The new Gulf: Safe enough?
Post-Katrina building is booming. But conflict is rising over safety regs vs. economic needs.
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"One guy is building 12 feet in the air because he's freaked out. The next guy is building at eight feet because that's the new flood regs," says Bounds. "The next guy is building at four feet because he's grandfathered in [to the pre-Katrina code requirements], and the next guy is building right on the beach because he knew somebody at city hall and was able to get away with it."Skip to next paragraph
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State officials say Mississippi has done a good job overall of balancing needs of people and businesses with mandates for stronger building materials and height requirements for homes in flood zones.
"A comprehensive recovery program has to include the whole package: direct assistance, help to build more homes, partnering with people who can build on a large scale, and economic ... development," says Lee Youngblood, spokesman for the Mississippi Development Authority, the purse-string holder for federal recovery grants. "We're trying to make sure we're good stewards of the money we're giving, trying to make sure we get as many of our recovery needs met ... not just in terms of housing but long-term infrastructure and things we're going to need to sustain jobs."
There's a reason economic concerns compete with safety. The recovery has been tenuous, "much, much slower than we all thought it would be," says Bay St. Louis historian Charles Gray. Thousands of Gulf Coast residents have permanently relocated. Condo construction has leveled off as part of the national housing slowdown, and communities like Bay St. Louis are desperate for tax and fee revenues to repay storm-related loans.
In short, the boom is a fragile one, susceptible to the vagaries of government decisionmakers and the whims of developers. The coming hurricane season, too, could affect how quickly people press ahead with rebuilding.
"All we can do is put one foot in front of another," says John Harral, a business lawyer in Gulfport. "It is every day a struggle with what is it going to look like, what can we do, how restrictive can the laws and regs be, and how restrictive should they be?"
Those who question officials' priorities cite a climate of secrecy in state agencies that makes it difficult, they say, to get copies of revised flood-zone maps or accurate information about how large new roads and bridges will be leading to the coast. As a result, activists see certain state decisions, such as one to use $600 million in federal Housing and Urban Development (HUD) grants to retrofit the port at Gulfport instead of to build safe and affordable housing, as proof that business interests have the ear of the governor and the legislature and that safety is being played down.
"We're not showing the sense of collaboration you'd like to see between nonprofits and industry and different branches of government," says Marianne Hill, chief economist at the state College Board in Jackson, Miss. "It's difficult to forge a new institutional framework."