overreaching plan from Louisiana was stopped. Schools, churches, shipyards, police stations, bridges and military bases, not to mention tens of thousands of homes, had to be rebuilt. I do not consider the Mississippi Gulf Coast pork. On this, Chris and I can agree to disagree.
But what I cannot tolerate is Chris’s misrepresentation of the facts concerning the disaster relief funds received by our state.
As State Auditor, I understand and fight public corruption. Our current governor, Phil Bryant, knows it as well. Under his term as State Auditor when Hurricane Katrina hit, he established the Katrina Fraud Prevention and Detection Unit. Since 2006, these diligent investigators and staff in my office have prosecuted 94 people in connection with Katrina fraud. Twenty-seven were Katrina-related home repair contractors and 67 were Katrina Homeowner Assistance Program grant recipients.
But criticizing Mississippi, when we correctly awarded 99.5 percent of Katrina funds without fraud, disparages our image in this country and is not what we expect from a candidate for the U.S. Senate Mississippi developed a system in response to Hurricane Katrina that provides complete transparency on every dollar spent and prevents fraud. In addition, it actually sped the release of funds. The process was so successful that it received recognition as a best practice by the U.S. Government Accountability Office. And now, with the Gulf oil spill settlement and the RESTORE Act, Mississippi’s Legislature is in the process of enacting similar accountability legislation.
As state auditor, I want to reassure Mississippians that we attack fraud whenever and wherever it rears its ugly head.
And it does happen.
But Sen. McDaniel’s accusation about Katrina fraud in the midst of his political campaign is just plain wrong. The facts about the disbursement of Katrina funds in the state of Mississippi do not support his claims of fraud here.
Write to: State Auditor, Stacey Pickering, P.O. Box 956, Jackson, MS 39205.