October 25, 2005
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
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.