BAY ST. LOUIS, Mississippi – The federal government is considering buying out as many as 17,000 homes along the Mississippi coast and remaking the land into a vast hurricane-protection zone, raising anxieties that it could destroy the waterfront lives many residents are struggling to rebuild after Katrina.
The Mississippi Coastal Improvement Program could cost $40 billion, including buying the homes, building levees and restoring barrier islands. The land could be converted into wetlands or other public uses, such as golf courses or bike trails, but could not be sold for private development.
For Finley Williford, a 42-year-old boat captain, a buyout offer would have been tempting if it had come shortly after Hurricane Katrina destroyed his Bay St. Louis home on Aug. 29, 2005.
But instead of leaving, he invested countless hours of labor and more than $400,000 in two new houses for his family and his father.
"If they had showed up a day after the storm, I probably would have taken the money. It's kind of after-the-fact now," Williford said.
The buyouts would be voluntary, and the Army Corps plan envisions allowing casinos, hotels and restaurants to continue operating on the coast from Bay St. Louis to Biloxi. But until the proposal becomes more focused, residents are concerned that it could spell the end of their communities, where a lifestyle of beaches and boiled shrimp has flourished for decades, and many houses are already built atop stilts.
Williford fears the buyouts could stunt the growth of his nearly deserted neighborhood and harm property values if few other residents return.
"Just the rumor of it is slowing people down," he said, noting a neighbor suspended his rebuilding plan after hearing about the proposal.
Buyouts could be part of a similar plan in Louisiana, but Corps officials could not say how many properties may be involved or where they are.
"Buyouts are a possibility, but it's still just one of several options we're studying for the report," Corps spokeswoman Julie Morgan said.
In Louisiana, the Federal Emergency Management Agency is considering compensating residents who used their own money to elevate their hurricane-damaged homes while $1.1 billion was tied up in a dispute between state and federal agencies.
Otherwise, the tens of thousands of homeowners the state estimates have already begun raising their homes could be left with nothing.
"I do sense there's a commitment on our end to try to recognize those folks, because they did the right thing," FEMA spokesman Butch Kinerney said. "We want to make sure we don't penalize people who did what we recommend every day."
The Corps expects to release a draft of its Mississippi buyout plan in December. In the meantime, project director Susan Rees is fielding questions at meetings with local officials and residents.
Several hundred people attended a forum last month in Bay St. Louis, a city about 45 minutes east of New Orleans, where Katrina destroyed many of the quaint shops and beachfront restaurants that drew tourists and New Orleans-area residents.
Rees said many residents mistakenly worry their land would be seized and turned over to private developers. Involuntary buyouts are "always an option of last resort," but are not part of this plan, she said.
The Corps has bought flood-prone homes near rivers in the past, but Rees said this would be its first large buyout of coastal homes. The proposal will give Congress a menu of choices, not impose mandates, she added.
Oliver Houck, a Tulane University law professor who has studied government efforts to control coastal flooding, said voluntary buyouts are a "very reasonable way to approach managing floods."
Moving people away from areas at the greatest risk of flooding makes more sense than spending hundreds of millions of dollars to shield them with levees, he added.
"Any program that attempts to subsidize their continuing to stay in place is simply subsidizing another wipeout," Houck said.
William Walker, director of Mississippi's Department of Marine Resources, is helping Rees craft the plan and introduce it to communities.
"If all we do is rebuild where we were prior to Katrina, we will have failed," he said. "We need to rebuild better, stronger and smarter."
Government subsidies could offset the loss of tax revenue from residential buyouts, but some local officials fear the proposal would have a chilling effect on development plans and turn some parts of the coast into a disjointed checkerboard of homes and wetlands.
U.S. Rep. Gene Taylor, a Democrat whose home in Bay St. Louis was leveled by Katrina, said he does not see much support — locally or on Capitol Hill — for funding billions of dollars in home buyouts.
"I can't think of a single person who has come up to me and said, 'I want the government to buy my land,"' he said.
Some of his constituents welcome that option, though.
Arnold Toups, 90, is living in a government-issued trailer outside the gutted shell of the octagon-shaped home he built with his own hands three decades ago. A "For Sale" sign in his front yard has attracted a few offers, but nothing serious. Toups said he would listen to an offer from the Corps.
"If I get my price," he said. "I'm not in a rush to sell."