Gulf Coast Day 3: Don't Leave Me High, Don't Leave Me Dry

Biloxi Councilman George Lawrence took me for a drive through his ward yesterday. It's a U-shaped gerrymander around the point of East Biloxi, where people ...
by | July 19, 2006

Dscn2466 Biloxi Councilman George Lawrence took me for a drive through his ward yesterday. It's a U-shaped gerrymander around the point of East Biloxi, where people of modest means, Vietnamese immigrants, and casinos uncomfortably share the real estate. And it got absolutely hammered by Katrina.

One of the hottest rebuilding topics here is FEMA. Not the much villified disaster response side of the FEMA shop, but the mitigation side. FEMA has been studying how the storm surge rolled into Biloxi and all the other places that got hit, and revising its estimation of how high a house should be built in order to qualify for flood insurance. For the most part, they're raising the levels. What this means is complicated--the details are here--but the short story is that anyone who wants to rebuild will have to do so on enormously high stilts, as the house in the picture is being built.

Biloxi is resisting this for the time being, at least until the FEMA finalizes its regulations. The city passed a law saying that homes near the water have to be higher than they were before, but not this high. Lawrence is one of the people leading the charge against FEMA's proposed flood elevations. "Down here, we've got a lot of 80, 85 year old ladies," he told me. "They can't walk up 25 steps six times a day. People can't live like this."

Lawrence's other problem with the proposed flood rules is the cost. A foundation like this one can add $25,000 to $30,000 to the price of a house, he said. A lot of folks have been getting bad news from their insurance companies lately--claims denied--and simply can't afford to rebuild what they lost. "People are scared to build," Lawrence said. "They can't afford to build, and there's not a whole lot of money to help them. You got someone who's 85 years old, retired, on a fixed income, and now lost the house, lost all the contents, lost everything they owned. And now they're coming back and they're told you gotta build 10, 12, 15 feet off the ground."

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