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Where Recovery Is the Stock in Trade

Times Staff Writer

It is a sort of post-Katrina state fair. A trade show custom-tailored for a ruined land. A convergence of building and zoning experts, readily accessible bureaucrats, and salesmen who have just the extra-thick siding you’ve been looking for -- the kind with the patented Twister Lock and Cyclonic Locking System that withstands winds up to 187 mph!

Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour is billing it as the Governor’s Recovery Expo, a free event that opened Friday at the Mississippi Coast Coliseum and runs through the weekend. Organizers are hoping the state’s hurricane victims will leave here with their legal questions answered, a prefab home picked out, and a new energy that will help the long-suffering coast bloom with building projects as the first anniversary of the storm approaches, Aug. 29.

So far, Mississippi’s rebuilding effort has been both heartening and frustrating. Thousands of Gulf Coast residents are still in trailer homes, and many waterfront communities are strewn with ghostly husks of businesses and homes.

But Gavin Smith, the state’s recovery director, says momentum is starting to build: Residents are receiving their insurance payouts, and smallbusiness loans are sprucing up commercial properties. Last month, the state began distributing a portion of $5 billion in federal rebuilding aid to 17,000 homeowners. The ravaged Beau Rivage Casino & Resort, once one of the region’s fanciest, is set for an Aug. 29 grand reopening.

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“We think we’re right at the cusp of the point where people will start building in earnest,” Smith said.

Some of the most ardent believers in that forecast were the dozens of building-industry representatives who dominated the Recovery Expo. If the style of their message owed a debt to Dale Carnegie, the substance took a cue from the little pig who built with bricks. Their names alone set the theme: Kodiak Steel Homes; Safeway Homes; House Raising of the Gulf Coast; FloodBarrier Inc.

A company called Oceansafe Housing hawked a hurricane-proof home with walls made from a kind of steel-and-polystyrene sandwich. Project Coordinator Susanne Bohr said it had been a success in the Caribbean.

“A NASA engineer holds the patent,” she said.

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A salesman named Steve Bishop offered an array of hurricane-proof doors and windows. He was hoping to hook up with some big condo developers. He had some advice for them, too: Build the high-rises with multilevel garages on the first few floors.

“Then you’re going to lose cars, not people,” he said.

One booth touted the DuPont StormRoom with a display model. It seemed normal enough and was about the size of a guest bathroom. But the accompanying text noted that it was reinforced with Kevlar: “the same lifesaving fiber used in bullet-resistant vests.”

Aaron Steele was fielding questions at the Internal Revenue Service booth a few feet away from DuPont’s room model. Steele, who is based in New Orleans, lost his house in the Gentilly neighborhood and is busy rebuilding. A Kevlar room wasn’t part of his plans.

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“Since I didn’t stay for this one and won’t be staying for any future ones, I don’t know if I have a need for that,” he said. “My thing is, ‘Get outta Dodge.’ ”

Neil Smith, the DuPont distributor, said the storm room didn’t make much sense directly in the flood zone but could be helpful a couple of miles from the beach, where the greatest danger from a hurricane is wind damage rather than water.

Blake Hobson, who was pitching the extra-thick siding with the “cyclonic” technology, said companies like his stood to make money on the Gulf Coast in the coming years. “This whole place has got to be rebuilt,” he said.

Booth neighbor Steve Davis, president of Eye of the Storm, was showing off what he called a black box for hurricanes -- a video camera, housed in a stainless steel cylinder, to record the way a storm destroys a structure. The homeowner would include the video when filing a claim with an insurance company.

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“The big question is: Is it wind or is it water damage as far as the insurance is concerned?” Davis said.

A number of exhibitors touted their prefabricated houses, which these days often go by the name “modular” housing to sidestep trailer-park stigmas. Across the Gulf Coast region, officials are hoping that architecturally spiffed-up versions of this old, affordable idea will help bring long-term housing to the region, and fast. Barbour, who kicked off the Recovery Expo on Friday morning, said that with chronic labor shortages, the region had to rely on homes at least partially assembled in a factory.

“We have to replace 70,000 units of housing,” Barbour said, referring to the number of homes destroyed or rendered uninhabitable by Hurricane Katrina. “We’ve never built more than 2,800 units of housing on the Mississippi Gulf Coast in one year.”

A number of modular homes were on display in the arena’s heat-baked parking lot. Many of them made concessions to the vernacular architecture of the region, with wide porches, touches of gingerbread and attempts to simulate the look of wood.

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Francis and Maxey Schultz of New Orleans were looking for a cheap replacement for their Mississippi weekend home that Katrina washed away. They were impressed with the new prefabs.

“It’s more in accord with what we’re used to,” Maxey Schultz said. “The ceilings are higher. Some of them have 10-foot ceilings.”

A number of government representatives were on hand to answer questions about job training programs, evacuation routes and new height requirements for houses. A Federal Emergency Management Agency booth displayed a series of fact sheets titled “Home Builder’s Guide to Coastal Construction.”

The arena itself was severely flooded in the storm -- its website shows a photo of large waves coursing across the main floor. As Mississippians crowded the exhibit area Friday, a work crew was hammering away nearby, fixing up a section of the building that still had no windows.

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