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Structural damage in Waveland, MS, was estimated at 80 to 90 percent, where the eye of Hurricane Katrina hit.



Katrina’s Wake

A year after Hurricane Katrina, there remains much to be done on the Gulf Coast.

By Hadiya Strasberg

When Hurricane Katrina hit the Mississippi Gulf Coast and Louisiana on August 29, 2005, people were stunned. Though there had been much criticism of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and U.S. government management, the immediate national and international response was overwhelming. More than 70 countries as well as organizations and individuals from around the world pledged monetary donations or other assistance. Now, about a year after the storm, much of the attention has diminished under the enormous weight of the wars in the Middle East.

While much of the country has moved on, there remain a number of dedicated people involved in the cleanup and rebuilding of the Gulf Coast. In October 2005, a month and a half after the storm, I attended the Mississippi Renewal Forum, an emergency planning charrette that provided the state with designs for a new Gulf Coast. Architects, urban planners and other design professionals convened in Biloxi, MS, and designed walkable communities centered on revitalized downtowns, public transportation systems, attractive boulevards and southern, coastal vernacular architecture for all income levels. Many are still involved in the rebuilding effort.

Controversy over the idea of New Urbanist neighborhoods and the traditional style of much of the proposed architecture inevitably emerged. Some government officials, architects and residents thought the designs nostalgic and artificial, while others took them to heart and argued for the sense of place they could create. Reed Kroloff, the dean of Tulane’s School of Architecture, became something of an anti-New Urbanist cheerleader. While academic aesthetic arguments, such as Kroloff’s, will rage on, it is difficult to argue with the democracy and civility built into the charrette process employed in Mississippi and New Urbanist developments in general.

That Mississippi’s governor chose to work with New Urbanist architects and New Orleans’ mayor did not is another example of the division between the two camps. Mayor Ray Nagin instead invited Kroloff to participate in his Bring New Orleans Back Commission. Since then, however, the Gentilly section of New Orleans, which was without a redevelopment plan, hired Andrés Duany of Miami, FL-based Duany Plater-Zyberk & Company – the organizer of the Mississippi Renewal Forum – to lead a charrette in April 2006. The city council is following suit, earmarking money and hiring its own planners separate from the Mayor’s commission, to move things ahead.

The rebuilding effort, though uncertain at times, has come a long way in Mississippi when compared with its neighbor to the west. It is not physically noticeable in each neighborhood, as some debris has yet to be cleared from the streets and many are living out of FEMA trailers or in tents, but there have been numerous planning meetings with locals, government officials and builders to move things along. The SmartCode, a transect-based land-development ordinance, has not yet been officially adopted, but 10 of the 11 municipalities are pursuing it and will soon vote on versions.

Biloxi has decided not to follow the forum’s recommendations, developers are now taking advantage of being able to build upwards of 30 stories on the waterfront. While the new construction and reopening of casinos is beneficial to the economic strength of the city, they do not make a city beautiful. They instead create a barrier that prevents the citizens from enjoying, or even seeing, their natural environs. In fact, the architects responsible for the Biloxi plan at the forum, Moule & Polyzoides Architects and Urbanists of Pasadena, CA, resigned from the task after months of continually hitting this wall.

The forum’s ideas are also running into trouble in Bay St. Louis since a state-wide retraction of a ban that disallowed casinos to build on dry land. Though Habitat for Humanity is building a mixed-use, mixed-income neighborhood on 20 acres in Bay St. Louis, 1,000-unit, 20- to 40-story condominiums and casinos have also been approved there.

Yet, many of the concepts from the forum have garnered support and are being pursued. For Pass Christian, architects designed a Wal-Mart store – a retail chain often identified by its "big box" look – that assimilates with a traditional downtown block by providing parking in the rear among other things. Wal-Mart executives participated in a March 2006 charrette to research this idea further.

Downtown Ocean Springs is the showcase of another encouraging product of the forum. Katrina Cottage I, a 308-sq.ft. cottage designed by New York City-based Marianne Cusato as an affordable alternative to the FEMA trailer, is on display for all to explore. The New Urban Guild, of Miami Beach, FL, published a book of Cusato’s plan and 17 other Katrina Cottages, which range from 170 to 1,200 sq.ft., in February 2006. Though only one other cottage has been built to date (in New Orleans), Bruce Tolar of Tolar LeBatard Denmark Architects in Ocean Springs and Michael Barranco of Jackson, MS-based Barranco Architecture and Design have plans to develop a 2-acre site with 800- to 1,200-sq.ft. Katrina Cottages, which they call a cottage court.

The New Urban Guild expects to be able to offer designs from its book through one manufacturer by September 2006. Cusato took a different route, working with Lowe’s to design and manufacture a cottage kit. Some other good news came in June 2006 when Congress authorized $400 million to replace FEMA trailers, some of which may be earmarked for Katrina Cottages.

It’s once again hurricane season and the Gulf Coast finds itself threatened by the possibility of another destructive storm. While the Mississippi Renewal Forum participants and many other people have come to the region’s aid, there is much that remains to be done. One thing is certain: bureaucratic quagmires and political and architectural faction fighting only serve to stall rebuilding.

There have, however, also been promising signs: FEMA posted the advisory base-flood elevation maps ahead of schedule in April 2006, seemingly cutting through miles of red tape in the process, and the common sense behind the Katrina Cottage designs seems to have been recognized by those in power. There is much to learn from the endurance and ingenuity that was demonstrated by both the residents of the Gulf Coast and the professionals who came to their aid. In particular, the Mississippi Renewal Forum demonstrated the effectiveness of the New Urbanist planning process as well as the effectiveness of the designs it produces. The "bottom-up," consensus-based approach adopted by the forum was one of the few unqualified successes of the Katrina episode. Perhaps it will also be the most enduring.  

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