The new Gulf: Safe enough?
Post-Katrina building is booming. But conflict is rising over safety regs vs. economic needs.
Bay St. Louis, Miss.
Crews with trucks and bulldozers are laying pipe and asphalt along Main Street of this Gulf Coast town, as customers at the Mockingbird Cafe, seemingly oblivious to the din, sip cappuccinos. Traffic now clogs inland Route 90 on most mornings, and the local building inspector has recently complained of being "swamped" with work.Skip to next paragraph
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Well into the third year since hurricane Katrina leveled nearly all the shoreline mansions and tore beachfront shops to pieces, Bay St. Louis is, for all intents and purposes, a boom town, along with much of surrounding Hancock County.
"The country is [about] in recession, but we're not seeing anything like that here – quite the opposite," says Jeffrey Reed, city council president.
Stoking this boom – and similar ones in Mississippi's two other Katrina-walloped counties – is $38 billion in federal aid and private insurance money that has been spread across this coast like a salve. It's a lot of money – as much as $100,000 for every resident in the three counties – intended to help this long, thin sliver of warm sand and live oaks recover from one of the worst natural disasters in American history.
As much as Americans are willing to invest taxpayer dollars to make Katrina country whole, many also want assurances that what rises from the cataclysm is sensible – communities rebuilt to take another direct hit from a Category 3 storm without devastating loss of life or property. Most observers agree that what's going up now is much improved over what was on the ground the August morning the hurricane rushed ashore with its 120-mile-per-hour winds and 27-foot-high storm surge. Many Gulf communities have adopted better building codes, including strapping all new houses to the ground by their studs. Some have pledged to funnel new construction to higher ground, resisting the temptation to let businesses and homes sprawl in low-lying areas where the surge caused the most destruction.
But time is of the essence, as new and returning residents have urgent need of places to live and work, and expediency is not always the friend of prudence. Some who are watching the rebuilding boom say the Mississippi coast will not be safe enough because officials are not forcing development to withdraw from places slammed by Katrina and many home-owners are rebuilding in low-lying areas rather than accepting federal government buyouts. Plans for gigantic new steel-and-concrete storm barriers at key spots along the coast do not allay their concerns.
"The most accurate answer is that we're only partly building back the right way," says Jeff Bounds, an MIT-trained planning consultant to the cities of Gulfport and Pass Christian. "The culture of the South is very big on independence and not liking handouts ... but my view is that if federal taxpayers knew in detail a lot of what was going on, they'd be very, very unhappy."