Mississippi Rising

Seeing the terrible devastation of parts of Abaco and Grand Bahama in the wake of Hurricane Dorian, has sadly reminded of my work in Mississippi with my New Urbanist colleagues shortly after Katrina. Since our efforts there, much has been learned about recovery and rebuilding after natural disasters. Indeed, the work began at the charrette has gone on to evolve into emergency housing as well as also being at the forefront of the tiny home movement.

(R. John Anderson and John Anderson, AIA (left to right) pose in front of our architecture team’s presentation. Other members of the architecture team included Allison H. Anderson, AIA, Marianne Cusato, Milton Wilfred Grenfell, Susan M. Henderson, Christine G. H. Franck, Michael G. Imber, Gary Williams Justiss, Eric Moser, and Stephen A. Mouzon.)

I am republishing the following essay, which I wrote after returning from the Mississippi Renewal Forum. At the time I struggled to put into words what I had seen and experienced, as I know so many will now again. My heart is with them as is my hope that some of what we learned then can help now.

The following essay was originally published in Clem Labine’s Period Homes Magazine, vol. 7, no. 1, January 2006, with links added in 2019.

“We’ve had to redefine the word gone.” This admission by a Mississippi native has haunted me since leaving Biloxi a few weeks ago after the Mississippi Renewal Forum ended. I hear his words, a combination of shock and sadness, as I attempt to do justice to the losses across the Mississippi coast, the challenges of rebuilding, the contributions of New Urbanists and the remarkable people of Mississippi.

A house in Point Cadet seen on our tour of the neighborhood. Point Cadet, a Vietnamese American and African American neighborhood in East Biloxi, was terribly damaged but fared better than those neighborhoods where entire houses were swept away.

A mere six weeks after Hurricane Katrina blasted ashore, constructive discussion of how to rebuild was begun. At the request of Governor Haley Barbour and James Barksdale (head of the Governor’s Commission on Recovery, Rebuilding and Renewal), the Congress for New Urbanism, Andrès Duany, local architects Michael Barranco and David Hardy and others organized the Mississippi Renewal Forum. The largest charrette ever held, its task was to illuminate options for rebuilding the entire coast of Mississippi and provide a vision for a future better than the past.

Approximately 120 New Urbanists and an equal number of locals gathered from October 11 – 18, 2005 in Biloxi, MS, in a vast windowless ballroom at the Isle of Capri Casino Resort. Working morning, noon and night, fueled by cheese grits and caffeine, we produced proposals for the 11 municipalities of D’Iberville, Ocean Springs, Gautier, Moss Point, Long Beach, Pascagoula, Biloxi, Gulfport, Pass Christian, Bay St. Louis and Waveland, as well as specialized proposals related to regional planning, transportation, codes and architecture.

These bright visions of the future could not have been more different than the dim reality surrounding us. All we had to do was leave our studio, shoulder open the temporary plywood door erected above the out-of-service escalators leading down to the demolished entry of the hotel and walk outside to remember our purpose.  This gentle land I had once traveled through, softened by generations of living and shaded by Live Oaks, is now gone.  Irreplaceable are the destroyed buildings, from the historically important to the simplest.  So too are the personal possessions, collections of museums, records of institutions and lives obliterated.  Tax revenues lost and a crippled transportation system add to the tally.

What is destroyed in physical and economic measure can to some extent be rebuilt, but the inevitable change this place will undergo means that these communities are, in some sense, gone too. The challenges to rebuilding are many and are most acute in low-lying areas close to the coast. For these places will be, as they have been, the target of hurricanes. Does it make sense – is it a moral choice – to rebuild in a place that may be directly in the path of another storm?

If Mississippi’s coastal communities rebuild, they will be challenged by the fact that much cannot be legally rebuilt as it was. Much of what was destroyed was built pre-Camille and would not meet today’s building regulations or those likely to go into effect in the next 18 months. To build in a flood or coastal high-hazard area and purchase flood insurance from the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP), which one must to obtain a mortgage, then one must meet Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) regulations.

The exact regulations vary depending on the base flood elevations (BFEs) set by FEMA and the flood or hazard zone in which one is building. These are shown on Flood Insurance Rate Maps (FIRMs) issued by the NFIP. The FIRMs currently used in Mississippi are based on information some 20 years old. FEMA has already released advisory flood elevations recommending a dramatic increase. This change alone, necessary as it may be for safety, will radically alter Mississippi’s coast. Though FEMA presents its standards as protecting life and property, it struck me at the charrette that the real interest is protecting the NFIP against losses. At times I wondered if the NFIP has not mistakenly encouraged development in flood prone areas by offering insurance to those, perhaps foolishly, building in hazardous areas. I could only conclude that there are areas of our coast where no building should occur; but this will now happen by default given the likely increase in flood elevations.

Two key concepts to understanding what can be rebuilt in these coastal hazard areas are the BFE and what cannot be built below it. The BFE is the elevation, including storm surge and wave height, which storm waters have a one percent chance of reaching in a given year. In these zones the first habitable floor of the building must be above the BFE and there are strict limitations on what may be below. Typically limited storage, residential parking and building access is allowed, but generally no finish materials, electrical or mechanical equipment.

During the charrette, members of the architecture team applied the higher advisory flood elevations issued by FEMA to some of the lowest lying areas, home to many poor immigrant communities. We found that if a homeowner wanted to rebuild a simple one-story bungalow that may traditionally have been elevated three to four feet above grade it would now have to be elevated to such a degree (10 to 15 feet above grade) that it would no longer be affordable, accessible nor contribute to an active street life. In essence, some communities may not be able to rebuild in any viable or affordable manner.

The affordability issue, and therefore that of social justice, is an enormous challenge in the rebuilding effort. Many of those who lost their homes did not have flood insurance as they were not previously in a flood zone. They will receive disaster relief funds and can take low-interest mortgages to rebuild, however, in low-lying areas building to the new FEMA elevations will be cost prohibitive for many. Even if rebuilt, the elevated houses and commercial buildings will not produce viable communities.

Realizing the potential fragmentation of communities due to the interrelated issues of insurance, costs of rebuilding and stricter building codes makes clear several options. First, relocation of those in the most low-lying areas should be considered: it is perhaps irresponsible to rebuild in such hazardous areas with public money when destruction is likely with the next hurricane. But, to move a community from the land that nurtured it is to forever alter it. Relocation may have to be considered, but only as a last resort.

For lower-income neighborhoods at higher elevations where they will not have to raise new houses too high, but where they did not have flood insurance, they still will not be able to afford to rebuild their old bungalows and cottages. Utilizing less expensive modular, panelized and manufactured housing may be their only affordable option. There is no reason why these methods of construction need to compromise design. Indeed one of the great outcomes of the charrette will likely be a new generation of such housing that can be on-site quickly and designed according to local traditions. Getting people back to their land quickly in houses that recall local traditions is essential to preserving a communities’ spirit.

Lastly, as we examined the realities of rebuilding, we realized that FEMA should not consider elevating habitable space and finish materials above the BFE as the only way of mitigating flood damage. For example, we found that masonry buildings generally survived better than frame buildings. Although masonry construction is not the tradition in coastal Mississippi, perhaps it should become so. We recommended that FEMA’s regulations allow construction techniques and materials designed to take a swim every so often to substitute for, or lessen the elevation requirements. Surely we can create flood-resistant houses avoiding the knee-jerk response of raising buildings to what amounts to dangerous elevations, destroying street life and all possibility of true community.

These are but a few of the challenges to rebuilding, but along with these is the broad goal of preservation. Much of the physical history of this place is gone, layers of life that can never be replaced. What can be preserved when so much is gone? In speaking with residents, one realizes that memory is already preserving much, memory of building locations or architectural styles, for example. Preservation of place should guide all rebuilding to maintain cultural memory. If possible, buildings should be rebuilt in the same location, good historic street patterns should be maintained, communities should be preserved in existing locations and local building traditions should guide the design of new buildings. This does not mean stultification, as this place will inevitably change when rebuilt; rather the precious character of this coast should be preserved while evolving into its future.

In addition to preserving the character of the coast, physical preservation of what is left must be aggressive. The NFIP does not provide for buildings to be rebuilt if they are more than 50% destroyed. Yet, if they are 50% destroyed, they are 50% whole. The building stock along the Mississippi coast included some of our finest high and vernacular buildings, and preservationists should strive to preserve these, even if it requires raising funds to cover what insurance will not. If a building is to be demolished, then everything possible should be salvaged for reuse. This is a way to pass on the memory of this place to the future. Rebuild by reusing.

The vision that was produced during the charrette grappled with these and many other issues I do not have the space to discuss here. It should be noted that while I have shared ideas produced during the charrette, the above is ultimately filtered, for better or worse, through my opinion and experience of being there. Unlike other post-Katrina and -Rita efforts, the charrette was not about determining principles to guide rebuilding. Rather, because New Urbanists already agree on basic principles of how to build well, we were able to produce concrete options, tools and methods for rebuilding.  New Urbanists who gave generously of their time could assist Mississippi as no other group could for this very reason.  We were all honored to work side by side with Mississippians as they began planning their future.   

For all that has been lost, for all the challenges ahead, Mississippi will one day be even more than it was. Like the live oaks that have turned brown from the salty flood waters, but will bloom green again next season, Mississippi too will return.  Each of us face moments in our lives where we experience loss of one form or another. These moments provide a chance to assess what was and decide what will be. We all possess the ability to rebuild our lives, and Mississippians fortuitously hold this necessary resilience in abundance.

© Christine G. H. Franck, 2019. All rights reserved. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Christine G. H. Franck with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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