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Displaced Realtors picking up pieces, appreciative of relief

A few weeks before Hurricane Katrina plowed through the Mississippi Gulf Coast beach communities, ReMax by the Gulf Realtor Elena Alm had sold a young couple their first waterfront home. Even though the Category Four storm totally destroyed the newly-acquired property, the couple wanted to see that Alm was safe and sound.

“They wanted to make sure that I was OK,” said Alm, with tears welling in her eyes. “That’s the kind of clientele I’ve been lucky enough to work with.”

Alm began her real estate career on the Gulf Coast in 1977 and was named a top producer within two years. Since then, she has sold thousands of houses from her five-level Ocean Springs home office, which was devastated by the hurricane.

“I’m stuck in the mud,” said Alm, celebrating her 64th birthday by culling through piles of wet, damaged papers. “I don’t know if I’ll live on the Gulf Coast or continue selling real estate. Financially, I may have to because I was underinsured. To start over in your 20s, 30s or even 40s is probably a different story. But in your mid-60s, it’s a reality check. This is not exactly what I thought I’d be doing on my birthday.”

Roughly 1,900 Mississippi Realtors live in areas affected by Hurricane Katrina, representing one-third of the Mississippi Association of Realtors (MAR) membership.

“We don’t know how many Realtors are displaced,” said Lorraine Krohn, executive vice president of the Gulf Coast Association of Realtors. “We’ve been making calls, trying to get a handle on it.”

Carlene Alfonso, president and CEO of Coldwell Banker Alfonso Realty Inc., which has the number one market share on the Mississippi Gulf Coast and is the top Coldwell Banker office in the state, said 56 of 120 Realtors are homeless, primarily from the Hancock County office, Pass Christian office and Gulfport office south of the railroad tracks on Courthouse Road.

“We’ve permanently lost about 10 Realtors who have moved to other areas in- and out-of-state,” she said. “One relocated to Gatlinburg, Tenn., several moved to Jackson, and a couple of Realtors went to Lafayette, La. Some of them had to get their children in school somewhere, but we think most others who lost houses will come back. It’ll probably take a three-month shakeout to find shelter for everybody and for them to make decisions on what they’re going to do personally. Then it’ll be business as normal with a huge emphasis on single-family home construction.”

Many displaced Coldwell Banker Realtors have benefited from the company’s adopt-an-agent program. “It’s a great program for agents at other locations who want to do something, but also want to put a face to it,” said Alfonso. “They often want to know who they’re helping.”

After the hurricane, MAR immediately established the Mississippi Realtor Hurricane Relief Fund to assist Mississippians who sustained damage to their primary residences.

“This has been our primary focus,” said MAR president Angela Cain. “To date, we have assisted more than 1,000 families with more than $800,000 worth of relief funds. With help from other state and local Realtor associations throughout the country — and particularly the National Association of Realtors — we’ve been able to raise more than $1.3 million for our relief fund, a 501(c) 3 non-profit corporation. Still, it’s become clear that we are going to run out of funds before we run out of applications. With more than 4,000 applications and counting, we have had to close our application process.”

The fund board of directors meets daily to review applications — all anonymous — and a maximum of $2,500 is awarded per family based on a variety of factors on the application form. Applications are reviewed on a first-come, first-served basis.

“We’re asking each office in our zone to donate at least $500,” said David Stevens, broker/owner of Century 21 David Stevens in Clinton.

Local Realtor boards have partnered with other Realtor associations around the country, FEMA and the Department of Homeland Security to set up a housing website (hurricanehousing.net) to identify temporary housing opportunities. They have also supplied children in affected areas with school supply-filled backpacks.

Lynne Davis, executive director of the Biloxi-Ocean Springs Association of Realtors, said local Realtors have “been amazed by the outpouring of support. Folks who lost their homes were relieved to have those funds, but they’re trying to figure out what to do with their businesses, too. Some lost everything.”

Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne W. Jeter at lwjeter@yahoo.com.

About Lynne W. Jeter

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