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After the Storm: Returning to the Gulf Coast

Notes from Robert Ivy, FAIA, Editor in Chief

Three telling events punctuated my recent visit to the "Rebuild Mississippi" charrette in Biloxi, on the Gulf Coast. The irony of arrival describes the first. Driving down the length of the state on a sunny Saturday morning, a mood of normalcy confronted me on every turn. Hattiesburg, Mississippi, a city where pine trees had snapped like matchsticks during Hurricane Katrina, seemed up and running-adequate gas at the pumps, cars zipping along. Save for the occasional blown out highway sign and a plentiful number of felled trees, the city seemed glued back together.

While the fallen timber increased with each mile south, even Gulfport, right in the path of the monster storm, sported kids in convertibles, plugged into their iPods, out for a joyride. McDonald's was doing brisk business, while advertising for help wanted. The malls were almost back to business. Where was the destruction? I needn't have wondered.

Crossing Biloxi Bay to the Isle of Capri hotel, the world morphs into something stained and new. From the first road signs warning off idle sightseers to the National Guard checkpoints, the car rolled into uncharted territory. About that, later.

The hotel containing the charrette lay a few blocks ahead. Although a behemoth of a gambling barge lay jammed into its eastern flank, the building literally rose above the fray. Somehow, the primary structure of the po-mo hotel remained intact--down to the windows, none of which appeared to be broken. Inside, on the main lobby level, despite scratchy concrete floors denuded of their soaked carpeting, you entered a surreal cocoon. The real action lay, however, in the ballroom.

There, jumbled in at long tables, congregated teams of architects, planners, government officials, their heads down at their design work. The scene resembled a fourth-year design studio just prior to when projects would be due, which, in fact, they were. Within the hour, each team would be presenting to mayors and other officials.

Up at the podium, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk announced the logistics for the afternoon, while her husband and partner Andres Duany continued a negotiation with FEMA officials. The dynamic duo were charged with organizing this mega-planning event, coordinating the work of their fellow Congress of New Urbanism volunteers with an equal number of talented local architects. Together, the teams, which represented the individual communities spread along the Gulf Coast (Gulfport, Biloxi, Ocean Springs, Gautier, Pascagoula, et al), were hard at their planning, producing sheets of town plans, building drawings, and visualization sketches. The mayors would be pouring in soon.

Personally, it was gratifying to see a room full of intent, friendly faces. The large crowd traced a history of my own experience as an architect. Included among the number were students from adjunct faculty days, my first student employee (now a distinguished preservationist and mayor of her city), my former architectural partner and his team-talented architects, planners, landscape architects-cheek-by-jowl with competitors, hard-core modernists, New Urbanists, all mixed in together and certain that what they were doing would matter to the future of their embattled state.

Out the door lay the third, and hardest lesson. I was given two views. The first came through an automobile tour with a former coast resident, who drove me from Biloxi to Gulfport down the deserted strip of empty Highway 90. He pointed out, as few could, where that casino barge had broken loose and rammed into the Holiday Inn, and the empty site where a friend had lived a lifetime. We stopped on a side street to survey what a typical residential street looked like today, and it looked bad.

The next day, I wrangled my way aboard a National Guard helicopter, commandeered to take journalists and others along the breadth of the Coast. What we saw has not been portrayed accurately on any media presentation, which focused exclusively on a few telling images. From a few hundred feet up, the scope of the devastation spreads east and west to the horizons. No image in a magazine, no series of shots on television can capture the breathtaking power that Katrina hurled at the fragile landscape.

At tiny Waveland, Mississippi, flat slabs are all that remain of the entire community; not even plumbing punctuates the scoured landscape, the storm's grinding powers were so immense. Imagine a wall of water, 28 feet tall, churning, overtopped by massive waves, relentlessly crashing on itself. Almost nothing remains there. Multiply that image by 80 linear miles and you have some inkling of what Katrina did to the Coast. Never in my experience, (and I went through 9/11 from seven blocks away), could I have imagined the extent of this damage.

A few visual impressions remain lodged like flotsam: an immense casino barge, jammed against oak trees, beached like a mechanical monster from Star Wars; hundreds of bales of brown uncoated paper, which had been awaiting loading at the docks, arranged in straight lines across the landscape; side streets, their houses knocked off-kilter from foundations and their roofs sagging, still clinging to life; garbage strewn through the live oaks as high as the water had reached, creating a ghost-scape of anthropomorphic scarecrows; Beauvoir, once proud emblem of a vernacular tradition, now denuded of its porches, and its interiors open to the winds; and lot after empty lot.

In one sense, we have never really recovered from Hurricane Camille, which struck the Coast in 1969. On more than one lot, concrete steps rise to emptiness, site of abandoned homes and lost hopes. Katrina exceeded anything Camille proposed, hitting the land with white-hot force.

Looking down from the helicopter, it is impossible not to wonder if we should place ourselves in harm's way again. Katrina asserted some kind of limit, and it remains as clear as the line of the tidal surge, a visible warning of what should be a growing respect for building by the sea. I, for one, am going to vote for parkland.