SAN FRANCISCO — As a passenger on an airplane flying toward the hurricane-devastated Gulf Coast region, David Goldberg saw all the specks of bright blue in the communities far below and at first believed they were backyard swimming pools.
Goldberg, communications for Smart Growth America, later learned that those blue patches were actually tarps laid on top of storm-damaged roofs to prevent more water from pouring in. The tarps have been dubbed “FEMA roofs” for the federal emergency agency responsible for providing assistance after such disasters.
The Mississippi project is one of several planning efforts in the Gulf region that seek to shape the future of redevelopment and community rebirth.
Goldberg spoke Friday as a member of a panel, “The Devastated Gulf Region: How Do We Build It Better,” at the National Association of Realtors conference in San Francisco. The Realtor trade group’s annual conference is expected to draw about 26,000 attendees.
During his visit to communities hard-hit by hurricanes this year, Goldberg participated in a massive planning initiative, led by the Mississippi governor’s office, that brought together architects, engineers, planners and transportation experts to brainstorm ideas for rebuilding 11 communities that suffered extensive damage.
The work in Mississippi was highly charged with emotion, as the communities were still reeling from the loss of life and homes. “There was a lot of weeping,” he said.
Mississippi’s coastal communities hit by the hurricanes, “had been dramatically altered and in some cases the core of the had been just eliminated.” The fear, he said, is that without proper planning the area might be rebuilt with “truly ugly, gaudy casinos, high-rise condos pushing values up, and the rest of us are going to get nothing but cookie-cutter sprawl, if that,” with the history and heritage of the region slipping away.
Members of the planning group toured communities by helicopter and on the ground. Recalling the destruction in Waveland, Goldberg said, “The place where most of the people lived was essentially wiped out. It was just leveled, just debris. It was an incredible, unbelievable thing your mind can’t really get around it.”
Outside hotel where Goldberg stayed in Biloxi, Miss., was a floating casino barge that had moved inland with the floodwaters and beached there as the waters receded.
The area, he said, was completely unoccupied at the time and was guarded by National Guard troops. “You still had to go through checkpoints,” he said.
Local community leaders, despite the ongoing emergency relief effort in the area, participated in the process, he said. Goldberg recalled that Kathy Pinn, a community official in Waveland, Miss., told participants, “These people have given us something to hope for the first time in seven weeks. Now I can see something in my future besides rubble.”
Architects and planners laid out fresh-drawn designs for others to critique in a building that housed the planning teams. Among the issues they addressed: rebuilding a demolished Wal-Mart, which had been a major economic engine in one of the towns, in a way that would assist the area’s recovery; and providing for casino and highway reconstruction in a way that would not upset the development and prosperity of other aspects of the community.
One proposal called for building housing units on the top story of a large Wal-Mart building, and a separate suggestion called for the integration of casinos into a waterfront development area that incorporated traditional French architecture and some high-density residential buildings.
“This planning effort was truly…a very different thing. None of us was quite sure how it was going to work.”
Another panelist, Danny Cooper, executive vice president of the Alabama Association of Realtors, shared stories of people whose homes were wiped clean from their land, and of the continuing disaster that plagues the region’s residents and communities in the aftermath of the hurricanes.
“Last night, all across this region probably thousands slept in tents, on Army blankets, on slabs of dirt, the back of pickup trucks. This is real. Thousands have not been home, aren’t allowed to go home, may not go home,” he said.
Cooper said he is confident that communities will spring back. “It doesn’t matter whether (residents are) in a flooded-out house that’s reeking with mold, or if…nothing more is there. ‘This is my land. This is my property. I own this. This is all we have left. We’re not going anywhere. We’re going to come back.'” he said, echoing the sentiment of those homeowners in the area who plan to rebuild.
Pres Kabacoff, a New Orleans native who discussed a pre-Katrina massive redevelopment proposal for New Orleans, said discussions of that plan are perhaps more relevant now that major portions of New Orleans have been washed out by floodwaters.
New Orleans lost about 250,000 houses, he said, and “at least 130,000 or so will not be rebuilt.” The city, which once had a population of 660,000, is now a city with a population of about 460,000, and “we anticipate for a good while being at the 200,000 level. You can’t imagine what happens to a city when you lose half or more than half of a city’s population — yet the city’s center is still intact.”
Even so, “we lost about half of our buildable geography,” he added.
Kabacoff said the proposal he has been working on for New Orleans includes plans to add streetcar stops and to build housing clusters around those transportation hubs.
It will be important to “build on our assets” in the city, he said, including the area’s culture, architecture and history. There will certainly be racial implications in how and where the city is rebuilt, he said. Also, care must be taken when rebuilding to help prevent areas of concentrated poverty.
While the scars are still fresh from the Gulf Coast hurricanes, time is of the essence, he also said. “If we don’t move quickly, folks will establish residency in other areas and will simply not return.”
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