GULFPORT, Miss. - It was billed as the "Port of the Future" - a half-billion-dollar expansion of this city's port that would draw massive Asia-bound container ships, generate thousands of high-paying jobs, and ignite the area's economy.
But today, the port project sits on $500 million of unspent federal disaster-recovery money culled in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, and it has created more questions than jobs.
Port officials say the project is underway and could still one day draw increased cargo traffic and jobs. Community activists worry about the project's environmental impact on nearby neighborhoods and question whether it was a good idea in the first place to use money normally spent on post-disaster housing needs to build a bigger port.
In July, port officials surprised state leaders and community activists by revealing that the port no longer expected to draw the extra-large cargo ships when the Panama Canal is widened. The port director resigned in September.
"It has taken too long," says state Sen. Brice Wiggins, chairman of the Senate Ports and Marine Resources Committee. "We need to know when this will come to fruition. This is taxpayer money that is being utilized."
Seven years after Katrina ravaged the Mississippi Coast, the port project remains a glaring example of ill-managed federal disaster funds, says Roberta Avila, executive director of the Steps Coalition, a Biloxi-based coalition of community groups that has been critical of the project.
"There are still people seven years later who have unmet housing needs who could've been helped with that money," Avila says. "It's appalling."
Under federal guidelines, a portion of relief money the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban and Development doles out to disaster-stricken states could be used for economic development. In 2008, with the coast still reeling from Katrina's destruction and thousands of Mississippians living in federally issued trailers, then-governor Haley Barbour requested that $600 million of HUD disaster funds go to expand the Port of Gulfport.
Former HUD secretary Alphonso Jackson reluctantly agreed, saying in a January 2008 letter to Barbour that "I remain concerned that this expansion does indeed divert emergency federal funding from other more pressing recovery needs, most notably affordable housing."
Amid a flurry of community outcry and lawsuits, state officials agreed to spend an additional $132 million for housing needs. Later, $30 million of the $600 million in port money was also diverted to housing programs. The port project proceeded, slowly. As of last month, the port had spent only $69 million of the $600 million for the project, according to port statistics.
Complex environmental studies and permitting have slowed the project, which includes deepening the port's channels to 45 feet and adding hundreds of acres to it on land, says Daron Wilson, director of special projects at the Mississippi Development Authority, which distributes the federal funds.
But the expanded port will add about 1,300 new jobs to the 1,200 already at the port, he says. The goal is to capture many of the large cargo ships laden with textiles, automotive parts and fresh fruit headed to Europe and Asia. Target completion date is 2015.
Having a growing, vibrant port - and the economic boost that comes with it - is as important as having adequate housing, he says. "You can't have housing and not have jobs for these people to provide a living for themselves," Wilson says. "They really go hand in hand."
The port project has widespread support from the business community, which sees it as a huge boom for the region, says Ron Peresich, chairman of the Mississippi Gulf Coast Business Council. Though slow to start, the expanded port could help not just port-related businesses but businesses throughout the region, he says.
"Once this thing gets underway and people begin to see the benefits, they'll be very happy with it," Peresich says.
But the pace has been frustratingly slow, says Glen Evans, vice president of the local chapter of the International Longshoremen's Association. Evans says his group initially welcomed the project and promises of hundreds of new jobs to its members, from forklift drivers to dock workers to clerks. But each year has seen more promises without results, he says. Currently, 70 of the group's 250 members work at the port.
"Seven years is a long time not to have any new businesses added to the port," Evans says. "You got a lot of hungry men down here ready to work. We welcome anything."
Another concern is a proposed 7-mile highway that would connect the expanded port with Interstate 10. The highway would slice through the lower-income, predominantly African-American neighborhoods of North Gulfport and present pollution and environmental concerns, says Rose Johnson, a local community organizer. She says the port should do more detailed environmental studies before building the highway.
The highway would run about a half-mile from the home of Loubertha Haskin, 80, a retired government worker in North Gulfport. Her hallway floors are still warped from Katrina's floods and two bedrooms are unusable due to mold in the walls and a warped ceiling.
Insurance covered about half of the $30,000 in damages. She's still hoping federal aid comes her way to fix her home.
"It's not fair," Haskin says. "There are people like me who still haven't rebuilt, and they're talking about homeowner money going to the port. It's pretty awful."