Federal flood policy is crippling Pascagoula, mayor says

·3 min read
Hannah Ruhoff/hruhoff@sunherald.com

It’s the best of times and the worst of times.

Pascagoula is truly a tale of two cities.

Our strong industrial base, high-wage jobs and revitalization efforts make us a city of the best of times, but due to unwise federal flood policy since Hurricane Katrina, our housing market is squarely in the worst of times.

Before this unprecedented storm, about 20 percent of Pascagoula – mostly low-lying wetlands areas – was in a flood zone. Afterwards, FEMA redrew Mississippi’s flood maps putting 90-95 percent of our town in a flood zone. FEMA mostly added homes that had never flooded before Katrina and haven’t flooded since. The negative impact is huge.

Unfortunately, in contrast to many other coastal communities, 90 percent of commercial and residential property values in Pascagoula have either declined or remained static from 2008 to 2018. FEMA rules have driven this decline.

Yet, FEMA treats Mississippi differently than our neighbors.

The floodplain administrator for Orange Beach commented in an article in Bloomberg, “Two lots right next to each other — one happens to be Mobile and the other is Jackson County. You’re right across the state line where you don’t have any relevant change on the ground, but you were seeing drastically different base flood elevations.”

Tucked into FEMA’s National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) is the “substantial improvement/50 percent” rule. This policy states that property improvements greater than 50 percent of a structure’s value must be brought into FEMA compliance to be insured. Put simply, these properties are required to be elevated and basically rebuilt.

This misguided federal regulation is crippling Pascagoula. It makes it practically impossible to improve local neighborhoods.

Consider someone buys a house valued at $80,000, but the previous owner spent $20,000 on repairs. Therefore, for the next 10 years, the new homeowner is limited to spending $20,000 on renovations. But what happens if the new homeowner invests $20,000 in a new roof and other needs and has a kitchen fire a month later? FEMA says they can’t pay to fix it. Unacceptable.

This is happening throughout Pascagoula. It leads to blight, condemned homes, and lower property values for neighbors. Critical workers for America are unable to repair their homes. We are fighting to preserve working-class neighborhoods that have flooded one time in over 100 years, not beachfront vacation homes. FEMA gives us more regulations and less freedom.

One of the most successful economic communities in Mississippi is watching many of its neighborhoods become dilapidated by an unjust federal rule. Pipe fitters, welders, engineers and others simply don’t have options to buy a middle-class home in Pascagoula. Pascagoula is blessed, and our thriving downtown revitalization effort is promising, but how can Mississippi’s economic engine be struggling to house our workers?

But this problem is not only affecting Pascagoula. It affects all of Mississippi. People from all 82 counties work in Pascagoula, but the state is losing an estimated $250 million a year in revenue from about 5,000 high-wage earners who live in other states.

Senators Wicker and Hyde-Smith and Congressman Palazzo understand this also affects the entire country, and they’re pushing for a solution in Washington, but we need more voices of support.

All we are asking for is fairness for our people. It’s unjust and debilitating for our town. Washington won’t fix this, unless we make some noise.

Visit www.sospascagoula.com to learn more and join our campaign for Pascagoula and beyond.

Jay Willis is the mayor of Pascagoula.