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Residents Hope Charm Not Lost During Reconstruction

Wed October 12, 2005 - Southeast Edition
Construction Equipment Guide

JACKSON, MS (AP) As Mississippi recovers from Hurricane Katrina’s destruction, many fear the development to come could erase the charm and diversity of the state’s eclectic Gulf Coast communities.

The 80-mi. coastline has been the home of fishing hamlets, seaside arts communities and, for the past 13 years, neon-lit casinos. Now, with approximately two-thirds of the homes in the state’s southern counties destroyed or severely damaged, residents and officials hope the new landscape that emerges from the rubble won’t be dominated by high-rise condos and tacky strip malls.

Even before Katrina, proposed condo developments prompted heated debate among locals who worried concrete towers would block beach views.

“I hope we can preserve the historical ambiance that the beach in Mississippi has possessed over the years and not let it look like every other coastline in America,” said former Gov. William Winter, longtime president of the state’s archives and history board.

The scope of Katrina’s destruction puts the Mississippi coast in an unusual position, said Robert Deyle, an urban and regional planning professor at Florida State University. Entire neighborhoods were flattened for a quarter-mile or more back from the beach.

“In most disasters, structures that have been destroyed are interspersed with structures that are still standing,” Deyle said.

Though much of the coastline is still strewn shoulder-high with lumber and twisted metal, Deyle said cities soon will have a “clean slate” for rebuilding — and wealthy developers, from casino companies to condo builders, could buy land from homeowners who don’t want to rebuild.

Katrina was indiscriminate in its destruction, obliterating or damaging trailers, middle-class brick houses, tin-roofed fishermen’s cottages, Sen. Trent Lott’s beachside home, concrete condominiums, century-old shore mansions, vacation bungalows and businesses large and small.

Charles L. Sullivan, who has written histories of the Mississippi Gulf Coast and of hurricanes, said Katrina wiped away much of the region’s architectural character.

“Whatever it will be, it won’t be what it was,” Sullivan said. “As far as I know, Beauvoir is the only antebellum structure still standing between New Orleans and Mobile.”

And even Beauvoir, the Biloxi beach-front home of Confederate president Jefferson Davis, was severely battered by Katrina. Much of the raised cottage “looks like it’s been butchered,” Sullivan said. “It just looks like it’s been blown to pieces.”

Mississippi’s coastline has 26 mi. of manmade white sand beach in Harrison County, the center and most populous of the state’s three coastal counties. The county also is home to the bustling state port in Gulfport, shrimp industry in Biloxi and 13 casinos, including one that was set to open this month.

Historic homes, the Gulf Island National Seashore and fishing charter boats also drew visitors to an area whose economy has long been fueled by tourist dollars. In Biloxi, construction was about halfway complete on a $30-million art museum designed by famed architect Frank Gehry. A casino barge smashed onto the beachside site, crushing some of the centuries-old live oak trees Gehry had incorporated into the design and likely delaying the museum’s scheduled 2006 opening date.

Gov. Haley Barbour has appointed a commission, headed by former Netscape CEO Jim Barksdale of Jackson, to shape the coast redevelopment discussion. Barbour and President Bush attended the commission’s first meeting in an air-conditioned tent set up outside a hurricane-damaged outlet shopping center in Gulfport.

“There is no doubt in my mind that out of the rubble and out of the huge heaps of timber that used to be homes, a better Mississippi will emerge,” Bush told local government and business leaders.

The Florida Homebuilders Association also is lending its advice. It held a two-day seminar in Jackson to share what the building industry has learned in the aftermath of scores of hurricanes, including four that hit Florida last year.

Early estimates show that approximately one of every three homes, apartments and condo units in Mississippi’s six southernmost counties were destroyed by the Aug. 29 hurricane. Another third were severely damaged and some may be demolished because of mold and other damage.

Construction company executives said serious efforts to start rebuilding homes and smaller businesses could be weeks or even months away, partly because of disputes over insurance coverage.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) also has to reset flood lines, and local governments could set stricter building codes in areas that were previously thought to be safe from flooding.

“We’re talking probably two to three years before we’ve even got a handle on the situation,” said homebuilder Duncan Noble Jr. of Gautier.

It’s clear most of the casinos will rebuild. They’re crucial to the state’s economy, employing 14,000 and generating $73 million this past year for state coffers.

There’s still a question though, of whether they’ll be allowed to build on land. State law requires casinos be built only over navigable waters of the Mississippi River or the Gulf of Mexico. The Legislature is holding a special session to see if that law should be changed, given that the casino barges were tossed around like toy boats and some smashed on shore.

“If they decide to allow the casinos on land, which from a public safety standpoint would make more sense, then instead of having beautiful mansions looking out at floating casinos, you’ll just have casinos,” said Deyle, the urban planning professor.

Government officials also want large employers back on their feet soon to prevent the work force from scattering. South Mississippi is home to a sprawling NASA center that tests space-shuttle engines and the state’s largest private employer, Northrop Grumman Ship Systems, where approximately 12,000 welders, pipe fitters and electricians make Navy ships. Repair crews have been cleaning up the shipyard.

While big industry has the wherewithal to go on, some smaller businesses are not so sure.

Gerald Fayard had hoped to sell his business and retire soon until Katrina changed his plans. The storm turned his 5,000-sq,-ft. Gulfport mill, which manufactures specialty woodwork and trim, into a heap of rubble.

“You’ve got to run or rebuild,” he said as friends helped him clear debris. “You can’t just sit on the porch.”

Fayard wants to rebuild — if he can find the money — and then work a few more years. He had no insurance and is banking on a Small Business Administration loan.

Mary Levens owns a small commercial building in Gulfport where she runs a mother-daughter business, the Levens-Tolson Accounting Service. A tree fell on the building during Katrina, and now the baking sun shines down through the rafters onto the mahogany floors.

She believes the region’s retail sector will revive slowly, over more than a year.

But she worries a proliferation of condominiums will change the character of the area and hopes instead, the recovery will be more like the aftermath of Hurricane Camille, which smashed through a narrower swath of the area in 1969.

“We will come back,” Levens said. “We came back after Camille, which was 36 years ago, bigger and better. We built better and bigger and nicer.”

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