Gulf Coast Watch
Compiled by Jason Miller
In Mississippi, Poor Lag in Hurricane Aid
The New York Times, Nov. 16, 2007 -- Like the other Gulf Coast states battered by Hurricane Katrina, Mississippi was required by Congress to spend half of its billions in federal grant money to help low-income citizens trying to recover from the storm. But so far, the state has spent $1.7 billion in federal money on programs that have mostly benefited relatively affluent residents and big businesses. The money has gone to compensate many middle- and upper-income homeowners, to aid utility companies whose equipment was damaged, and to prop up the state's insurance system.
Just $167 million, or about 10 percent of the federal money, has been spent on programs dedicated to helping the poor, mostly through a smaller grant program for lower-income homeowners. And while that total will certainly increase, Mississippi has set aside just 23 percent of its $5.5 billion grant money -- $1.25 billion -- for these programs.
About 37 percent of the residents of the state's coast are low income, according to federal figures.
Political Overtones for Biloxi Bay Bridge Opening
Mississippi Sun Herald, Oct. 29, 2007 -- Transportation Commissioner Wayne Brown has written a book praising himself and MDOT, and 5,000 copies -- printed at taxpayer expense -- will be handed out at a festival just five days before voters decide on his reelection bid.
In addition to the book, taxpayers are also footing the bill for a party to mark the opening Thursday of the Biloxi Bay Bridge, a federally funded building project overseen by the Mississippi Department of Transportation.
Some, including Larry Benefield, Brown's opponent in the election for Southern District transportation commissioner, question the timing of the party. They wonder whether the bridge could have been open to traffic earlier, had reelection politics not been a factor.
Cable One is airing five hours' worth of coverage live from the bridge. It's unclear exactly how much the book and party will cost taxpayers, and MDOT thus far hasn't released that info, even to one of its own commissioners who has questioned the expenses.
The Sun Herald newspaper, which obtained a copy of Brown's 88-page book, titled "After Katrina: Rebuilding Lives and Infrastructure," said in it Brown quotes many local leaders and citizens praising the job he and other MDOT workers did after Katrina. Brown also liberally mentions and quotes himself.
Brown denied the book was a ploy to drum up last-minute votes.
"Normally that's done when you open a bridge or any project of high importance," he said. "And we've done it before."
No such book was published when the Bay St. Louis Bridge was opened in May 2007.
Contracts with Developers for VA Property Stall
Mississippi Sun Herald, Dec. 12, 2007 -- The City Council approved contract negotiations nearly five months ago with three mega-developers to guide Gulfport's reconstruction, but City Hall has been unable to finalize a deal with any of them. Mayor Brent Warr's administration said the price has been too high and the terms have been too vague to agree on a contract with Memphis' new urbanism consultant Henry Turley.
Gulfport wants to hire Turley -- whose Harbor Town community closely resembles designs from 2005 Coast Katrina recovery planning sessions -- as its lead design consultant for rebuilding and developing walkable neighborhoods. Turley's chief job would be to map out a citywide strategy and help with future construction on the 92-acre Veterans Affairs property on U.S. 90, which the federal government is giving to the city.
The council unanimously accepted a recommendation in July from a special selection committee to negotiate deals with Turley and two other development heavyweights on steering the reconstruction of Gulfport.
"We just couldn't get together on a price, but we're still talking to all three of those developers" Warr said. "The negotiations were never contentious, they just said they couldn't tell us what the financial reality of this would be until they knew exactly what could be built on the land."
Warr is hoping the City Council will approve a separate group of land-use planners and architects, financial and market analysts to launch a volume study in January and devise a long-term plan for the VA and several other city properties. With that information, the developers and the city could determine how much it will cost to make each project a reality and how much each party is willing to invest.
City Hall expects to resume talks with the three developers after the volume study is complete, likely sometime in February. Warr said if a deal is not reached by then, the city could look for other development firms.
Long Beach plans to conduct community meetings in late January with Ayers/Saint/Gross, the planning firm selected to write the city's comprehensive plan, new zoning ordinances, subdivision guidelines and architectural standards.
Long Beach is working with Gulf Coast Heritage Trails to explore how to create a hiking/biking trail along one of its canals. The city is also moving forward with the building of a new senior/recreation center.
A second KaBoom playground has been built in the city. "It was a huge event, and the end product is terrific," said Jacquie Lipski, who chairs the Long Beach Steering Committee. "We received a tremendous amount of help from members of our community, plus several corporate and governmental sponsors."
Infrastructure renovations for Long Beach's downtown main street, Jeff Davis Avenue, have been approved and are scheduled to commence in January. The goal of the renovations is to encourage more businesses to rebuild along the main street once new roads, sidewalks and parking are established.
Businesses have continued to return to Long Beach. Burger King and Waffle House are open for business; McDonalds and a gas station along Highway 90 are currently under construction, and there are several other new businesses and subdivisions popping up throughout the city.
Long Beach is moving forward with public hearings to create a mixed-use district in its downtown area, intending the district to serve as an interim zoning model until the final product created by the hired city planners is completed. The Planning Commission hopes this will encourage developers to create more mixed-use developments within the downtown area, which will in turn feed the city's economic growth. Already there have been complementary proposals brought to the Planning Commission.
Challenges continue in Long Beach, such as the city tearing up newly constructed 3-foot sidewalks along Highway 90 because the new standards require them to be 5 feet wide, said Lipski. "Effective and efficient city communications with all governmental and contracting agencies involved in our rebuilding can be challenging at times. The city, however, continues to move forward, albeit with a few steps backward here and there. Rebuilding a community is a challenge I do not think any of our city leaders signed up for, but they are doing their best and continue to demonstrate care and concern for the future of Long Beach."
On Nov. 15, 2007, a historic groundbreaking ceremony occurred in Pascagoula for one of the largest housing developments since Hurricane Katrina hit the community. The Mississippi Regional Housing Authority VIII and Realtex Development Corporation announced plans to build Morrison Village Senior Apartments and Taylor Heights Apartments in Pascagoula. This $30 million dollar project will provide housing to both seniors and working class families. It is being made possible through partnerships formed between the Region VIII Housing Authority, the city of Pascagoula, South Mississippi Housing & Development Corporation, PNC Multi-Family Capital and Realtex Development. At this historic groundbreaking ceremony, Mayor Matthew Avara commented that "our city is committed to bringing back quality affordable housing for our people." The plans call for a gated development that will offer spacious apartments to both seniors and families.
New businesses also continue to come to Pascagoula. In recent months, two new restaurants have opened in the downtown area and recently the locally owned Merchant and Marine Bank held its 75th anniversary downtown, along with the official grand opening for its state-of-the-art bank located in the heart of downtown Pascagoula. Plans to build the new bank were in the works prior to the storm and have become a reality.
The city is committed to reinvigorating its riverfront into a mixed-use area for commercial and residential development. Presently, the city is in the process of purchasing a key parcel that can anchor such redevelopment. Funds from the Mississippi Development Authority are being used for this endeavor, along with others that are key to bringing Pascagoula back even bigger and better. A streetscape is planned for this area to connect the riverfront area with downtown Pascagoula. The city continues to live up to its motto of being a "Great Place to Live, Work, and Play."
Pascagoula also plans to enhance its beach along Beach Boulevard. Work on it should begin around the beginning of 2008. It will provide that area with extra protection from natural disasters and storms, and complement the city's plans to build a promenade along Beach Boulevard. Plans include a sandy beach and vegetation. Pascagoula was one of only 15 projects in Mississippi selected for this type of project as part of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' immediate measures to provide storm protection as part of the Mississippi Coastal Improvements Program (MsCIP). The estimated cost is more than $7.3 million. Congress appropriated funds for this project, which will be 100 percent federally funded.
Developing Affordable Sustainable Housing (DASH) of LaGrange, Ga., recently opened its doors on Market Street. This organization promotes home ownership while providing quality affordable homes in Pascagoula. The Pascagoula office will provide financial planning and homeowner counseling for those interested in buying homes.
Residential rebuilding in the neighborhoods continues throughout the city. More new and repaired homes are being completed every day.
Pass Christian is on the verge of passing its SmartCode, but at press time no decision had been made.
Brad Pitt Unveils Program to Rebuild Swath of Lower 9
The Times-Picayune, Dec. 4, 2007 -- Actor Brad Pitt has announced his Make It Right initiative to build at least 150 affordable, environmentally friendly, storm-safe houses in a portion of the Lower Ninth Ward in New Orleans.
At the heart of his fundraising efforts is a call to corporations, foundations and church groups to "adopt" 300 giant pink blocks that are part of an art installation that spreads a half-mile from the center of the project site at Deslonde and North Roman streets.
While the blocks cost $150,000 each, the average cost of a Make It Right home, Pitt also is soliciting smaller donations -- from $5 to $45,500 -- to support the cost of the individual elements of the houses' eco-friendly designs, such as fluorescent bulbs, low-flush toilets and solar-panel installations.
"My hope is that we can get next door to Jefferson Parish, then we can get into Central City," Pitt said. "There is no reason that we can't do 1,000 homes, that we can't do 10,000 homes, that we can't do 100,000 homes."
Unbuilt Homes Breed Blame Game
The Times-Picayune, Nov. 14, 2007 -- As the state housing board promises progress on a long-delayed residential hurricane recovery program, public- and private-sector officials continue to point fingers over why there has yet to be a groundbreaking in the 10 months since Louisiana secured a $75 million federal grant for the planned 530-unit project.
At the same time, Mississippi officials have placed almost 500 residents in alternative housing units. More than 3,000, and as many as 6,000, units are planned along the Mississippi coast, depending on need and the per-unit cost to that state's $281 million version of the program.
Cypress Realty Partners, the leaders in a consortium of contractors tapped to build the 530-plus planned units, added its own blame-fixing letter to the discussion on Nov. 13, the day before the Louisiana Housing Finance Agency is expected to approve two more contracts related to the job.
Responding to previous missives by Gov. Kathleen Blanco and housing agency Chairman Wayne Woods, Cypress spokesman Ben Dupuy rebuffed Woods' accusations that the partnership has delayed construction by slowing budget negotiations in an effort to maximize profits.
Dupuy's group first submitted its housing plans last fall to the Louisiana Recovery Authority, which selected several proposals the state submitted to compete for a $388 million grant pool that Congress set aside to test alternatives to travel trailers most commonly used after disasters. The Cypress plan ended up being the only Louisiana submission to share in the distribution, with two Mississippi projects taking the largest share and the rest going to Alabama and Texas.
Dupuy wrote that Cypress never received guidance from federal or state officials about what kind of developer fee it should seek for its role in the project. And he noted that the proposed spending plans that FEMA rejected along the way were submitted to federal authorities by Woods' agency, not by Cypress. Dupuy said federal rules "required that the states, not the contractors, own the process for earning FEMA's approval of budgets."
People Still Moving into New Orleans
The Times-Picayune, Nov. 14, 2007 -- New Orleans' population has topped 288,000, increasing recently at a pace of nearly 5,000 new residents a month, but some areas in Gentilly, Lakeview and eastern New Orleans lag far behind the rest of the city, a demographic analyst says.
Gregory Rigamer of GCR & Associates, relying heavily on utility use in tracking the population, said New Orleans has recovered 63 percent of its pre-Katrina population. The monthly gain rate since July 1 averaged 4,819, about 40 percent higher than the average rate of 3,441 per month in the previous nine-month period, Rigamer reported.
Rigamer said he expects population gains to gradually taper off, estimating the population of the city proper will settle at about 350,000 in "a couple of years." That would be 23 percent less than the city's total of about 454,000 on July 1, 2005.
Only a major economic catalyst -- perhaps brought on by plans for a major redevelopment of the downtown hospital district -- would push the count higher, he predicted.
INTBAU launched in New Orleans
The International Network for Traditional Building, Architecture and Urbanism (INTBAU) USA, a cross-country initiative, was launched in New Orleans on Oct. 17, 2007. As INTBAU chair Robert Adam described it, it is timely that INTBAU's growing international network now has a chapter in the world's remaining superpower.
Approximately 100 people gathered at the New Orleans launch conference to hear presentations from U.S. activists and international representatives. Members of the new chapter board include representatives of many familiar U.S. organizations: the Institute of Classical Architecture and Classical America (ICA&CA), Notre Dame, the University of Miami, New Urban Guild, Building Process Alliance and others.
Lousiana OKs First 75 "Katrina Cottages"
The Times-Picayune, Oct. 30, 2007 -- The state housing board has cleared the way for construction of 75 "Louisiana cottages" at Jackson Barracks, the first site for a long-planned pilot project financed by a $75 million federal grant to develop alternatives to emergency travel trailers.
But the first round of Louisiana cottages, the name given to modular units commonly called "Katrina cottages," will not be available to the general public. They are reserved for civilian and uniformed employees of the state military department, a restriction in a little-noticed agreement forged months ago between the military and the Louisiana Recovery Authority. Jackson Barracks is headquarters for the Louisiana National Guard.
It remains unclear when any of the other planned 530 cottages will be available to victims of the 2005 hurricanes. Two other sites, in Baton Rouge and Lake Charles, have been approved but await federal environmental inspections before construction can begin.
Mississippi, which was awarded a $281 million grant as part of the same program, started placing residents in June and earlier this month surpassed 200 cottages.
Brief updates on Mississippi Gulf Coast communities' progress toward renewal can be
e-mailed to Jason Miller at email@example.com.
Gulf Coast Renewal Online
Bookmark these Web sites to stay on top of rebuilding efforts along the Gulf Coast.
Center for Planning Excellence (La.)
The Clarion-Ledger (Miss.)
Congress for the New Urbanism
Governor’s Office of Recovery and Renewal (Miss.)
Katrina Cottage Housing
Mississippi Governors Commission
Mississippi Renewal Forum
New Urban Guild
New Urban News
NOLA.com (“Everything New Orleans”)
South Mississippi Sun Herald
Times Picayune (New Orleans)
Unified New Orleans Plan