Mississippi's New Urbanist Rebuilding Unveiled

Mississippi Gulf Coast residents get their first chance to view and react to proposed architectural drawings of their new homes, neighborhoods and communities. What do they think of the new urbanist style, and can they afford it?

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

Nearly 200 architects, engineers and urban planners have been on the Mississippi Gulf Coast for the past week. They're meeting with locals, talking about how to rebuild the region. They've drafted blueprints and designs for communities in the New Urbanist style--that is diverse, compact, mixed-use communities that limit sprawl. NPR's David Schaper went to a planning meeting and sent this report.

DAVID SCHAPER reporting:

For more than seven weeks now since Katrina destroyed many of their homes, businesses and entire neighborhoods, the people of the Mississippi Gulf Coast have been surrounded by the debris of what was. So with the chance to respond to visions for the future of the coast, south Mississippians came to this public hearing at a community center just outside of Gulfport in droves.

(Soundbite of crowd noise)

SCHAPER: The crowd was more than twice the size organizers expected, so chairs had to be set up in auxiliary rooms to essentially hold four public hearings at once in order to give everyone who wanted to a chance to speak up. And it didn't take long to uncover the biggest problem with the rebuilding plans: New, more stringent building codes aimed at making homes better able to withstand hurricane forces. Clara Meacham(ph) objects to the Federal Emergency Management Agency's proposed new elevation standards, which would require new homes to be built at least three to eight feet higher than they were before Katrina.

Ms. CLARA MEACHAM: Right now my house is standing at 13. I don't want to go any higher. I'm ...(unintelligible) already. I know I'm in the flood zone. I don't want to go any higher. Mother Nature--if it's coming, it's going to come regardless. So what I'm saying is why should we go up any higher? I don't even want to go over 13. I really don't. Yeah, I really don't.

(Soundbite of applause)

SCHAPER: Meacham and others also wondered aloud how they'd be able to afford such Katrina-proof homes. But beyond that, most Gulf Coast residents seemed willing to embrace the broader vision for rebuilding their communities laid out by the New Urbanists. A vast majority said they favor rebuilt and expanded casinos, the driving economic force in the region, but they want them better integrated into the Gulf neighborhoods and downtown areas. They support adding parks and more green space, public transit, improved public access to beaches and waterfronts and creating more walkable communities that mix residential and retail uses. But Pat Hamel(ph) of Long Beach questioned those plans that also called for scaling back big-box retail developments on the outskirts of towns, saying some residents need to drive to discount stores for the lowest prices.

Mr. PAT HAMEL: (Long Beach Resident): Let's be practical. I just retired. I may have to get my cereal at the Hudson Salvage Center. OK? How am I going to walk to Hudson Salvage Center in a 95-degree day and a pouring downpour?

SCHAPER: Ultimately, questions on post-hurricane rebuilding plans led to questions about hurricane planning and government preparedness. Eva Seal(ph) had just moved to a waterfront home in the community of Long Beach just six weeks before Katrina leveled it. But she says she's been through this before. She and her husband have moved around a lot and were hit by several major hurricanes. And she says after every one, she sees the same kind of chaos.

Ms. EVA SEAL: There is no organized general consensus of what people need to do after the fact. We find out through word of mouth, back and forth, that we need to do this with FEMA, we need to do this with the Red Cross, we need to do this with these people. If before we have our next storm, if we could get a committee together that could do general classes, I would go to a class. What do I need to do after a hurricane?

SCHAPER: But despite those experiences, Seal said after the public hearing that she and her family will, without a doubt, rebuild.

Ms. SEAL: I come back to the coast because the coast is the best place in the world. I've been everywhere, and this is the best place in the world to live. Despite five hurricanes, and I'll go back right down on the beach and, good Lord willing, we'll get out for the next one, too.

SCHAPER: That's a sentiment that runs strong among many of the people of the coast and is why Seal and others say they will continue taking an active role in developing the plans to rebuild their homes and their hometowns. But some left with lingering questions about how they and their cash-strapped local governments would pay for it all, despite assurances from Governor Haley Barbour that there will be sufficient funding to rebuild the Mississippi Gulf Coast. David Schaper, NPR News.

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