The new Gulf: Safe enough?
Post-Katrina building is booming. But conflict is rising over safety regs vs. economic needs.
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A problem for the Gulf Coast's recovery is the absence of a federal rebuilding czar to oversee the spending of tax dollars, say critics. Key US agencies working hardest on Gulf recovery – the Army Corps, FEMA, and HUD – are often at cross-purposes, they note. HUD promotes housing and industry, while the Army Corps and FEMA are trying to get the state and municipalities to carefully channel redevelopment. The US Senate last week signaled a greater willingness in Washington to rein in the national flood insurance program, voting 92 to 6 to limit coverage of businesses and second homes that flood repeatedly and to let FEMA raise insurance rates by as much as 15 percent a year.Skip to next paragraph
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For many trying to hold onto their spit of Mississippi sand, government efforts seem disjointed and careless. The government is "throwing money left and right, but very little is directly helping people," says Leo Poole, a retiree who's struggled to keep his Bay St. Louis house.
On the other hand, some economists say the recovery has been managed with too heavy a hand. Instead of the government spending millions of dollars on trailers, they say, a large direct-aid check to storm victims would have precipitated a natural disbursement of people and property, and would have allowed those in risky areas to more easily make a decision to move elsewhere. Instead, 8,000 Mississippi families still live in FEMA trailers in neighborhoods that Katrina destroyed.
"I understand why people think there's a conspiracy, because it's almost as if policy is aligned against the poorest, hardest-hit communities," says Emily Chamlee-Wright, an economist at Beloit College in Wisconsin, who has studied the Gulf rebuilding process. "A lot of times the attempt to protect people becomes the wrong policy. The heavier hand you have in the planning process and the more overreaching it is, the more trouble there's going to be down the line."
The irony is that the slow pace of rebuilding – everyone's top complaint – may be the greatest ally to a safer coast, forcing meticulous consideration of even mundane plans and projects, and plenty of time for everyone to talk the issues out at places like the Mockingbird Cafe in Bay St. Louis. Government officials such as Mr. Youngblood note that the lag time in the recovery is due in large part to the strict rebuilding rules, whether it's federal fill permits or expensive storm-certification requirements for new home construction, all of which in the long run will ensure a more storm-proof coast.
As seen in the little boom town of Bay St. Louis, shovels are now hitting the dirt in earnest – making this spring a crucial window for determining how well the coast, and US taxpayers, will weather any future big storm.
Tellingly, says Mr. Harral, the Gulfport business lawyer, vital water and sewer pipes have been delivered to municipalities but are just now being installed under roads like Beach Boulevard in Bay St. Louis.
"Nearing the third anniversary of the storm, that is a ... good illustration [of the recovery as a whole]: that it's all still on the ground, lying where it's going to be, but it hasn't been put in the ground yet," says Harral.