Not (Completely) Buying the Coast Buyouts

Three-and-a-half years after Hurricane Katrina, the Corps of Engineers has finally come up with a buyout plan for the Mississippi Gulf Coast to reduce property damage from future hurricanes. (See the Sun-Herald report of the last public meeting and a good commentary in today’s Clarion-Ledger analyzing the plan.) The original plan, introduced in 2007, was to buy up 17,000 properties, which is probably about right, but seemed ridiculous even at the time given the land values involved. Later it was down to 5,000, and now the number is 2,000. Which still sounds like a lot, until you realize that the Mississippi Gulf Coast is about 70 miles wide and probably has at least double that mileage of waterfront when you include all the bays and inlets that also flooded during Katrina’s surge.

I suspect this buyout will include mostly areas along those inlets–places like the Jourdan River behind Bay St. Louis, the Henderson Point area in Pass Christian, Diamondhead, and possibly (although given the casino interests not probably) the Point in Biloxi. These areas were pretty much washed away and looking strictly from a preservationist perspective, most didn’t have many historic places to begin with and they hardly have any left (the African American historic Turkey Creek community being an obvious exception).

Given the politics, I can’t imagine at this point that the beachfront areas will be bought out, no matter what the plan says, and my paranoid nature even suspects that if the beachfront is part of the deal, the feds will buy it and turn around and sell it to casinos and condo developers, ostensibly “to prop up the tax base.” “Trust No One” is what I learned from the X-Files–not a productive mindset, I admit, but still . . . when it comes to the amount of money involved, it seems prudent.

On the one hand, I support buyouts of low-lying areas, most of which were wetlands to start with and were only built on in the last 40 (or more likely 20) years–just like the barrier islands in Florida, these areas should never have been put into the property mix for development, and we will be reaping consequences for their diminishment in both human and environmental damage for decades to come. On the other hand, much of the beachfront before Katrina was lined with historic houses that had stood there for over a century and lasted through dozens of major hurricanes including Camille. A good number of those homes still stand and have been repaired in Pass Christian and a smaller section in Bay St. Louis.

Now, I’m not an environmental engineer, but it seems to me that the beachfront is not the problem–the destruction of the Mississippi Sound and the wetlands surrounding the tributaries leading into it over the last half century or so has created this situation, not those houses on the beach. As Derrick Evans said at the public meeting, someone (read the Corps and the Dept. of Environmental Quality) needs to stop issuing wetlands permits–this would seem like a rational first step that should have been taken right after the storm, but instead, in 2006 the Corps relaxed wetlands restrictions “to speed redevelopment” and “meet the housing crunch.” AAAK!

GulfportBungalowBesides all that, we’re going on 4 years after the storm; people have long ago made decisions to either move away or stay and rebuild. This buyout will possibly be a boon to those who decided to leave. But it will be yet another blow to those who care enough about the unique place that is the Gulf Coast to have stayed and fought and scraped together enough money to put their house back on its foundation and get new plumbing and meet the whole variety of confusing and often contradictory federal, state, and local regulations. These people are the ones who will be the core of these coastal communities, and yet they seem to be the ones always getting beat on the head.

I was glad to see local preservationists Derrick Evans of the historic Turkey Creek community and Patricia Spinks, leader of We the People (the Gulfport Library group), mentioned in the Sun-Herald report. Local civic and neighborhood leaders like these too often get little credit for their efforts to make their communities more livable and humane and protect them from destructive development–they deserve our respect and admiration for their often emotionally exhausting work.

Categories: Gulf Coast, Gulfport, Historic Preservation, Hurricane Katrina, Preservation People/Events

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