Jon Ritten, president and broker for Coldwell Banker Coast Delta Realty in Diamondhead, Miss., said he is still haunted by the heavy hum of helicopters, and the utter devastation that left his community in tatters.
“This place truly looked like Beirut. I can still hear those helicopters coming,” he said. Even a year later, this apparent war zone carved out by Hurricane Katrina in the Gulf Coast region has plenty of visible and lasting scars.
Ritten and a handful of other Coldwell Banker professionals working in the Gulf Coast region shared their stories this week about the storms, the housing market in their areas and the progress made in the year since one of the worst disasters in U.S. history.
“A year later we’re in many ways worse off than we were immediately after the storm,” Ritten said. There are “cracks in the infrastructure, cracks in the social structure,” insurance disputes, and troubles with housing affordability.
The residents who weathered the storm and are now weathering its aftermath have shown a great resolve, Ritten said. “The eye of the storm came right through our community,” Ritten said. When the storm had passed, residents assisted with search and rescue efforts, he said. “The compassion and caring and teamwork and dedication I saw was awesome. I live among many, many, many heroes.”
While the county’s population has shrunk from about 45,000 pre-storm to about 35,000 post-Katrina, the community where he works has actually grown from 8,500 people pre-storm to a current total of about 11,000. About 750 homes were lost in the storm, he said.
As in all of the areas hit by the hurricane-fueled flood surge, elevation was key to protecting many of the homes in the area, he said. Ritten’s real estate office was spared in the storm and he opened the office to other real estate companies in the region.
He shared the story of a homeowner who sought to sell a home for a high value, figuring that evacuees from areas closer to the coast would be “desperate enough” to pay for a home in a community on higher ground. And it was an agent in his office — a woman who had lost her own home — who set the seller straight, Ritten said.
After explaining that all she had left from the storm were the clothes on her back, she told the man — in a very direct way — that it was wrong to exploit the situation by inflating the home price, Ritten recalled: “I want you to get the hell out of my office and take your greed elsewhere.” As it happens, he added, the man returned to the office the next day to apologize and to list the home with the agent at a fair price.
Bruce Kammer, broker-owner for Coldwell Banker County Properties in Picayune, Miss., said he decided to ride out the storm at his home in the woods near Poplarville, Miss. “I can tell you I will never stay for a storm that size again. We did catch the brunt of the eye wall,” he said. “My house became the ‘Little House on the Prairie.’ Fortunately no one in my area was hurt, but the damage was extensive.”
His family lived in tents while they cleaned out debris from their home. Agents at his company fielded calls on their cell phones at all hours, he said, and agents sometimes seemed to serve as counselors for those who lost their homes.
Active home listings dropped from about 425 prior to the storm to about 180 after the storm. But because area is on higher ground than New Orleans, new residents poured in after the storm, driving up prices from about $91,000 before the storm to about $135,000 to $150,000. “We have the closest high ground to Southern Louisiana and the Mississippi Gulf Coast. Naturally they came to the first place that was above sea level.”
The community will never be the same, he said. “House prices will continue to increase, putting pressure on the workforce. Builders are building for more affluent people who are moving to the area.”
Fifty-six of 144 agents at Coldwell Banker Alfonso Realty, which serves Gulfport-Biloxi, Miss., lost their homes, said company CEO Carlene Alfonso. My home, my father’s home, my sister’s homes are all gone.” Many of the homes lost were not in a designated flood zone and did not have flood insurance coverage.
About 58,000 homes were destroyed in the county, and prices have increased about 33 percent since the storm.
There is “a constant struggle,” she said, for those who lost homes to continue to pay mortgages. More than half of the casinos in the area are open again — the casinos are an economic engine for the area, Alfonso said.
The slow recovery process has taken its toll, she said. “All of the local people are just worn out with it all, and angry. Not everybody on the Mississippi Gulf Coast lost their house, but let me assure you that everybody on the Gulf Coast lost their home.”
Chris Inman, president for Coldwell Banker TEC Realtors in New Orleans, rattled off some statistics about the extent of devastation in his area. About 350,000 people were driven from the metro area by Katrina, he said, and 230,000 jobs were lost. In Orleans Parish alone, about 100,000 housing units were flooded “and basically put out of commission.”
A total of 140 square miles in the region were flooded. “Imagine driving for 20 miles and everything 3 1/2 miles on either side of you has been flooded: houses, businesses, everything. That is the problem that we’re working on today to overcome.”
Home prices “absolutely vaulted upwards,” he said, and price increases of 30 percent to 50 percent were not uncommon shortly after the storm. Those days have tapered off and prices are now running about 15 percent to 20 percent higher than they were pre-storm.
The aftermath of the storm brought a flood of questions. “There was so much misinformation and lack of information,” he said. There were stories about bacteria and mold problems, and displaced residents grappled with insurance problems.
Wealthier neighborhoods have started to bounce back, Inman said. “There are pockets of houses (where) everything looks normal.” But in some neighborhoods are not faring as well, he said. “There are no people — nothing.”
Steve Barnes, meanwhile, shared a story about the people of Houston who welcomed so many evacuees. Barnes, president and chief operating officer for the Houston region of Coldwell Banker United, said about 250,000 people, including 20,000 school-age children, came to Houston from the storm-ravaged areas.
The real estate market has remained very stable during the mass influx, he said. Inventory dipped from about 45,000 before the storm to about 40,000 today, he said, representing a supply decline from about six months to 5.5 months.
In acknowledging the one-year anniversary after Katrina, Ritten said, “Happy birthday to everyone who has lived through this storm because we’re all one year old.”