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Senator's Lesson in Frustration

Months after Katrina damaged their homes, Trent Lott and his neighbors are voicing the same anger as thousands of others awaiting some relief in the hurricane-ravaged region.

January 28, 2006|Elizabeth Mehren | Times Staff Writer

PASCAGOULA, Miss. — Four days after Hurricane Katrina flattened 65,000 Gulf Coast homes, President Bush promised that at least one would rise from the rubble.

Where Sen. Trent Lott's 154-year-old home once stood, the president said, "There's going to be a fantastic house. And I'm going to look forward to sitting on the porch."

Not only is there no porch five months later, but Lott's house on Beach Boulevard is nothing but a concrete slab and a neat stack of bricks. Lott, counting himself fortunate to own two other homes far from the destruction, said he was tired of hearing that he and his neighborhood might get some sort of special favors.

Lott's neighborhood is a narrow enclave, stretching about half a mile along the coast and only two or three blocks inland. In this working-class city of 26,000 that is anchored at one end by the Northrop Grumman shipyards and giant chemical companies at the other, the area was a small island of affluence.

The homes, which looked out on the beach, had deep lawns, impeccable gardens and in many cases, entrances marked by grand columns. But as the months go by with no relief, Lott and his neighbors are voicing the same frustrations as thousands of other families around the hurricane-ravaged region.

"The government is not going to rebuild my house," said Lott. "I don't even have a FEMA trailer."

Lott, a 37-year veteran of Capitol Hill, made no secret of his disdain for the Federal Emergency Management Agency's efforts in his state in the weeks after the Aug. 29 hurricane. He blasted FEMA's "attitude problem" and excessive bureaucracy. He said the agency's then-director, Michael D. Brown, was in over his head -- acting, Lott said on more than one occasion, "like a private when he should have been a general."

Lott praised corporations that brought generators and supplies to Mississippi hours after the hurricane, wondering why the private sector could get through when the government could not.

The longtime Washington foe of "frivolous" lawsuits was no less critical of insurance companies that balked at paying claims to Mississippi homeowners. And he didn't hesitate to file suit against a company he once defended, State Farm Fire & Casualty Co.

"Funny how frivolous lawsuits stop being frivolous when it's you," said Lott's brother-in-law, Richard Scruggs, who is representing the senator. Scruggs lost his home not far from Lott's house -- and he, along with thousands of other Mississippi home owners, also has a claim against State Farm.

Lott said he was in Alabama, promoting his autobiography, when the hurricane struck. He said his wife, Tricia, called the next day to say their house -- valued at about $750,000 -- was gone.

"I said, 'What do you mean, gone?' " Lott recalled. "She said, 'Gone, as in: does not exist any more.' "

Two days after the storm, Lott set off to survey the damage caused by the storm. When he and his wife arrived at the remains of the house, they wrapped their arms around the old oak tree in what used to be their backyard and had a good cry.

"This hurricane was a great equalizer," Lott said here last week. "People with big houses lost everything they had. People with little houses lost everything, too."

Just a few doors from where the Lotts' house stood, Al Frank popped his head out of the trailer he now calls home. Frank said everyone on the street had the same problem with recalcitrant insurance companies. Sen. Lott, Frank said, may be even worse off, "because his house was worth more than some -- more than mine, anyway."

Frank said all the homeowners on Beach Boulevard were "just waiting -- waiting for the government, waiting for their insurance. Everything is so slow."

In what was already a strong neighborhood, the delay has formed a bond. "We're all alone in this together," he said.

Outside her shiny white FEMA trailer, Rena Ford wore an apron as she swept her makeshift walkway. Ford, 92, apologized for the pile of hurricane detritus in her former swimming pool.

"The [Army] Corps of Engineers keeps promising to come clean it out," she said.

Ford said she was still kicking herself for being out of town at a wedding when Katrina struck. "I should have been here," she said. "I lived in my house for 72 years, and there was never a drop of water in it. It was almost 200 years old. Before that, I lived in the house that was next door."

Leaning against her broom, Ford said she hoped she would live long enough to rebuild.

With his Beach Boulevard home in pieces, retired radiologist Dr. Paul H. Moore moved out to a cabin he owns an hour or so from Pascagoula. Moore said he had very little use for FEMA.

"We could have been cleaned up by now," he said. "They've had experience, and they should have been able to do it. It seems like they never get where they're supposed to be."

He said it never occurred to him to ask his famous neighbor to speed things up. "He has tried his best. But it seems like a lot of people don't want to send too much money down here to Mississippi."

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