Detroit must be saved

Eight years ago last week, Hurricane Katrina swept through the Gulf Coast and devastated thousands of lives, homes and communities. After it happened, the entire nation came together to help our fellow Americans suffering from the effects of that terrible storm.

Once the nation realized just how bad things were, Congress and the Bush administration took steps to ensure that we had the resources to rebuild. Mississippi alone — my home state — received almost $25 billion dollars in federal funds from Capitol Hill.

Today, as I watch Detroit sink into despair due to a terrible financial situation, I see obvious parallels to what happened to me and my neighbors in Mississippi and Louisiana after Katrina. But what is shocking is that the entire nation, and particularly the Congress, seems willing to let Detroit file for bankruptcy while Washington does nothing about it except shrug. 

How can we sit by and allow retired police officers, teachers, firemen and other public employees go without the pensions they earned? How can we accept that a once-great American city can no longer function?

My guess is that reluctance to do anything to help save Detroit, at least at the federal level, stems from the fact that what happened to Detroit is a man-made disaster rather than a natural one. To me, that thinking is unfair, because the hundreds of thousands of current Detroit residents did nothing wrong. In many ways, the people of Detroit are victims of a global economy, the rise of the Asian automakers and bad decisions made years ago by executives at American car companies. 

It is unfair to help one victim and not the other because we differentiate how each American ended up as a victim. After all, when Katrina wiped out dozens of cities in Mississippi along the coast, the people of Detroit did not refuse to help us because we choose to live somewhere just a few feet above sea level that is susceptible to hurricanes. They helped us in our time of need, and all residents of the Gulf Coast should be thankful that the representatives of Michigan in Congress voted to send us billions of dollars, allowing our state to get back on its feet.

The fact is, if done correctly, bailouts can revitalize regions, communities and families. Anyone who has been to New Orleans in the last few years understands that. While some areas are still in disrepair, large sections of the city look the same — or even better — than they did before Katrina. 

In Mississippi, the state port at Gulfport is currently being expanded by more than a half-billion dollars and is currently the largest economic development project in the state. This effort to modernize and deepen the port is putting Mississippi in better position to compete in the global marketplace, and it is due in part to federal funds promised after the hurricane. This is only one example of how the Katrina relief funds helped my state.

I understand that the situation on Capitol Hill today is different than it was eight years ago, when Congress and the White House found billions of dollars to help save the Gulf Coast. But I am hopeful for a few reasons.

First, because the amount of money needed to save Detroit is much less than what was needed to save Mississippi and Louisiana. 

Second, the Gulf states did not solely rely upon the federal government. The state of Michigan and even the city of Detroit must step up to the plate to try and avoid bankruptcy. This could range from new taxes, bond offerings or even Detroit leasing or selling some of its valuable assets like artwork and land. These are difficult decisions, but to me they seem better than declaring bankruptcy and failing to pay the pensions of thousands of public workers hoping to retire with dignity.

Just the other day, I was in Bay Saint Louis, a beautiful beach town in Mississippi that was almost completely destroyed by Katrina. In many areas, not a single house or structure was left standing. But today, there are new homes everywhere. While we have a long way to go to getting back to the ways things were before Katrina, things are getting better thanks to the generosity of Congress and the American taxpayers. The fact that Bay Saint Louis is around at all is a testament to the power of federal funds, the willingness of states and cities to help and hard work by the region’s residents. If we can succeed in Mississippi and Louisiana, I don’t see why Detroit cannot do the same. 

Shows is a former Democratic member of Congress who represented Mississippi’s 4th Congressional District from 1999 to 2003.