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Hurricane Katrina devastates Gulf Coast region, severely compromises architectural landscape

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By Sam Lubell, with Alex Ulam and Diana Lind

October 2005

The human tragedy weighs heaviest, but as the waters recede from the streets of New Orleans, and damage reports arrive from the Gulf Coast region, it has become apparent that Hurricane Katrina, which struck the area with devastating force on August 29, has destroyed much of its rich architectural legacy, from beautiful historic buildings to offices, riverboat casinos, and everyday homes.

 
 
  The storm left most of New Orleans underwater (above), and virtually wiped out towns along the Mississippi Gulf Coast, including Long Beach (below). Photos © Associated Press.
 
   
 
  The copper roof was torn off New Orleans's 1835 Mint building (above). Photo © Neil Alexander.
   
  More damage reports can be found here.
   
 

As has been widely reported, the Category 4 hurricane caused several levees to breach in New Orleans, inundating upwards of 80 percent of the city, mostly in the northern sections, while tidal surges and hurricane-force winds destroyed huge sections of coastal Mississippi towns like Biloxi, Gulfport, and Waveland. Significant destruction also took place in other areas of Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama.

Damage figures are still only preliminary, but Risk Management Solutions, a California-based company, estimates that the storm caused about $75 billion in total property damage. While assessment is far from complete, most experts have estimated that many buildings in the hardest hit areas will have to be torn down, due to structural and environmental damage. (For a closer look at what might be salvaged, see Tech Briefs, page 191.) The National Association of Realtors claims that a minimum of 200,000 homes have been lost in the region. It predicts that most flooded homes will have to be rebuilt, including about 80 percent of homes in New Orleans. (U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Colonel Richard Wagenaar says that 160,000 houses will have to be replaced in Orleans Parish alone.) According to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), as of September 1, more than 211,000 households were affected in New Orleans, and by September 4, over 38,000 households were affected in Mississippi.

"It's as bad or worse than what even the news is showing," says Jim West, dean of the School of Architecture at Mississippi State University, in Starkville, north of the coastal areas. He has talked to several students with families in Gulfport and surrounding towns confirming that any buildings within about a quarter mile of the beach are almost entirely gone.

The price paid by significant structures
The region is one of the most architecturally rich in the United States, with thousands of buildings on historic registers, and the toll on these buildings appears high.

John Hildreth, director of the National Trust for Historic Preservation's southern office, has received very preliminary reports from around the region. He notes that the city's French Quarter and Garden District, on higher ground, appear to be relatively intact, but historic neighborhoods like the 9th Ward, Midtown, and the Treme were all badly hit. These neighborhoods, like the French Quarter, include some multistory French and Spanish colonial buildings, but contain many more single-story, wood-frame buildings from the 19th and early 20th centuries. Styles include Shotgun, Camelback, Raised Cottage, Bungalow, Mission, and Victorian. Pat Duncan, an architectural historian at the Louisiana Division of Historic Preservation, says that at least 10 of the city's historic districts appear to have experienced serious flooding. New Orleans, says the division's director, Jonathan Fricker, has more than 37,000 properties that are part of registered historic districts. Some of the city's famed above-ground cemeteries have been inundated; the Neoclassical-style New Orleans Mint, built in 1838, had its copper roof torn off; and the Louisiana State Museum in Jackson Square was also affected by flooding, but not as dramatically. "New Orleans is so rich with historic places," says Hildreth. "It's always amazing to me how extensive the historic resources were. Even in neighborhoods that tourists have never heard of." More conclusive destruction tallies will likely be ready in the coming weeks, as waters recede, says Patricia Gay, executive director of the Preservation Resource Center of New Orleans.

Richard Cawthon, chief architectural historian of the Mississippi Office of Historic Preservation, says that assessment teams of engineers, architects, and preservationists have just begun to enter the Mississippi Gulf Coast region. He predicts that 250 or more historic properties in the state may have been significantly damaged or destroyed, including entire historic districts on the coast, such as Bay St. Louis, Pass Christian, and Ocean Springs. The areas have an eclectic range of building styles, including Greek Revival, Victorian, Queen Anne, Colonial Revival, Crescent, Plantation, and several vernacular styles. Damaged icons in the area include Beauvoir, Jefferson Davis's retirement home in Biloxi, which has seen significant damage but is still standing. The Greek Revival raised cottage, where Davis originally took refuge after the Civil War, was built in the 1850s. Also, in Ocean Springs, the Louis Sullivan bungalow is all but destroyed, and the Charnley bungalow is badly damaged. (Both buildings are attributed to Sullivan and Frank Lloyd Wright.) Sullivan's simple, raised cottage, built in the early 1890s, was surrounded by lush vegetation, providing respite for the architect. In 1905, architectural record called the Sullivan bungalow a "modest, comfortable one-story cottage, reached only by the touch of the wind and the golden sun." Frank Gehry's $30 million, five-building Ohr-O'Keefe Museum of Art complex in Biloxi, Mississippi, which was scheduled to open next July, also suffered. A floating casino barge dislodged and landed on the site, apparently destroying three of the five pavilions, which had been in various stages of construction.

The National Conference of State Historic Preservation Officers has taken charge of coordinating historic preservation offices in the three affected states. FEMA, the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the World Monuments Fund, and the AIA, are also preparing to send assessment teams.

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