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New minimum elevation heights on Coast will have huge impact on rebuilding effort

Questions abound about rebuilding in flood-prone areas

Mississippi Gulf Coast — In Biloxi alone a fifth of the buildings — 5,000 out of 25,000 — have been destroyed by Hurricane Katrina. That means a huge rebuilding effort is needed, but there are questions about whether rebuilding will be commercially feasible in some of the lowest, flood-prone areas.

After Hurricane Camille, requirements were instituted to require structures to be built an average of 11 to 14 feet above sea level. With Katrina’s storm surge being perhaps 10 feet higher than Camille’s, if building codes were revised to require a minimum elevation of 25 feet, a lot of very valuable waterfront property could become unsuitable for building.

“Some of the building codes are going to be established by new federal directives regarding what can be built in a flood plain,” said Biloxi spokesman Vincent Creel. “We are penalized if we allow construction to occur in low lying areas without stricter standards. For example, the city might be given higher flood insurance rates.

“We are fully of the belief we are going to be seeing a higher requirement in terms of elevation, particularly in East Biloxi. One thing the federal government is trying to avoid is recurring losses which drive up insurance rates for everyone. There will be a new base flood elevation benchmark with what we saw with this storm. Some land may not be buildable in the future. Some houses will be grandfathered in to begin with. There might be a federal buyout program.”

Concerns arise

Marty Milstead, executive vice president of the Homebuilders Association of Mississippi (HBAM), who has spent time on the Coast since the hurricane helping family members do cleanup, said it is too soon to know what the new flood elevation will be.

“There is a lot of concern,” Milstead said. “People’s lives have clearly been changed by this storm. They want life to be back to normal as soon as possible. The new minimum building height is just another issue that is going to have to be dealt with. And I’m sure there is concern on both sides. The flood folks don’t want people to be flooded out again, and people affected by this might not be able to afford to meet the new regulations. It is a huge concern.”

There was a shortage of suitable lots for homebuilding before the storm. A lot of the Coast is wetlands, and costs of raw land have climbed due to the big homebuilding boom in recent years. Many houses flooded that had never flooded before Katrina. A lot of those people had homeowner’s insurance, but not flood insurance. Hence, they might not have money to rebuild.

“I’m hearing that insurance companies are saying it is flooding and are not paying claims,” Milstead said. “That is going to be a real issue on rebuilding. People might not have the money to rebuild. It will no doubt have an effect, and I think a large one. People aren’t going to be able to go in and write a check if there is no insurance coverage.”

Too early to tell

It is possible the hurricane could make lots more expensive. But low-lying lots where new minimum height levels could make building difficult and expensive might be available for bargain prices.

“Some people are not going to build back on these low lots,” Milstead said. “There might be lots closer to the water that are very affordable. I don’t know. I don’t think anyone does. People are still trying to clean up the yards and get debris out of the streets. It is still a mess down there. I think it is too early to know what people are going to do and what it is going to look like.”

It is expected that a lot of out-of-state contractors will come into Mississippi to help with the rebuilding effort. The State of Mississippi is allowing contractors from other states who have licenses to obtain a 90-day contractor’s license in Mississippi. Later the licenses might be extended.

Milstead said HBAM has met with its counterparts in Florida, and might adopt their online contractor network. That allows people to search online for licensed contractors and subcontractors.

Up and running

Currently, HBAM is working to help South Mississippi homebuilders get back in business. Many lost their homes, offices, equipment and vehicles.

“We are focusing right now on trying to get the homebuilding family up and running so they can be in business to help other people,” Milstead said. “We are working to meet our members’ needs. The National Association of Homebuilders just put $1 million in a foundation last week to help our members.”

Factory-built housing might help fill part of the gap. There is a new type of house assembled in a plant built to the same building codes as any other home. These are not mobile homes, but are built to the same standards as conventional homes. Milstead said these three-bedroom, two-bath homes can be installed on a slab in three days.

“I think there is some opportunity for using that type of housing,” Milstead said. “You could go into certain areas and have a neighborhood pretty quickly.”

Building permits are required for repairing damaged structures. In Biloxi, building permit fees for repairing damaged structures have been waived to help with the rebuilding effort.

Access issue

Biloxi is hampered in rebuilding by lack of highway access to the city. There is no access yet on U.S. 90 east or west. The Popps Ferry bridge is out, leaving only the interstate for access to the city. Another issue is that water, sewer, electric, telephone and natural gas infrastructures have been heavily damaged. Those systems must be repaired before new construction can be allowed.

Biloxi Mayor A.J. Holloway said Biloxi has weathered many a storm during its 300-year history.

“Our people have proven their resiliency time and again,” Holloway said. “We’ll meet this unprecedented natural disaster with an unprecedented response. We’ll overcome this setback, and we’ll be defined not so much by the devastation of this storm, but how we rebuilt our community. It’s going to be a long process, but Biloxi is on the way back.”

Most Coast cities have adopted an ordinance to allow people to have manufactured housing in areas where zoning usually doesn’t allow them. They can be placed on property where homeowners are rebuilding.

Thinking ahead

Some efforts are underway to help the Coast rebuild in a manner that protects the environment and people’s investments.

Mississippi State University (MSU) architecture professor Michael Berk is in the process of organizing a think tank focused on ecological planning for the Gulf states.

“It would include experts from the University of Florida, Auburn University, MSU, Texas A & M, Louisiana State University, etc.,” Berk said. “The goal would be to organize and then propose a structure for this entity to operate and advise to help establish policy and guidelines for ecological development on the Gulf Coast.”

Berk is also working to get his GreenMobile homes into production. Those are manufactured housing built to be energy efficient and durable.

“A company has been formed here in Northeast Mississippi,” Berk said. “We have been waiting on some USDA funding to get started. Hopefully, we can get someone’s attention right now. We believe with proper funding we can be producing within seven months.”

Pete Walley, director of long range planning for Mississippi, said the idea of more holistic building codes is a very appropriate subject now that so much of the Coast must be redeveloped.

“We have a reason to pause and contemplate what we would like in our communities,” Walley said. “Thinking about the rehabilitation process, building codes can be improved that acknowledge the effects on energy and the environment.”

Contact MBJ contributing writer Becky Gillette at bgillette@bellsouth.net.

About Becky Gillette

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