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Talk of federal buyout roils lives in coastal Mississippi

Times Staff Writer

This coastal resort town is on the front line of a project to gauge support for a mass federal buyout of 17,000 homes near Mississippi’s Katrina-ravaged shore. This could become the nation’s most significant attempt to radically reconfigure coastal communities -- converting huge swaths of flood-prone residential lots to public wetlands.

Until now, the Army Corps of Engineers has reserved buyouts for areas prone to river flooding. Some people, such as Susan I. Rees, the director of the corps project, believe the current assessment is the beginning of a serious national debate on whether Americans should retreat from the coasts. The costs and risks of future flooding are simply too great, they say -- especially if, as many believe, sea levels are rising and hurricanes are starting to get stronger.

“People have been talking about this for some time now, but no one has really said you don’t need to live on the coast anymore,” Rees said. “The whole concept of trying to remove people and properties from the coast is very, very challenging. The desire to live by the water is strong.”

The plan, which officials stress would be voluntary, has shocked many in Bay St. Louis, which is struggling to rebuild after Katrina. Residents say they had no idea that while they were taking out loans and investing their savings to rebuild their homes, federal officials were drawing up proposals to erase more than half of the city’s land mass.

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“It’s just aggravating,” said Desiree Clark, 28, a nursing student whose almost-rebuilt house on pilings is waiting only to be covered in vinyl siding. “If we had known there was going to be a buyout, would we have shoveled all that mud out of our home?”

In 2005, Congress asked the Corps of Engineers to assess how to protect coastal Mississippi from damage by hurricanes and other storms and saltwater intrusion, as well as ways to preserve fish and wildlife and prevent erosion.

Most Mississippi homeowners, however, did not learn about the project until last month, when the corps held a public meeting in Bay St. Louis. Corps officials are now scrambling to win support from local civic leaders before they submit the $10-billion project to Congress at the end of the year.

Some experts are advocating a full-scale retreat from the nation’s shorelines, but corps officials say there is no current plan to extend the project to other regions.

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“Ultimately, a retreat is our only solution,” said Orrin H. Pilkey Jr., director of the Program for the Study of Developed Shorelines at Duke University in Durham, N.C. He said the coast is eroding, sea levels are rising and there is growing concern -- though no scientific consensus -- that hurricanes may be becoming more forceful.

While the risk of coastal disasters is greatest on the Gulf and southern Atlantic coasts because of the low topography and strong risk of hurricanes, experts say rising sea levels will eventually affect the entire U.S. shoreline.

A 2000 study by the Federal Emergency Management Agency estimated that by 2060, erosion could wipe out one of every four homes within 500 feet of U.S. coasts.

Gary Griggs, professor of earth and planetary sciences at UC Santa Cruz, said that in California, particularly vulnerable “hot spots” include north San Diego County, where beaches are narrow and cliffs are heavily developed. He added that similar risks are posed in Malibu, where people live right on the beach.

Experts say a retreat, however, does not have to mean a mass federal buyout. Another potential option is for the government to stop allowing those who live along the coast to rebuild their homes after hurricanes and storms.

Many in Bay St. Louis argue that instead of urging people to leave, federal officials should help build stronger and more elevated structures that can withstand powerful winds and floods.

“They’re pushing the panic button” because of Katrina, said James C. Thriffiley III, president of the Bay St. Louis City Council. “They’re taking this one event -- the worst possible catastrophic hurricane -- and basing every decision in this town on it.”

Facing such a volatile and far-reaching issue as coastal development, Congress will likely not end up approving the corps’ plan to buy out so many homes along the Mississippi Gulf Coast, Thriffiley and other local officials say. Residents, they say, did not greet corps representatives warmly at the September public hearing in Bay St. Louis.

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Yet Thriffiley worries that mere talk of a buyout is stalling the city’s rebuilding effort: Homeowners are wondering whether to continue repairing homes that may eventually be torn down. Business people are reconsidering plans for new restaurants and stores. Investors are pulling out of construction projects.

“The entire community is now in limbo,” he said.

Dean Agee, a developer from Michigan who bought scores of lots in the proposed buyout area and planned to build modular homes designed to stand up to Category 5 hurricanes, is fielding telephone calls from uneasy investors.

“Everyone is asking: ‘What’s this about the corps buying everybody out?’ ” he said. “ ‘Is this really a place where we should be investing?’ ”

Although a buyout would be voluntary, that doesn’t stop those who want to remain from worrying that they could be the only ones left on their street. They fear their insurance rates could go up, and they wonder how local government would cope with a significant loss of tax money.

Opposition to a buyout, which would span Mississippi’s three coastal counties, has been strongest in Hancock County, where more than 10,000 of the 17,000 homes are located. Bay St. Louis is the county seat.

New houses are being built across the low-lying neighborhoods behind downtown Bay St. Louis on former marshland curving along St. Louis Bay and the Jordan River. Roads are being repaved and sewage systems are being repaired.

In the two years since Katrina, the city has issued permits for 218 new residences, 1,382 repairs and 85 additions. With stricter building codes and flood-elevation rules, civic leaders say the town is on the verge of coming back bigger and better.

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But not everyone wants to stay. Some residents say they can’t help feeling vulnerable living on small lots that back up to bayous and canals.

On a recent afternoon, Wanda Sharpe, 59, stood at the bottom of her front steps, pointing a cigarette at the bayou that curves around her home. “It’s senseless to be here,” she said. “It’s just a matter of time before another hurricane hits us.”

Others are disheartened because their neighbors have not returned.

“It’s so quiet here now,” said Cathy Barbetta, 55, as her husband, Brian, grilled shrimp beside a desolate canal.

The Barbettas moved here from Louisiana five years ago. After Katrina, they poured all their savings into rebuilding their home. But few of their neighbors have come back, they say, and huge rats now roam the weed-choked lots.

“If they gave us the value of the house, we’d leave tomorrow,” she said.

According to the corps, those who had already rebuilt would be offered the home’s current value. Those who had not would be offered what it would have cost to rebuild, plus the current value of their lot, minus any insurance money they had received.

Many residents, though, wonder what “current value” will mean -- particularly after the anxiety surrounding the buyout proposal.

“This is going to be embraced in some areas and not in others,” said William W. Walker, executive director of Mississippi’s Department of Marine Resources, which worked with the corps. He said residents of Pecan, a small community in Jackson County in the southeastern part of the state, had already agreed to sell their properties en masse.

“We’re trying to put in place something that is open-ended. It’s going to be a long-term project,” Walker said.

The buyout proposal is one part of the corps plan, which would also restore barrier islands that serve as the front line of defense, build a levee alongside a coastal railroad, add storm-surge gates to bay openings and build levees around flood-prone areas.

Though environmental restoration and structural measures could somewhat reduce risk from future storms, Walker said, they would not be able to protect homes on low-lying marshlands.

“These areas probably should not have been developed in the first place,” he said. “It’s not practical to ask the federal government to keep rebuilding and repairing after repetitive floods.” Duke shoreline expert Pilkey, who watched Mississippi residents rebuild after Hurricane Camille hit in 1969, said that he used to believe all it would take to get people to move from the coast would be another severe hurricane.

If Katrina hadn’t convinced people to clear out, he said, nothing would.

“Frankly,” he said, “I think a buyout is going to have to be more or less crammed down people’s throats.”

Tommy Kidd, who grew up in Bay St. Louis, has finished rebuilding his vinyl-sided home on a low-lying lot next to a canal. The ruddy 68-year-old says that nothing -- not even Katrina washing 28 feet of muddy slop up to his ceiling -- could persuade him to give up his land. Where else, he asked, could he stand on his back deck and net shrimp or crabs for dinner?

“Look,” said Kidd as he opened his back door, stepped onto his porch and gazed at the water flowing gently around his lot. “This is paradise. You can’t destroy what it means to live in the interest of safety.”

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jenny.jarvie@latimes.com


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