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  NEW TOWNS
SEPTEMBER/OCTOBER 2006
 

The Right Woman for the Job
Ocean Springs Mayor Connie Moran Turns Challenges into Opportunities

While the entire world linked Hurricane Katrina disaster, devastation, death and despair with one city -- famous and fabled New Orleans -- the mayor of a Mississippi Gulf Coast town of fewer than 20,000 slowly emerged as the voice of reason and rebuilding.

It would seem a long shot for the freshly sworn-in mayor of Ocean Springs to become the darling of NPR and other national media for her vocal advocacy for Katrina Cottages, traditional town development and more. But then, the world stage didn't know Mayor Connie M. Moran before a killer category 5 hurricane swept away lives, livelihoods, livability and places to live throughout most of the Gulf Coast.

Fate was preparing the Georgetown-educated, Fulbright Scholar Moran to be a great leader before Katrina dealt a near-knockout blow to the Gulf of Mexico, however. Before the hurricane made landfall, she had already endured a lifetime's worth of challenges in the space of half a year. In pre-Katrina 2005, Moran met her birth mother for the first time, filed to run for mayor of the city she grew up in with her adoptive family, and cared for her only daughter, Magdeleine -- who has cerebral palsy and autism -- as a newly single mother.

Moran, who had a 16-year track record of success in state and local government, capped by five years as managing director of the State of Mississippi European Office in Frankfurt, Germany, emerged from the emotional wringer with a depth of character that prepared her to deal with Katrina as a turning point, not an insurmountable setback.

"I had been in office for only six weeks when Katrina hit,'' she said. "My grandfather was a county supervisor for 40 years, and my father was a city alderman for years. They loved Ocean Springs so much, they fought hard for its improvement; they fought hard for its quality of life. I was inspired by that."

With her background as an economic development expert, Moran was already thinking like a new urbanist before the 150-mile-per-hour winds hit. "I was interested in retaining the best of what we had historically, containing urban sprawl, advocating for smart growth, assuring that we had unique main streets,'' she recalled. "I had budgeted for a master plan. I understand planning, I understand that green brings green."

When Katrina destroyed 150 miles of coastline on Aug. 29, 2005, it treated Ocean Springs with a relatively gentle hand. The waterfront was devastated, but the historic downtown suffered no storm surge, so damage was limited to roofs, windows and storefronts -- not total losses of structures. Moran wants to make sure that the oldest French Colony in America -- Ocean Springs was founded in 1699 -- sees traditionalism, not sprawl, in its rebuilding vision. The mayor first gained national attention when she locked horns with FEMA, preferring the traditional and sustainable Katrina Cottages to the standard-issue mobile homes that "within 18 months create a trash-heap of trailers up for auction."

FEMA balked at paying for the cottages that were seen as permanent, not temporary housing, but the agency did allocate about $400 million to bring in structures that will be something better than trailers, Moran said.

Moran also fought the good fight to tame a monstrous bridge that connects Ocean Springs to Biloxi. "They wanted to replace four lanes (severely damaged by Katrina) with 10 lanes -- six driving lanes and four emergency lanes -- slamming into our four-lane beach area," Moran explained.

The state highway department got its way on the scale of the bridge, but the mayor continues to press for people-friendly design elements such as fleur-de-lis and murals or mosaics crafted by local artists.

Rather than pursuing the glitz of casinos favored by nearby towns, Moran's vision of a renewed Ocean Springs banks on antebellum homes, streets lined with live oaks, good schools, rebuilt parks, a tourist-friendly mix of art and fine dining, a main street that still is the center of town, and a historic waterfront rebuilt for pedestrians, with a small commercial center, most likely rooted in the area's shrimping and seafood traditions.

To replace the roughly 700 houses lost to Katrina's fury, Ocean Springs is working with Dover, Kohl & Partners to emulate the typical coastal cottages, the Queen Annes, the Acadians, the Arts and Crafts, and other housing types the city wants to emulate when rebuilding.

"For Ocean Springs, the new urbanism vision was a godsend," Moran said. "The whole idea to be able to walk to get some light groceries, a haircut, an ice cream -- that's what Ocean Springs was. We've had hundreds participating in the charrettes; it's a slow process but worth it. Rebuilding isn't about letting anything willy-nilly into your town."