Reconstructing Bay St. Louis: Answers, Please

Along the beach in Bay St. Louis, houses are nothing more than piles of rubble, and many streets remain impassable. Plumes of black smoke from brush fires burning on the horizon rise over a devastated landscape.

Still, more than 300 citizens of Waveland and Bay St. Louis crowded into an open meeting hall on the battered grounds of Our Lady of the Gulf Church in Bay St. Louis on Oct. 20. They were there for the latest in a series of town hall meetings called by the Governor's Commission on Recovery, Rebuilding and Renewal, meetings that will continue throughout the rest of the year.

The meetings are seeking comment on the plans of the Mississippi Renewal Forum, in which more than 200 community leaders and architects came together to provide a vision for rebuilding the Coast. At the end of the year, the commission will make its report to the governor, and then the proposals will be given over to local governments.

"The Commission will lead, but local governments and the private sector will decide," Gov. Haley Barbour has said.

Total Destruction

"I hope to hear some good news," Manson Peters of Waveland said before the meeting began. "It's total destruction in Waveland, just like it is here in Bay St. Louis."

"My house was totally destroyed on the inside," Peters continued. Even though he lived north of the railroad tracks and a "good bit" from the beach, his house was still flooded with 6.5 feet of storm surge. "We lost everything inside the house. The frame's still there, but that's it—they had to completely gut the inside."

Nevertheless, Peters counts himself among the lucky: "I got a trailer from FEMA about a month ago. I think we got ours earlier than most because we signed up earlier, too, and I guess that makes a difference. It's closer quarters than we're used to, but it's great."

Indeed, Peters, who is African-American, may be luckier than he realizes. Frank Schall is a volunteer from Yreka, Calif., who had spent the past week in Bay St. Louis helping a church group clear wreckage and set up trailers.

"It looks like they're catching up a little," Schall said of FEMA, "but it seems like the wealthier and whiter you are, the quicker you get your trailer placed. If you look at this meeting—it's about a 50-50 mix of black and white in this area—but I've counted a total of only five or six black people at this meeting."

Compete Global, Live Local

Chuck Benvenutti, a resident of Bay St. Louis who represents Hancock County on the commission, called the meeting to order. Ricky Mathews, who is publisher of the Biloxi Sun-Herald and chairman of the commission's tourism committee, made a brief report on plans to turn the Coast into a "first-tier destination resort" that could compete globally with other resorts.

Anthony Topazi, who is president and CEO of Mississippi Power, chairman of the governor's Momentum Mississippi and also chairman of the commission's infrastructure committee, made a presentation on improvements to infrastructure. Among the proposals he outlined were tougher, region-wide building codes; relocating seafood, port facilities, and water and sewage treatment plants farther inland; and numerous improvements to transportation, including a beach trolley or light rail line to link the cities of the Coast.

Allison Anderson, a Waveland architect and participant in the renewal forum, described the new urbanism principles at work in proposed building plans. Anderson related the forum's vision for "the creation of good, human-scale places" that will offer alternatives to travel by car. She also described the "pattern book," which will be published in four weeks. The pattern book will provide free design templates for various traditional housing styles.

Throughout, the crowd was lively, at times even raucous. Anthony Topazi was twice interrupted by questions regarding FEMA from audience members, prompting Benvenutti to ask people to hold their comments until the end: "Remember, as soon as we wrap this up, we're going to spend the next couple of hours listening to what you have to say."

Benvenutti reminded the crowd that the purpose of the meeting was to gather input from the community. Those with more immediate questions regarding insurance claims or temporary housing were directed to a group of FEMA representatives outside the hall.

'I Don't Need a Banker'

When the time came for public comment, several residents expressed disappointment that the commission had come only to listen rather than provide them with answers.

"If I were to rebuild," a Bay St. Louis woman asked, "you said it would be 18 months before the insurance would know anything about the level? In other words, I could get rejected for flood insurance because I might not be at the proper level?"

Many speakers shared this concern. If houses are rebuilt below the federal height requirement, they may not qualify for flood insurance, even if the flood zone is expanded to include houses not covered when Katrina struck.

"That's not my understanding at this point," Anderson answered. "What I can tell you is that the Flood Insurance Rate Maps that are currently regulatory are still the old ones. The new ones will not be out for 18 months. That doesn't mean you can't build."

"No, but I may not be insured," the Bay St. Louis woman insisted.

"I'm not a banker, I'm not an insurance person," Anderson replied. "I can't tell you what they're going to decide."

"I don't need a banker, I just need to be able to get flood insurance," the Bay St. Louis woman muttered before relinquishing the microphone.

Residents were given one minute each to make a statement, which members of the commission recorded, usually without comment. At least 50 spoke.

Statements addressed everything from burying power and phone lines to opposing condo development to eliminating mobile home parks on the Coast. Some supported the renewal forum's plans, while others spoke in opposition. "In 1947, 1965, 1969, our fathers, our grandfathers and our great-grandfathers rebuilt after hurricanes," one man said. "That is a fact of life here. All these plans are wonderful, but we don't have to give up our property and have things changed, because somebody thinks there's another hurricane coming."

FEMA: 'A Bad Word Around Here'

By the conclusion of the meeting, crowds gathered around the FEMA representatives outside, who explained the minutia of flood insurance and height requirements. Many insurance companies have denied claims in devastated areas on the basis of water lines in houses, which the companies claim indicates that the buildings were damaged by flooding rather than wind.

"I've talked to my insurance company lots of times," Peters said, "and you get no place. First of all, we don't live in a flood zone, so we couldn't even buy flood insurance. I had hurricane insurance. Shouldn't that count?"

Barbour has said he believes Congress will enact legislation allowing homeowners devastated by Katrina to buy into the federal flood insurance program retroactively. At an Oct. 17 press conference, Barbour said: "It is clear to me that the equity of the situation is that the federal government has an obligation to these people, because it was the federal government who told them they didn't need flood insurance, but no decision has been made."

On Nov. 7, Barbour said: "I consider retroactive flood coverage to be the single biggest issue facing the citizens of Mississippi right now."

"FEMA is kind of a bad word around here," Schall said as he watched FEMA representatives negotiate with the crowd. "Anyone around here can tell you that the real work is being done by an army of volunteers, most of them with the churches. Gandhi said there would be no need for government if we simply took care of one another. And that's what I see here in this community."

When asked why he thinks low-income and minority residents are at a disadvantage, Schall replied: "I think it has a lot to do with being able to work within the system. If you're used to working within the system, then you're doing better than if you can't. More work needs to be done with the poor, in helping them get through the red tape."

Meetings will continue throughout November . See http://www.governorscommission.com for a list of scheduled meetings as well as further information on the commission itself. See http://www.mississippirenewal.com for the Mississippi Renewal Forum.


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