TOPICS > Economy

Pass Christian, Miss. Rebuilds After Katrina

March 20, 2006 at 12:00 AM EDT

TOM BEARDEN: This is Pass Christian, Mississippi, today, a coastal town essentially destroyed by Hurricane Katrina: Every business was smashed; every municipal building was gutted; half its housing stock was destroyed; the storm surge literally dug up and ripped out the town’s water, gas and sewage lines.

Along Highway 90, the whole Mississippi coast, from Biloxi to Bay St. Louis, looks much the same, every structure heavily damaged or completely flattened.

Here and there are signs of recovery. In Pass Christian, the town’s government is back in business, working out of trailers. They have a daycare center operating in tents. Student volunteers from Virginia were installing playground equipment.

But much remains to be done: City officials say only half of the rubble from destroyed buildings has been removed. Before Katrina, just under 7,000 people lived here; now, it’s 2,000.

Lou Rizzardi is a long-time resident and an alderman on the city council.

LOU RIZZARDI, Alderman, Pass Christian: Our biggest challenge is to try to get everybody back into a house right now. Following the storm, we lost probably about 80 percent of our town.

TOM BEARDEN: Some business activity has been restored. One Po’ Boy sandwich shop is always busy. A couple of banks are open, and there’s a tiny grocery store. But Rizzardi says the tax base has been decimated.

LOU RIZZARDI: Prior to the storm, we had a budget of about $6 million, which translates into about $500,000 a month if you average it out. Currently, we’re taking in about perhaps $40,000 a month, and a lot of that is coming from, believe it or not, from fines for people who are speeding through town and fees that people are paying for permits. So it’s not a good base to build your economy on; I’m not sure what we’re going to do.

PARISHIONERS: I will sing to the Lord, for he is lofty and uplifted.

TOM BEARDEN: Like the town, Trinity Episcopal Church lost most of its members. The building was so heavily damaged that Rev. Chris Colby calls it the “Plywood Cathedral.” Attendance at this noontime service was sparse; Colby says only 50 of the 270 families in the congregation have returned since the storm.

REV. CHRISTOPHER COLBY, Trinity Episcopal Church: A number of families will never return. This was a congregation that had a number of older people in it. And for many of them — well, the equation works like this. They think they have 10 or fewer years left, but it’s going to take Pass Christian at least five to 10 years to be restored. And they don’t want to spend the last decade of their life in a catastrophe area.

TOM BEARDEN: Rizzardi thinks the town will lose 30 percent to 40 percent of its population permanently, perhaps even more if reconstruction doesn’t start soon.

LOU RIZZARDI: There are still probably 1,000 houses, 1,200 houses that need to be built. We need to build them in an economical manner so those who weren’t able to afford housing in the past can somehow find a new house at whatever their income level might be. That’s probably the biggest challenge to keep the base of our population.

TOM BEARDEN: But even as they try to grapple with disaster, people here are trying to seize an opportunity to rebuild their town better than it was before.

Thanks to private grants and help from state rebuilding funds, the city has been talking to architects about what a new Pass Christian might look like. Pre-Katrina, the town was residential, no high-rise condominiums or casinos like some of the larger towns down the road.

Town leaders are being urged to rebuild Pass Christian to look something like this. The concept is called “new urbanism.” It calls for more density in downtown and residential projects, with all the amenities within walking distance.

LOU RIZZARDI: Maybe we can build a downtown area where we have businesses on the ground floor and then the second and third floor that can be apartments. These could be low-income type of apartment dwellings.

BUDDY CLARK, Pass Christian Resident: This was my wife and I’s first home.

TOM BEARDEN: Buddy Clark is intrigued. He and his wife are talking about moving into such a building, perhaps having an office on the first floor and living upstairs.

BUDDY CLARK: At least it’s given us target out there for us to start to move towards, and that’s what we need. I think we need marching orders. We need to know what’s we’re going to do, how we’re going to try to get to where it’s going to happen here next. The water, it just lapped over the top of those beams.

TOM BEARDEN: It’s an alternative to returning to his waterfront home that was submerged, even though it was raised on pilings. He thinks the proposals are certainly better than being developed as a resort community.

BUDDY CLARK: Since the storm, we’ve hearing everywhere that when you see the pretty helicopters flying over, that’s the big developers trying to decide how they’re going to be slice and dice and remake us, and we don’t want to be sliced, diced and remade really.

TOM BEARDEN: Clark wants to make sure Pass Christian maintains that small-community feel that’s kept him here for two decades.

BUDDY CLARK: We don’t want Pass Christian downtown to be like, you know, Key West downtown maybe, where you know where you are by what the T-shirts in the window say, because you’ve got a little area of bars, cafes, shops, and you have to look at the T-shirt to figure out where you are, really, because there’s no identity left there anymore.

TOM BEARDEN: Rizzardi says many people haven’t started reconstruction because they don’t yet know how high the government will require their homes to be off the ground, and only homes that meet that requirement will be eligible for federal flood insurance.

Prior to Katrina, city building codes dictated the bottom floors be 13 feet above sea level in floodplains. If the ground level was lower than that, a house had to be raised on pilings to make up the difference. But in many areas, Katrina proved 13 feet wasn’t nearly enough. The Federal Emergency Management Agency is now redrawing the flood-risk maps for the entire coast.

LOU RIZZARDI: FEMA’s now saying, “Well, perhaps you need to go higher.” However, they haven’t given us the exact measures that we should go to. They’re still studying them. But they seem to feel it’s going to be anywhere from 18 to 22 feet.

Now, if you’re at four feet and you’ve got to go to 22, that’s untenable. You just can’t build back on something that without looking ridiculous, and perhaps even being in more in harm’s way, when big waves do come ashore and they start knocking at your pilings.

TOM BEARDEN: Todd Davison, FEMA director for the southeastern states, manages the mapping project.

TODD DAVISON, FEMA: The blue-shaded area is actually what got wet in Hurricane Katrina. The fat yellow line is now the inland extent of the new 100-year floodplain.

TOM BEARDEN: So these are the places they’re going to have to build structures higher?

TODD DAVISON: That is correct.

TOM BEARDEN: FEMA has distributed advisory maps like this one but is still working on the final documents.

TODD DAVISON: Will the cost of construction go up versus what it was before? Absolutely. Did we spend a lot of money on damage in this event? Absolutely. And so we would look at the elevation requirements, even though they might in the very short term be a more expensive proposition.

Over decadal periods, it’s probably going to save a lot of hardship and a lot of money, because not just a Katrina, but if you take a Category 3, a typical Category 3 storm surge event, which is quite reasonably frequent in this area, you would project water elevations of 10 or 12 feet into places like Pass Christian.

So if you don’t elevate to these heights, we’re just going to repeat the cycle over again.

TOM BEARDEN: The maps will form the basis for new city building codes, but Davison says they won’t be final until sometime in the spring of 2007.

Rizzardi says that leaves people in Pass Christian uncertain about when to start rebuilding. Davison says, as long as people build to the initial recommended height, they will eligible for flood insurance. But Rizzardi says decisions have to be made soon.

Is the survival of Pass Christian in any doubt?

LOU RIZZARDI: To be realistic, I’d have to say yes. I mean, I’m an optimist, but money is the key. And if we go bankrupt, then we have no options.

TOM BEARDEN: Brian Sanderson is the deputy director of the state Department of Recovery and Renewal. He says Pass Christian is moving faster than most.

BRIAN SANDERSON, Governor’s Office of Recovery and Renewal: Given the fact that Pass Christian is still about half their residents, given that 90 percent of their retail sales tax base was wiped out when the Wal-Mart on the beach was destroyed, you know, given the fact that they were closer to Ground Zero than many other towns on the coast, yes, they’re far ahead of the — they’re ahead of the game, in the sense that, despite all of those obstacles, they’ve already had a long-term planning stretch just for their city.

TOM BEARDEN: Spring comes early on the Mississippi Gulf Coast: the region’s stately live oak trees are leafing out; the town echoes with the sounds of nail guns and saws; workers are even using heavy equipment to sift the sand on the beaches that are the foundation of the tourist trade, trying to remove the debris left by the storm.

But even the most ardent optimists believe that at least 10 more springs will come and go before the region will be able to erase the worst of the scars left by Hurricane Katrina.