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County engineer says Hancock on road to recovery

Ask Geoffrey Clemens, P.E., about the challenges of engineering the recovery of Hancock County following Hurricane Katrina, and he takes a deep breath.

“Where do I start?” asks Clemens, who works for Compton Engineering in Bay St. Louis and is Hancock County engineer. “At first there was an inability to function because of lack of normal resources such as a place to work out of, and the ability to get around and do assessments because everything was so torn up. Access to inspect a bridge or building was next to impossible.”

Hancock County took some of the worst devastation from Hurricane Katrina with a storm surge estimated as high as 30 feet cutting a wide path of destruction through the county’s two major cities, Bay St. Louis and Waveland. The U.S. 90 bridge between Pass Christian and Bay St. Louis was destroyed, as was the scenic Beach Road that followed the shoreline of both cities on the bay.

Clemens had the opportunity to travel across the Mississippi Gulf Coast a week after the storm.

“In Jackson County, the beachfront was mostly annihilated, but once you got inland gradually things got more functional,” Clemens said. “In Hancock County, the beachfront was annihilated. There was not one structure that wasn’t gone. And the damage also went inland for a long way. Seeing the Coast from one end to the other, the farther west you got, the worse it got.”

In Hancock County, not a single county or municipal office was undamaged by the storm. Most buildings, even the county’s Emergency Operations Center (EOC), were destroyed.
Clemens’ job is to help rebuild the roads, utilities and buildings that serve the government and the public. But right after the storm, he didn’t have an office, either.

“Our Bay St. Louis office had 13 feet of water,” he said. “If we didn’t have work on computer backup, we pretty much lost it. For the first month we worked out of the EOC headquarters that was set up at Stennis International Airport. Later we set up a trailer next to our offices in Bay St. Louis.”

Communications were a huge problem. There was little telephone communication at all the first two weeks to a month. Clemens said he was fortunate to be able to get a satellite phone that helped.

Still, it was hard to get in touch with employees, many of whom lost their homes andor vehicles. Fuel was very scarce, and not just street signs by major landmarks were missing. In fact, even whole streets like Beach Road were missing in places.

“Initially there were major challenges just being able to function,” Clemens said. “Even at the best of times with full staff and facilities, the magnitude and scope of the work to be done was so overwhelming it would have been difficult to get your arms around it. These projects are unprecedented because of the magnitude of them. There was major damage all way from New Orleans to Mobile. This was like nothing any of us had ever seen before.”

The scope of the disaster means engineering companies can’t just reach out to their neighbors next door for help like would have been possible in a smaller disaster.

“All of us are in the same boat,” Clemens said. “We are all very busy doing everything we can to make sure our clients’ needs are met. Normally if we had a problem over here, we would team up with other Coast businesses. But we are all in the same situation. We have had to find partners, other companies we can work with to be able to provide enough resources to get the work done. Outside firms we have had experience with or have worked with on past projects have come to our assistance to tackle some of these projects.”

Consider just one project replacing 6,000 feet of Beach Road in the heart of Bay St. Louis. It will cost an estimated $30 million for the road, and another $8 million to reinstall utilities.

The county took a total loss on 10 public buildings in Bay St. Louis, and no county buildings were without damage. The historic Hancock County Courthouse flooded. Clemens estimates that $20 to $30 million will be needed to repair or replace county buildings.

“The list just goes on and on,” Clemens said. “Waveland and Bay St. Louis have the same issues. The whole utility system south of the tracks in Waveland needs to be replaced.”

So far there is not a lot of residential rebuilding going on. The new proposed FEMA base flood elevations are much higher than before, making it expensive and difficult for many homeowners considering rebuilding. Clemens said the proposed flood elevations, which haven’t yet been adopted by the county, are so drastic that the end results could be major barriers to rebuilding.

Even six months after Katrina, there are still shortages to deal with. There is a shortage of building materials like sheetrock. And there are still few businesses open in the area, so it can even be difficult to count on getting a meal at a local restaurant without a long wait. There is no longer a 24-hour Wal-Mart to turn to, either.

“Across the board, every component of business is still crippled,” Clemens said. “As it relates to rebuilding, there is the whole chicken-and-egg problem. We can’t get aggressive with redevelopment when we don’t have the resources to support it. That is the catch 22.

“On a more positive note, considering something of this magnitude, six months afterwards there is construction going on. Some homes are being rebuilt. Our 6,000-square-foot office facility will be fully repaired by April. Within a month of the storm, Compton Engineering was fully operational along with a handful of other businesses critical to assisting government recovery. There are some good things happening. There is good leadership making decisions and taking actions to allow recovery to happen. Every day there is one little thing you get to hang your hat on, knowing you are making progress on the real path to getting something designed, constructed and completed.”

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

About Becky Gillette

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