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In Mississippi, an urban revolution

By ROBYN E. BLUMNER
Published February 26, 2006


GULFPORT, Miss. - Viewed from a busted-up Chevron station about 8 miles from the Gulf of Mexico, the highway pillars tell the story of Katrina. The water line reaches to just below the overpass roadway, at least 20 feet high.

To the rest of the country, Katrina was the hurricane that took out New Orleans' levees. Here, they call it "our tsunami." On top of the 125 mph winds, 70 miles of Mississippi's Gulf Coast were inundated by a mountain of water, 25 feet high in places, with waves that reached 10 feet higher. The surge affected areas as much as 15 miles inland.

When the water finally retreated and the winds calmed, 11 seaside communities were left in ruins, with more than 160 dead and 65,000 homes destroyed. It may not be Louisiana numbers, but to the people of the Mississippi coast, it was their world.

Ask locals about the nightmare of Aug. 29 and the information flows out as part war story, part catharsis.

Waveland resident Brian Mollere told his tale in front of a tent on a slab where his relatives' hardware store used to be. For safety as the storm approached, Mollere said, he relocated his 79-year-old mother to the second floor of the Star Theater in Bay St. Louis, a neighboring community. "I had to force my mother to leave," Mollere said. "I sent her (there), where she drowned."

Ricky Mathews, publisher of the Biloxi Sun Herald, who took video of the rushing, rising water surrounding and pounding his home, said some of the dead were found in attics with nail holes in their hands from trying to push through the roof.

Even six months after the storm, massive Biloxi casino barges are still lying tilted on the land side of coastal Highway 90, where the surge tossed them like toy boats. Quaint seaside commercial districts are dominated by concrete slabs, roofless walls and spray-painted signs declaring the owner's former address.

The scene makes you suck in your breath and wonder how the heck one even gets started.

That's where the magic of well-routed energy and focus comes in.

The word charrette falls off everyone's lips here. It's French for little cart. Professors at the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris would collect their students' final sketches on such carts. In the vernacular of this storm-ravaged region, the term is applied to the coming together of urban planners, designers, architects and local residents in day- and nightlong planning sessions to sketch out the way forward.

Thanks to the lightning actions of Mississippi's well-connected Republican Gov. Haley Barbour, more than 200 New Urbanist professionals were put to the task of envisioning a new Gulf Coast over a seven-day charrette in October. Casino owners and big developers weren't even allowed in the room.

If you haven't heard the term "New Urbanism," you're missing the hottest trend in community development since the invention of the grid.

New Urbanists believe that America's soulless suburban housing stock has contributed to the breakdown of communities and the death of main streets. Our car-centric lifestyles have been forced on us by the insipid design of modern housing developments and strip malls.

The goal of New Urbanists is to take a page from America's past. They seek to create walkable, mixed-use neighborhoods and downtowns, focusing on proper scale, form and density. The homes and retail establishments they design are friendly to the street, with porches and parking in the rear. The architecture reflects the unique character of the region.

Perhaps the best known example of this is Seaside, Fla., as seen in the movie The Truman Show. But the New Urbanists have grown more sophisticated since then, and their designs no longer feel like Disney's faux Main Street.

When Barbour enlisted Miami architect Andres Duany, a leader of New Urbanism, and told him to "do what you do well," he could not have known just how promising the results would be.

Emerging from that marathon charrette, and more since then, are a series of remarkably attractive individual planning options for the 11 destroyed cities and towns. Accompanying the plans is a proposed land development ordinance, known as "the SmartCode," that would codify the changes. And for residents, there's a pattern book with housing designs that reflect the area's historic architecture, so they can recapture some of what's been washed away. Go to www.mississippirenewal.com for the particulars.

There are still some barriers to rebuilding, particularly the high elevation levels that FEMA will be requiring for new construction. Still, if even half of what the New Urbanists have conceived comes to pass, the way Americans live will have turned a crucial corner. A better, back-to-the-future approach to neighborhoods and communities may be awakening. It's only a hope. But when everything you knew and had is gone, hope, an idyllic plan and the political might of Haley Barbour are good places to start.

[Last modified February 24, 2006, 19:45:03]


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