Jackson — After cramming an unprecedented amount of work into four months, a group of volunteers has completed a lengthy report on how to rebuild the devastated Mississippi Gulf Coast.
The chairman of the Governor’s Commission on Recovery, Rebuilding and Renewal, Jim Barksdale, presented the group’s final report of 230 recommendations to Gov. Haley Barbour as scheduled.
In thanking Barksdale and the volunteers who served, Barbour said, “I had expectations of the commission working in a productive way with local people and they exceeded my expectations. Hundreds of people participated in the forum and thousands participated in town meetings. I have reviewed the report extensively and am eager to share it with all Mississippians as we face the critical decisions that lie ahead.”
He added that residents of the storm-ravaged counties participated beyond just commenting and stayed focused on the future. “It lifted the horizons on rebuilding bigger and better than ever,” he said. “I will work hard to make sure the implementation is accomplished.”
The governor stressed that local leadership and the private sector will make decisions regarding implementation for such critical needs as water and sewer, land use, affordable housing, building and zoning codes, public services and tourism development. There are strong arguments for building and zoning codes that not only require safer structures and more storm-aware development patterns, but that also encourage more pedestrian-friendly streets and a better mix of commercial, office and residential uses in rebuilt neighborhoods.
Some recommendations may require legislative action while others will not. He would not name the one recommendation he considers the most important. Noting that the states of Florida and Louisiana have adopted statewide building codes, Barbour said that Mississippi is different and that he will not push for a statewide code.
Barksdale also thanked all who served on the commission.
“We had terrific support from all elected officials and the greatest outpouring of effort — paid and unpaid — that I’ve ever seen in my life,” he said. “Now, it’s up to the people and their leaders to make it happen. It will take a long time and a lot of money because we’ve had the worst natural disaster in our country’s history.”
The talents of more than 500 volunteers were called upon to serve on 20 committees. This group invested more than 50,000 hours researching, listening to and debating alternatives. A six-day renewal forum was held involving planning specialists from the state and all over the world.
“What the commission searched for are recommendations for Mississippi’s renewal that are sensible, doable and that truly make a difference in all our citizens’ lives,” Barksdale said. “The recommendations emerged from a healthy, participatory process.”
The 190-page report outlines funding ideas for many of the recommendations. Suggested ways communities can tap into federal, state and private funding sources are listed.
“This is serious business,” the chairman added, “and it’s time to drop all politics and excuses. People are mighty naive if they think we can go to Washington and get this amount of money after the next hurricane.”
As a reminder of putting politics aside and bringing everyone together to work for the state, Gov. Barbour pointed out that Barksdale was the largest contributor to Barbour’s opponent in the last governor’s race. “I don’t know if that’s an example of your great statesmanship or a way to get back at me,” Barksdale quipped.
Barbour said Mississippians will look back at the work of this commission 30 years from now and realize how much effort went into developing the report. Lessons were learned from the commission formed after Hurricane Camille in 1969.
“We concentrated on why the Camille report was not implemented,” Barksdale said. “People on the commission know what happened after Camille. It takes a huge amount of money to make things happen and we have identified sources of money for implementation.”
He believes the will exists among Coast residents and leaders for implementation, saying a lot of rebuilding is already going on. “The Coast has this new magnet, casinos, which it didn’t have before,” he said. “It will prove beneficial as it brings jobs and people to the area.”
Anthony Topazi, president of Mississippi Power Company and a key member of the commission, likes the specific designs for the Coast’s different cities. “It’s not a homogenous plan. It fits each city and brings out their own settings,” he said. “People are debating these concepts and everybody is excited about them.”
The commission’s report has several common themes. The hardest hit communities of the 43 counties that were declared disaster areas attracted the most focused study. Everything is connected, meaning that recommendations for broader, more comprehensive approaches to problem solving are included. Local governments have the most opportunity and the highest accountability.
“At one of our meetings, a coastal engineer pointed to one of our maps and called the Coast ‘a storm surge magnet.’ As we prepared these reports, the experts who annually predict the frequency and intensity of hurricane seasons issued their first projections for 2006 and warned of the potential for more dangerous storms than in 2005,” Barksdale said. “We will see another major hurricane, perhaps not this year, nor next year, nor the year after that, but almost certainly within our lifetimes. Will we be prepared?”
Barbour said the commission as it existed has completed its mission. Its work now transfers to a new entity working out of the governor’s office with staff in coastal counties. That group will coordinate government assistance at all levels and assemble a package of advisory help for local jurisdictions.
The complete report and all supporting documents are available on the commission Web site, www.governorscommission.com.
Contact MBJ contributing Lynn Lofton at email@example.com.