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The new Gulf: Safe enough?

Post-Katrina building is booming. But conflict is rising over safety regs vs. economic needs.

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Of course, what constitutes "safe" rebuilding is a matter of much debate, especially as the extra costs associated with some of the precautions begin to mount, along with the risk that poorer families will be driven out altogether. Often, engineers have one view and local politicians another. Or hydrologists see a pressing need but the business community sees another. The result is a push and pull, a stretch and twist of the new rules.

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•Bay St. Louis is appealing to the Federal Emergency Management Agency to reconsider how high off the ground new buildings must be to qualify for federal flood insurance. In certain low-lying places, buildings need to sit on stilts 18 feet high, FEMA has ruled. The town counters that the requirement puts the structures at risk of wind damage and wants a lower requirement.

Some say the town's action is rooted more in nostalgia than in science. "People [are] upset because the elevations mean the town wouldn't look the same, and it was a beautiful town, Bay St. Louis," says Steve Champlin, Mississippi's flood-mapping coordinator, in Jackson.

•The nation's first regional buyout program for storm-struck properties did not include North Central Pass, a poor neighborhood in Pass Christian situated in a low bowl in the sand. Those residents would have been likely to take the buyouts – perhaps the only way they could afford to move to higher ground, say critics. So far, only tiny Pecan, Miss., with a total of 18 properties, most owned by one family, has taken up the government's offer.

The US Army Corps of Engineers denies charges that the program is aimed at wealthier people. "The [buyout] is not a welfare program for the rich," says Susan Rees, director of the Corps' Mississippi Coastal Improvement Program. "We're trying to assist the people ... who really don't have the wherewithal to just pick up and move somewhere else."

•Proposals to use federal Community Development Block Grants to build two new yacht marinas near Bay St. Louis and Waveland, Miss., are popular, but critics say they would put million-dollar boats and new development right on an unprotected shoreline.

•In April, Bay St. Louis heard a request to allow people building in the area to hire so-called third-party inspectors. Advocates say the policy change would alleviate a shortage of building inspectors and give "more personalized" service. Critics say it's not clear whether the freelance inspectors would represent the interests of the public or the homeowners who hire them.

•Differences in the topographical flood maps published two months after Katrina and the revised maps FEMA released in November have raised concerns that mapmakers were subjected to pressure by wealthy stakeholders along the coast. The result "appears to be some maps being redrawn by hand" perhaps to appease specific landowners, says Mr. Bounds. State officials say the changes are a result of complex surge-prediction algorithms that factor in more than raw elevation. "It's pure science," says Mr. Champlin, the state mapmaker.

Yet building inconsistencies are apparent during a drive along the coast. On streets that Katrina demolished in equal measure, new buildings are on stilts from four to 18 feet tall – sometimes higher. To rebuild a home in the lowest areas of Pass Christian, the first-floor joists must be 26 feet off the ground.

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