In Mississippi, the US Army Corps of Engineers is proposing the nation's first regional buyout of coastal homes – a move, some experts say, that suggests that some stretches of the Gulf Coast devastated by hurricane Katrina will not get rebuilt.
The corps, which floated the plan in workshops with local residents last month, is expected to expand the idea to Louisiana. While it faces resistance from locals worried about the future viability of their communities, the proposal addresses a problem that has frustrated Congress for two decades: how to persuade homeowners not to rebuild in flood-prone areas.
The cost of Katrina's destruction – and of hurricane Rita's, which hit a month later in 2005 – could push policymakers to take a stronger stand against such rebuilding , especially as concerns about global warming and rising sea levels increase.
"The value of Katrina to federal policy was it showed that climate change ... is going to have an impact on the national economy," says Martin Doyle, a land-use expert at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill. "The question now is whether these storms crossed some socioeconomic and physical threshold to where the system, be it political, economic, or social, doesn't go back to the way it was."
The corps' plan would use the lowest flood map delineations to mark up to 17,000 homes, 10,000 of them in Hancock County, for "flood mitigation" – or buyout. That represents roughly two-thirds of the county's single-family homes.
While the plan also affects nearby Waveland and Pass Christian, opposition has been fiercest in Bay St. Louis, where 218 new homes are being built. Indeed, as news of the buyout trickled out, planning for several new projects ground to a halt, says Bobby Campretta, a member of Bay St. Louis's city council.
"They say it's voluntary, but then on the other hand if you don't sell out, you might not be able to get flood insurance, with the end result being that it's almost like saying it's mandatory," says Mr. Campretta. "It's really going to hurt the city of Bay St. Louis."
Also perplexing to many residents, the same agency that's proposing the buyout, the Army Corps' Mississippi Coastal Improvements Program (MCIP), is also rebuilding a massive seawall that will protect downtown Bay St. Louis.
Congress would have to approve the plan. The US has bought out or relocated some 28,000 properties since October 1983, the largest buyout involving more than 8,000 homes following the 1993 Mississippi River floods. Yet even those moves proved temporary: Many of those 8,000 properties are now being redeveloped.
Some leaders doubt that the new buyout plan would find favor with Congress.
"Five words: 'It ain't going to happen,' " says Rep. Gene Taylor (D) of Mississippi, who's in the midst of rebuilding his Bay St. Louis home. "There's no money for it, there's no will for it, and there's no public support for it. That's 0 for 3."
Yet Congress broached the subject, says Jim Fraser, a professor of human and organizational development at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn. In fact, it authorized the corps to study permanent buyouts along the Gulf Coast in 2005. Moreover, he adds, reforms of the federal flood-insurance program in 2004 set the stage for major action after years of catastrophic losses where every dollar paid into the National Flood Insurance Program paid out $3.65 in losses.
A series of federal task forces in the 1990s called for Americans to be moved out of flood plains or for the responsibility to be placed on those communities to stem the moral hazard of people losing their homes in lowlands that flood repeatedly, getting federal insurance money, and then rebuilding in the same place, Professor Fraser says.
The authors of the Mississippi buyout plan acknowledge that it's being proposed at an awkward time, when many people have already begun to rebuild. But they say it's still likely to find a lot of takers. What's more, planners will ask Congress for open-ended policy that would allow future storm victims to apply for a buyout more quickly following a disaster. While some neighborhoods in and around Bay St. Louis, for example, are springing back, others are still weed-choked, rat-infested and debilitated.
"We have to look at all the options and all the factors," says Susan Rees, the MCIP project manager responsible for the buyout plan in Mississippi. "The fact is, it's been two years, and development hasn't occurred in a lot of these areas. Condo projects on the [Gulf] Coast are not selling anymore. At the same time, the perception among many people is that we are threatening a way of life. It's a very emotional issue. The numbers have scared folks."
Given past relocation efforts, there is cause for concern, especially for lower-income neighborhoods, says Fraser. "If it's truly voluntary, people affected should be able to participate in the planning, and that's been lacking in previous mitigation efforts," he says. "All these factors will become real significant if they're trying to do the largest mitigation buyout in the history of the United States. This is a massive project."
Looming large in the Mississippi debate is what Mr. Doyle calls a "stunning" shift in federal policy on global warming, especially new sea-level estimates that show the oceans rising by up to three feet in the next century.
Whether man-made or not, "climate change is real," says Ms. Rees. "In that light, we have to look at the options and all the facts and not just think it's not going to happen again."
Some changes have already taken place. Homes rebuilt in Pass Christian are now required to be elevated at least 20 feet above sea level, says the mayor, Leo "Chipper" McDermott, who doesn't believe most residents want to sell out.
"I can tell you this," he adds. "You're not going to keep people away from water; water attracts more people than runs away from it."