Gulf Coast Residents Rebuild, Ready for 2006 Storm Season

Missionaries and students on spring break have worked in shifts to put a roof over Brenda Anderson's head before hurricane season begins June 1.

They're rebuilding the two-story, 2,500-square-foot home on a concrete slab 900 feet from the Gulf of Mexico. The slab was all that remained of her old house after Hurricane Katrina swept through, making Waveland's name a sour irony.

Staring at the empty house lots and debris piles all around her, the 61-year-old former police administrator confesses no qualms about rebuilding here.

Katrina, she says, was a "once-in-a-lifetime thing." And yet she knows better. She has lost four homes in as many decades — three to hurricanes, one to tornadoes. Katrina was the latest and worst storm — but it won't be the last.

The 2005 hurricane season, the busiest and most destructive on record with 27 named storms, 14 of them hurricanes, has made many people along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts more wary as they prepare for a 2006 season. This year, researchers predict 17 named storms, including nine hurricanes.

That forecast, though less dire, is cold comfort — with levees still under repair, protective sand barriers obliterated and tens of thousands of people (including Anderson) still living in vulnerable government travel-trailers on the sites of their ruined homes.

Folks say they have learned the lessons of Katrina. They are stockpiling food and water, installing more backup generators and rounding up buses for evacuations, even in places that haven't seen a hurricane in a century.

But they haven't learned the most important lesson of Katrina, says Tulane University law professor Oliver Houck. If they had, he says, the dialogue would be less about rebuilding and more about "planned retreat" — from beaches, from fragile barrier islands, from sinking marshlands.

"The idea that you can build up on stilts ... and remain hit-proof from a Category 5 is illusory," says Houck, who specializes in environmental and property law. Katrina's lesson: "That beachfront property is not just flood prone. It is atomic bomb-like wipeout prone."

For miles along the Gulf Coast, pillars that once held up houses stand like gravestones in an unkempt cemetery. Stately live oaks once draped with Spanish moss are still hung with bed sheets, flags and bits of window screen.

Antebellum or postmodern, on a slab or on stilts, little construction could withstand Katrina's howling winds and 30-foot storm surges.

Much of that construction — along with today's rebuilding — was made possible by the National Flood Insurance Program, the subject of much post-Katrina debate.

It is madness for the government to continue subsidizing coastal development by providing infrastructure and flood insurance, says ocean advocate David Helvarg. Repeat claims account for 40 percent of all payments from the NFIP, although they represent just 2 percent of covered properties, says Helvarg, president of the Blue Frontier Campaign.

As of last year, he says, $763 billion worth of real estate was insured by the federal flood program, 40 percent of it in Florida alone.

"This is the biggest exposure we have after Social Security," says Helvarg. "It's nuts to think we can keep building in harm's way."

The federal government has tried to discourage building in sensitive coastal areas. The Reagan-era Coastal Barrier Resources Act, known as COBRA, excluded 3 million acres of sand spits and barrier islands from federal flood insurance programs and other infrastructure assistance, but lawmakers have been steadily chipping away at it. When Katrina came ashore, there were bills pending to cover 50,000 previously excluded acres in Florida, Georgia and Texas.

That's unfair to taxpayers, Houck says, adding, "You can go over Niagara in a barrel if you want — but we don't have to buy the barrel."

Researchers say we are in a 20-year cycle of more frequent, more powerful storms.

William Gray, who leads a team of storm experts at Colorado State University, predicts an 81 percent probability that at least one major hurricane will make landfall along the U.S. coastline this year — and a 47 percent probability that one will strike the Gulf Coast. Some are saying the Northeast might suffer its first direct hit in nearly seven decades.

Rebuilding the Coast Continues

Yet along the Gulf and Atlantic coasts, development and rebuilding continue apace.

In Biloxi, crews have reduced the pirate-themed Treasure Bay casino barge to a ghostly steel and concrete skeleton. Its successor will be built across U.S. 90, thanks to post-Katrina legislation allowing on-land gaming halls.

The pace of residential rebirth is somewhat slower.

In Louisiana and Mississippi, nearly 100,000 residents remain in trailers provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Evelyn and Peter Hutchins are two such camper dwellers.

Stringing a clothesline between the 8-by-8 timbers that once supported her 1,250-square-foot retirement home in Pass Christian, Evelyn Hutchins can't get over the depth of the dark at night — or the silence of the woods around her.

"The birds have not come back," the 68-year-old retired elementary school teacher says. "How did they know not to come through here for spring?"

The couple bought here in the 1980s because of the low population density, and they'll rebuild. Peter Hutchins, 69, says the only things that could make him leave are high-rise beach condominiums — or another direct hit.

Next door to Pass Christian, in devastated Long Beach, voters will decide in June whether to reverse a long-standing prohibition against casinos.

The town needs something.

South of the railroad tracks, Long Beach is a patchwork quilt of blue tarps, white trailers and barren brown lots, stitched together with baby-blue plastic sewer pipes that run above ground.

Barbara Gillespie's brick home, about a half mile from the Gulf, is nearly pristine. As she maneuvers her riding lawn mower around perfectly preserved palmettos, she thanks God that she couldn't find a house closer to the beach.

"Every other house I looked at when we were buying a house is gone," says Gillespie, 60, who moved here from the Memphis, Tenn., area last year.

New government maps place her property outside the flood zone. But she, like many, has purchased the insurance anyway.

Billy Allen worries they'll need it.

On a recent blustery day, Allen sipped a Bud Light longneck, then pulled a ratty tennis ball from his dog Brisko's mouth and tossed it into the rolling surf beside the battered veterans memorial in Waveland.

"Even on bad storm days the water NEVER came up this far," Allen says. Pointing to the spot where sand barriers once cushioned the waves' blows, he says, "Something out there got destroyed, and it's only going to get worse."

Allen frames houses for a living. Looking into the breakers, he declares: "Me, I wouldn't buy any land within five miles of the beach."

But for many, the draw of the water is simply too strong.

On North Beach Boulevard in Waveland, all that remains of Darlene Martinez's 4,000-square-foot, 22-foot-high beach home is a slab studded with 23 crumbling, salmon-tinted concrete columns. Martinez is picking up bits and pieces — a spoon, the blue, mud-caked spines of two of her 132 yacht club cookbooks — when a man with a tiny notebook walks up.

"You starting over or are you going to buy?" says Bill Knoll, a debris removal specialist from DeWitt, Ark., who's moonlighting for a client in search of beachfront property.

"Starting over," she says emphatically.

Knoll moves on. Next door, a cardboard sign reads: "For Sale By Owner. Asking Price $700,000."

But for every person cashing out, there seems to be someone looking to buy, says Carolyn Jones, a deputy tax collector for Hancock County. Her own home just west of Bay St. Louis was swept away, but she's not selling.

"That's the Mississippi way," she says. "You just kind of suck it up and go on."

Preparing for 'Biblical Destruction'

If government isn't making people move, it must prepare to protect them.

While the Army Corps of Engineers races to get New Orleans' levees back up to pre-Katrina strength, Mayor Ray Nagin has already decided there will be no repeat of last year's desperate scenes at the Superdome and convention center. Buses and even trains will empty the city ahead of anything stronger than a Category 2, he vows; and there will be no "vertical evacuations" of tourists to area hotels.

Still stinging from criticism of its Katrina response, the Red Cross announced an $80 million plan to stockpile food, cots, cell phones, debit cards and toiletry items in 21 cities in nine Atlantic and Gulf Coast states. But if Katrina taught residents and coastal governments anything, it is that they must be prepared to fend for themselves.

In Miami, officials have adopted ordinances requiring gas stations and supermarkets to have backup generators. Local governments that once cautioned residents to stockpile three days' worth of food, water and medicine are now recommending they prepare for five days without help.

Places that normally wait until the threat of a Category 3 storm to order tourist evacuations will now clear barrier islands and other sensitive areas at the approach of a Category 1.

"We'd ask them to leave if we had a tropical storm come through," says Benny Rousselle, president of Plaquemines Parish southeast of New Orleans.

In Savannah, Ga., which hasn't had a direct hit since 1893, authorities are more than doubling to 200 the number of evacuation buses available. Even in places that pride themselves on their hurricane preparedness, there is a sense that something has changed.

Using National Hurricane Center computer models, officials in Onslow County, N.C., ran a Category 5 simulation. The results: 15,000 residential structures destroyed, roads and utilities devastated, 30 days to restore just 64 percent of pre-storm hospital capacity.

"We do not intend to open shelters in Onslow County if we have a Category 4 or 5," says Emergency Services Director Mark Goodman, whose county is home to the Marines' Camp Lejeune. "People haven't seen biblical destruction of this magnitude."

As the preparations continue, so does recovery — measured in milestones large and small.

At the industrial tan trailer housing the displaced Long Beach Public Library, it is the return of a book that was checked out before the storm and, thus, saved. One recently returned title: Martha Grimes' novel "The Winds of Change."

When the Sonic drive-in with its roller-skating waitresses reopened in late April, you'd have thought a five-star restaurant had come to town.

Brenda Anderson has faith it will all come back.

Standing in her front yard, the white-haired woman caresses the bark of a battered magnolia, Mississippi's state tree. Its flowers, she says, "were as big as dinner plates," but now its sawed-off limbs fight just to put out a paucity of green.

This spring, the tree had just two blooms, each about the size of a coffee cup. But to Anderson, who calls herself "a steel magnolia," those blooms were a promise of better days to come.

"She's struggling to survive," she says. "Just like we are."