By Stephen Stetson, Poverty in America

Alabamians are often "thanking God for Mississippi." Were it not for our sister state, we would often be at the very bottom of national rankings of things like literacy, teen pregnancy, infant mortality, etc. Cynically, some point to our more-troubled neighbor state as a buffer that keeps us from being the nation's worst in some embarrassing category.

However, there is one category where we must look to Mississippi and Louisiana with envy: the ability of those states to address the needs of people victimized by natural disasters.  After all, they didn't spend their Katrina funds on luxury condos for football fans.

When Hurricane Katrina ravaged the Gulf Coast more than three years ago, Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama were hit the hardest by the storm. While the nation was shocked at the shoddy level of response all across the region, including a shameful effort by the federal government, leaders in Louisiana and Mississippi have kept the rebuilding agenda on the front burner. This may be quite an understatement, but things have been far from perfect in our neighboring states during the rebuilding effort. However, at least most officials in those states recognize that there is a long road left to travel before the work is done.

Here in Alabama, there is no real sense of "unfinished business." There was never even a comprehensive unmet needs assessment done of the hurricane battered coast. In May of last year, Bill Johnson, head of ADECA, told Congress than an additional $110 million was needed for Alabama's rebuilding efforts. However, where Louisiana and Mississippi have had Congressional champions to secure their rebuilding funds, Alabama's requests have fallen largely on deaf ears.

The money is needed because people are still suffering from the effects of the storm. The tales are familiar to anyone who even scratches the surface of rural coastal Alabama. Unincorporated areas of Mobile and Baldwin counties are full of boarded-up homes. From toxic FEMA trailers to bureaucratic hurdles that excluded many from applying for aid, folks on Alabama's coast have seen it all. The Vietnamese community wrestled with forms not translated into English. People missed the one-week application deadline. People fell through the cracks. Homes sagged, rotted and caved in. People got sick and families splintered.

A variety of reasons have been given for Alabama getting the short straw in Katrina rebuilding money. Although they usually leap at the chance to bring funds home to Alabama, our two Senators are now positioning themselves as anti-spending types who can't stake out positions demanding additional Alabama money. This is particularly true in the case of Sen. Shelby, who, despite pushing for $50 million last summer for Katrina relief, recently drew a line in the sand with his opposition to bailout money for the auto industry. He is a poor candidate to now be arguing for additional funds for a storm rapidly fading from memories. Similarly, Sen. Sessions can pin a lack of Katrina funding on the Democrats without expecting to suffer too much at the polls.

Rep. Artur Davis (D - Birmingham) has been somewhat responsive in seeking the money that Alabama's Katrina victims still need. He wrote a great letter to Nancy Pelosi on Nov. 13, but Alabama money still didn't make it into the most recent stimulus package. Rep. Jo Bonner (R - Mobile), who represents the coastal part of Alabama has similarly made some efforts but been unable to secure the $110 million that Bill Johnson mentioned.

Another major issue has been getting already-allocated money distributed. Millions of dollars have sat somewhere between federal coffers, ADECA bank accounts, and the pockets of the Mobile County Commission. Tracking the money would require serious investigative journalism, someone willing to trace the fiscal nuances of HUD and county budgets. There are numerous struggles on the local level about the distribution of existing money, including whether a new water treatment plant is to be built in an environmentally hazardous location. There are people angry about residential restrictions placed on occupancy of new subdivisions. Many simply want more transparency and oversight. It certainly didn't help the case for additional funds when it was revealed that some of the Katrina GO Zone tax breaks given to Alabama was spent on luxury football gameday condos in an area that was barely grazed by the storm. Further, a number of people are convinced that authorities intentionally want to neglect recovery efforts in Alabama so that the poor will abandon their valuable coastal real estate, leaving prime land to be snapped up by waterfront developers.

Activism on these issues is difficult because there is a simultaneous effort to secure federal funding from a fast-changing D.C. environment (something that isn't the specialty of my state-based organization), combined with efforts to bring grassroots pressure by seriously victimized people onto local officials. The latter is made more difficult by the distance between Montgomery and Alabama's coast and the scattered nature of those still struggling to deal with Katrina damage these many years later. Quality information can be tough to come by and the recent death of activist Jim Fuller further complicated the struggle to aid the rebuilding efforts on Alabama's coast.

Stephen Stetson is a policy analyst at Alabama Arise.


This article originally appeared at Change.org's Poverty in America,a blog aimed at showing how how poverty works in the United States.