Rep. Palazzo sought millions in Katrina relief for Biloxi Housing Authority

Anita LeeThe Sun Herald

BILOXI -- U.S. Rep. Steven Palazzo says he voted against funding to pay the Hurricane Sandy flood insurance claims because of the deficit, but as the chief financial officer for the Biloxi Public Housing Authority back in 2005, Palazzo asked for federal relief despite the nation's debt.

The Housing Authority listed $38.5 million in "Total Funds Needed Right Away" in a handout published one month after Katrina devastated 70 miles of Mississippi's coastline Aug. 29, 2005.

The handout quoted Palazzo, then the authority's deputy director and chief financial officer: "Tell our national leaders -- don't send more inspectors -- we know what's damaged and how to fix it. Send us money so we can put our families back together and do our part to rebuild our community."

The handout is still posted on its web site.

Public housing relief in Mississippi eventually totaled $110 million for Mississippi's three Coastal counties. Harrison County, where Palazzo is from, received $72 million in funding for public housing alone, according to figures compiled in 2010 by the office of former U.S. Rep. Gene Taylor, whom Palazzo defeated to take office in 2011 with an anti-Nancy Pelosi message.

Congress poured a total of at least $24.6 billion into direct Mississippi Katrina relief, Sun Herald archives show, in large part because of the efforts of Republican Sen. Thad Cochran, who then headed the Appropriations Committee, and then-Gov. Haley Barbour, former head of the Republican National Committee.

Palazzo has been roundly and widely criticized, here and in the northeast, for joining 66 other House Republicans who voted Friday against adding $9.7 billion to pay National Flood Insurance Program claims. The bill passed the House and Senate, where Mississippi Sens. Thad Cochran and Roger Wicker voted for funding.

NFIP funding has been characterized in the media as "Sandy relief." However, NFIP sells flood insurance and collects premiums on its policies in exchange for a promise to pay policyholders for flood losses the contract covers.

Congress had to bail out NFIP after Katrina's devastating losses, resulting in an $18 billion NFIP debt. NFIP is once again running out of money to cover flood losses.

Palazzo told the Sun Herald on Friday evening that he thinks the nation needs to come to grips with how the federal government funds disaster relief, plus find spending cuts to offset the future Sandy relief package. He said he is working on such legislation, but will in the end support Sandy relief.

A statement sent to the media Friday evening from Palazzo spokesperson Laura Chambers said: "Congressman Palazzo fully supports a Sandy relief package that includes spending offsets. On the heels of a fiscal cliff deal that added $4 trillion to our existing $16 trillion national debt, we must ensure that disaster relief is paid for.

"He also hopes we will be able to have a much-needed national discussion on disaster relief reform in the coming days."

Reaction was swift and generally negative.

A Sunday story from the New York Daily News is headlined: "Remember the 67 Republicans in House of Representatives who turned their backs on Hurricane Sandy victims."

Mike Lupica, one of the nation's best-known sports writers, singled out Palazzo in the story, writing: "Perhaps the worst phony of all of them is Rep. Steven Palazzo, out of Mississippi's Fourth Congressional District, which happens to be situated on the Gulf Coast.

"Apparently the government was supposed to come rebuild Biloxi and the rest of the Gulf Coast after Hurricane Katrina, but is supposed to tell Breezy Point and Staten Island and Jersey to figure it out for themselves."

On the Sun Herald's Saturday story published online, 99 readers commented. Only one of the comments supported Palazzo's decision. The first comment on the story read, in part: "Now is NOT the time for "a national discussion about changing the way America funds disasters". Not when people in my neighborhood are still living in their cars. Not when the local Police Precinct is still closed because the building was damaged . . .

"Now is the time for action, not talk. The nerve of this Republican congressman. He didn't want to wait and have a "national discussion" when it was his state that got hit by a hurricane, but we are supposed to wait out in the cold. Are you kidding me? No way.

"Not when we can spend $1 trillion dollars rebuilding Iraq and Afghanistan, but we can't find the money to take care of people in our own country. What is wrong with this guy? What is wrong with anyone who would vote for this guy?

The Sun Herald left a message with Palazzo requesting a follow-up interview. Spokesperson Chambers returned the call to find out what the newspaper wanted.

Anita Lee
Biloxi Sun-Herald