Hurricane Katrina Forest Recovery

As we work together to tackle the historic challenge that Hurricane Katrina has presented to the forestry communities of Mississippi, Louisiana, and Alabama, we hope that this blog will be a valuable resource and tool.

Wednesday, December 6

461 DAYS AFTER THE STORM ... Where does Biloxi go from here?

By Ricky Mathews
The Sun Herald

On an economic level, Biloxi is starting to thrive, but if you are a resident who wants to rebuild in a low-lying area and you need guidance from the city about the future, you probably are not in a good place. There is too much confusion. And that shouldn't be the case 15 months after Hurricane Katrina.

The mayor and City Council need to take decisive action to implement the compelling vision that their own constituents have created for Biloxi. Nothing less will let them get the tough decisions behind them and enable the rebuilding process to move forward more quickly.

Biloxi is on the cusp of an amazing recovery. Will Biloxi's leaders make the tough decisions and create an exciting future? This can't be done one step at a time... one project at a time. There has to be a compelling master plan crafted with all of the new tools we have learned about since the storm. If you care deeply about Biloxi or any of the other cities in South Mississippi trying to work through this unprecedented rebuilding effort, read on. And hang on to this page for future reference.

In so many ways, as Biloxi's recovery and rebuilding goes, so goes the Mississippi Coast's recovery - at least in the short term. That's because reporters, national business leaders and other visitors hit Biloxi first most of the time. And what they sense about Biloxi's vision - and its progress toward realizing it - shapes their impressions of the Coast's post-Katrina prospects.
All South Mississippians have a stake in Biloxi's success.

So how is our bellwether city doing? How clear are its ambitions? And how well are its leaders performing in terms of achieving their goals?

Some would suggest not well enough and certainly not fast enough.
Biloxi's challenges go far beyond reopening casinos and marketing condos. Residents and retailers alike need to better understand their rebuilding options, and need to be confident that the city will help rather than hinder their recovery efforts.

Yet Biloxi seems on a course to manage its growth by granting time-consuming variances every step of the way. If the city sticks to that course, the outcome will be haphazard at best. The result could be condos overshadowing the publicly owned small craft harbor and overpowering condos scattered along the beachfront.

The 200-plus volunteers of the Reviving the Renaissance effort lead by retired general Clark Griffith (and coupled with the work of Living Cities) gave the mayor and City Council a lot to work with. Their tireless work is inspiring and absolutely sets the stage.
Casinos and condos cannot and should not be enough. But who in the city is demanding that expectations be kept high, so that Biloxi becomes one of the most significant rebuilding stories in American history?

Since the 2005 storm that changed all our lives, I've been among those working hard to attract expertise for planning. I sat on the Governor's Commission. I've been at dozens of meetings with people and leaders from all walks of life determined to make real Gov. Haley Barbour's promise to "build back better than ever." And I've seen many of those efforts produce encouraging - sometimes inspiring - results.

When the Governor's Commission brought the Mississippi Renewal Forum to town just five weeks after the storm, Biloxi Mayor A.J. Holloway and City Council members kept their distance for the most part. They watched as expert national planners teamed with their local counterparts to produce a vision for a Biloxi beyond Katrina. It was a vision that could accommodate the booming casino industry as it revitalized an urban environment we were losing before the storm. We could remake a city, these planners told us, that could accommodate a mix of incomes, business types and housing choices.

Yet while most of the other 10 towns participating in the Forum began almost immediately building on the ideas generated there, the Forum's host city signalled it was going its own way.
Back then, it was possible to cut Biloxi a little slack. Hadn't the mayor and the City Council had the foresight to insure the city against an interruption of casino business? Hadn't they led in getting debris cleared and roads open after the storm? And hadn't Biloxi's long-range bet on casinos paid off when, thanks to a new state law that allowed them to move on-shore and expand, future revenue projections soared? Maybe the city deserved a little extra time to weigh its options.

That's why there was little public opposition to the mayor's go-it-alone plan. He called it Reviving the Renaissance and announced it at his State of the City speech early this year. The mayor would take the Mississippi Renewal Forum proposals under advisement, he said, but his team would arrive at a plan that suited Biloxi's way of doing business.

Fair enough.

I was among those who helped raise money for a process that brought the national nonprofit planning group Living Cities and the respected Goody Clancy design team to town. Like the Mississippi Renewal Forum, this would be a cost-free opportunity for Biloxi to plan its future. But unlike the Forum, Reviving the Renaissance was a process custom-made for Mayor Holloway and Biloxi. The New Urbanist planners who ran the the Biloxi part of the Mississippi Renewal Forum bowed out of the new Biloxi planning effort, clearing the path for Biloxi to go its own way.

One of the issues that obscured the New Urbanists' arguments was the debate over preliminary FEMA elevations. Some in the New Urbanist camp wanted to fight FEMA on requirements that buildings in storm zones be elevated to levels that might make single-family housing unaffordable to low-income people and that would frustrate efforts to create welcoming retail environments. It was a romantic argument: ignore FEMA's new requirements and act as though another storm like Katrina will never happen.

But one thing many of us came to believe after hours and hours with FEMA officials was that the agency was not backing off the higher elevations. It was not going to be possible to do any meaningful planning that ignored those new maps.

So a key component of the Reviving the Renaissance plan was to be acceptance of the FEMA elevations, regardless of the temporary pain and political ramifications.
Accepting the FEMA maps has become difficult for everyone and every town. But it is a necessary step given that we must build back stronger and safer this time. A generous and sympathetic nation is watching to see how we protect ourselves from future storms. If we do not take every reasonable precaution, then the nation cannot be expected to be so generous and sympathetic after the next severe storm demolishes what we rebuild.

Is it any wonder then that each of the other cities involved in the Mississippi Renewal Forum process has adopted the FEMA maps with only minor revisions, if any.

How about Biloxi?
After all the discussion about facing facts, how have city leaders responded? The Reviving the Renaissance report emerged nearly two months ago, endorsing, as expected, immediate adoption of FEMA's recommended building elevations in an expanded flood zone. Yet, to date, the only thing the City Council has done is pass a watered-down version of the FEMA recommendations. In May, the council raised mandatory elevations just three feet, far short of FEMA's nine-foot minimum recommendation. And the council has refused to acknowledge any increase in the size of the city's flood zone, even though Katrina's storm surge inundated areas of the city far beyond the existing flood zone.

City officials are still denying the inevitable, still hoping to be rescued from having to make tough choices. The maps will be final in early 2007 and must be adopted at that time. By fully adopting the FEMA maps now and developing a plan that takes them into account, property owners will have the clarity they need to make better informed decisions.

Here's something else we all learned from the Mississippi Renewal Forum: The necessity of zoning codes that align future development with community planning visions. The New Urbanists won over many city and county officials with their advocacy of form-based codes that regulate the look and feel of streets and neighborhoods instead of regulating the use of buildings. Conventional use-based codes segregate living, working, shopping and entertainment so that transportation by car might as well be mandated. Form-based codes - especially the SmartCode advocated by most of the New Urbanist consultants - seek to replicate the feel of historic neighborhoods we love, where a wide variety of housing, stores, office and entertainment opportunities are within walking distance. Even the most inspiring sort of plan - like the one brought forth by Goody Clancy for the Reviving the Renaissance effort - needs a code to become a reality.

So what is Biloxi doing about a form-based code? Currently, there is no proposal in sight.
Gulfport, D'Iberville, Ocean Springs, Long Beach, Pass Christian, Pascagoula and Moss Point got the message. Some called it "the Gospel." And they moved forward aggressively, understanding how ideas from the Mississippi Renewal Forum could help them build cities that years from now will collectively be some of the most extraordinary in the country.

In my work as chair of the Tourism Committee for the Governor's Commission, our committee said that embracing the essence of ideas from the Mississippi Renewal Forum will enable us to recapture our sense of place and will create a region of enormous appeal. I feel strongly that this will happen because of the work being done in the trenches in each of those cities to adopt these new approaches.

I cannot overstate how important it is that Biloxi take a similar approach.
Biloxi has a lot of things going for it. Casinos and condo development will certainly drive Biloxi's recovery in the short term. But in the long run, casino and condo developers realize as much as anyone that the recovery of Biloxi's residential and retail communities is the only way to sustain success.

So what about the future? Who has the political courage to champion an unparalleled future for Biloxi, especially the peninsula? How do we recapture the essence of what was lost? Where is it safe to have single-family houses and where is it not safe? What is the plan to deal with that? And where are the city services - from the permit office to the public works department - to help get the job done?

In the cities along the Coast making major progress after the Mississippi Renewal Forums, there are champions. These people are learning new approaches to planning and taking innovative steps to achieve their cities' post-Katrina potential. They are on a mission to teach others. They are all learning and applying approaches that help affirm their cities' uniqueness and guide their development in ways many thought were not possible before the storm.

Who are the champions in Biloxi?

What's their plan? And what are their strategies for achieving it?

Biloxi needs to get this right - right now!

Let's leave a legacy in each of our cities that our children and our children's children can be proud of.

As Gov. Barbour told a special session of the Legislature after the storm:
"We're putting our all into this because the stakes are so high.
"In 30 years, when I'm dead and gone, people will look at what the Coast and South Mississippi have become. If it is simply a newer version of today, we will have failed those people... our children and grandchildren. If on the other hand, it has become what it can be... bigger and better than ever... world-class and looked up to by the nation as an example of what a great area can be, then those people in 30 years will say, 'These folks after Katrina. They got it right, and we're grateful to them.'

Now is the time - in every corner of every community in every county in South Mississippi - to earn the gratitude of generations to come.


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