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Tale of Two Coast Cities, Two Visions for Renewal

From: FEMA   Filed 6/20/07 GCN

 

Recovery of Mississippi Gulf Coast towns and cities from Hurricane Katrina is  a collage of realities and dreams, of traditions and new development, of private finance and federal assistance. Optimism about the future binds the communities; it’s the common denominator of the recovery story in this state. Renewal promises a very different Long Beach, an improved way of life for Ocean Springs. The future of each city will be shaped by the vision of its leaders.

 

When Hurricane Camille took a swipe at the Coast in 1969, Long Beach was a small town of 7,000 or 8,000 residents. “Some areas never came back after Camille,” said Mayor Billy Skellie. “Businesses – restaurants, motels and the riding stables – never re-opened.”

 

But Hurricane Katrina dealt Long Beach and its 18,000 residents a much harsher blow.

 

Skellie, whose father was mayor when Hurricane Camille hit, said that storm’s winds were fiercer than Katrina’s. But it was Katrina’s storm surge and length of time lashing the Coast that wreaked more havoc.  “The 30- or 31-foot surge from Katrina came in about 1,500 to 1,700 feet, stopping just south of the CSX railroad tracks,” said Skellie.  The storm surge took six lives and leveled almost everything in its path, including sewer and water lines, communications and other infrastructure. The central business district was also flattened.

 

It didn’t destroy the spirit or the resolve of Long Beach residents. “About 15,500 people returned,” said their mayor.  In office about 10 months before Hurricane Katrina, Skellie faced the monumental task of piecing Long Beach back together for them.

 

Water and sewer lines south of the railroad tracks were a priority. The city successfully applied for funds from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to pay for the project. The Mississippi Emergency Management Agency (MEMA) is administering the money and now Long Beach is off and running.

 

“We’re first along the Coast to do this work [restoring water and sewer lines]” said Skellie. “Now we’re in the third phase of the project.”

 

It hasn’t been easy for Long Beach to wend its way through the complex application process. “I didn’t have a staff,” Skellie said about beginning the work. “Now MEMA sends in the accountants we call our little watchdogs to help.”

 

There’s plenty more to do; additional monies are expected from the FEMA and MEMA Public Assistance programs for additional infrastructure repairs and repairs or restoration of public buildings such as the firehouse and city hall. The Mississippi Development Authority (MDA) will provide $7 million through Community Development Block Grants (CDBG) to revitalize the Long Beach downtown area.  

 

The mayor and city aldermen now see an opportunity for reconfiguring Long Beach with a master plan. They contracted the services of Duany Plater-Zyberk and Company to assist. Famed new urban theorist Andrés Duany and his associates developed SmartCode, a design and development model to keep towns compact and rural landscape open while preventing urban sprawl through zoning. Long Beach awaits the plan.

 

The city will take a land inventory and consider the impact – and relevancy—of SmartCode before forging ahead. “New Urbanism may not be ideal for this city,” said Skellie. “SmartCode includes pedestrian-friendly ideas that may not work for the entire town.” He thinks it may be better applied to

a more densely populated area.

 

Most important to Skellie is a feasibility study of annexing additional land surrounding his city. He’s optimistic about attracting developers to Long Beach. With additional land, he envisions an interchange off I-10, drawing high profile retailers and other commerce to his city.

 

He’s hopeful for “substantial, meaningful development” on the beach near the downtown area because it would attract ancillary business. It may be tougher to attract small business said Skellie. “Affordable insurance is the number one stopper for small business.” The insurance crisis may delay that dream. It’s a problem for the entire Mississippi Coast.

 

“Insurance issues are impeding progress,” said Ocean Springs Mayor Connie Moran. “I’ve spoken to 11 Gulf Coast mayors to get their input on the effects of insurance…we feel the same: there should be a national perils program for major disasters.”

 

Ocean Springs, first settled in 1699, sits at the highest point on the Mississippi Gulf Coast. About 20 miles east of Long Beach, it is a historically quaint, artsy community of more than 17,000 — one of the Coast’s most affluent. Hurricane Katrina damaged or destroyed about 30 percent of the city’s dwellings. Storm surge flattened houses on the edge of the Gulf, near its harbor; many will not be rebuilt because of high insurance costs.

 

But significant plans are underway for recovery – and more.

 

About $6 million in FEMA funds will pay, in part, for repairs to public buildings and parks, for repairs to sewer lift stations, for reimbursement for equipment and manpower, for restoring the community pier and building a new park to commemorate the historic Fort Maurepas originally built in 1699. Nearly $3 million in federal monies were used for debris removal.

 

Moran took office only six weeks before Hurricane Katrina but Ocean Springs is in good hands.  With degrees in economic development and finance, a career that includes acting as consultant to several Jackson County entities and extensive grant writing experience, Moran is familiar with infrastructure issues and how government agencies work.

 

In Hurricane Katrina’s aftermath, she saw an opportunity not only to repair and restore Ocean Springs but to improve it. “Ocean Springs has history, the arts…vernacular architecture,” said Moran. “It’s a prized place to live because of the quality of our hospital, schools, and restaurants.”  Her vision for the city’s future is a blend of historical legacy and modern realities.

 

Under her direction, Ocean Springs successfully applied for several grants. The U.S. Department of Agriculture will provide about $1 million for equipment and additional repairs to public buildings. Other grants will pay for historic building restoration.

 

“We were the only city in Jackson County to apply for USDA grants,” said Moran.

 

The Mississippi Development Authority will provide a $6 million Community Development Block Grant to revitalize downtown.

 

“Ninety five percent of our businesses returned after the storm,” Moran said. She wants to attract more business and new developers to Ocean Springs. The city has contracted the planning services of Dover and Kohl in Coral Gables, Florida who will help calibrate the use of SmartCode as an option for developers. 

 

“We’re seeking a developer [for the beach area] who understands SmartCode and has experience developing harbor front property,” said Moran. A $250,000 U.S. Economic Development Agency grant will pay for a master plan for Ocean Springs Front Beach.

“It is critical that we obtain input from all residents – neighborhood by neighborhood – in envisioning any plan,” said Moran.

 

Master plans, SmartCode, grants, insurance programs, infrastructure and development are some of the elements to consider in creating a new future for Ocean Springs and Long Beach. But it’s the vision that mayors Moran and Skellie have for their cities’ future that is proving to be the springboard to recovery – and transformation.

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