AS IT BURST ON SHORE OVER the beaches and bayous of the Mississippi Delta region, Hurricane Katrina destroyed the homes and businesses of home builders, their subcontractors, and their employees, just as it wreaked havoc in every other part of the Gulf Coast community.
As brutal as the effects of the storm were, most builders are maintaining a positive outlook. Ricky Wilkerson, of Gulfport, Miss., says, “The attitude down here is: We're going to rebuild this thing. It's going to be better than ever.”
Wilkerson, a past president of the HBA of Mississippi, counts himself among the fortunate in his region. “I lost a roof on my personal house, over in the Ocean Springs area,” says Wilkerson. But his business properties got off lightly: “My partner, Don Halle, and I had 14 structures, and every one of them is standing—which made us feel real good.”
Wilkerson's main office, a block from the beach on Cowan Road in Biloxi, Miss., took on just 4 or 5 inches of water: “We're very lucky it's standing,” says Wilkerson. The surrounding scene was one of near-total destruction, he says: “It's everywhere. It's everywhere. In fact, what really helped us was that the wind pushed so much of the trash from the buildings that were destroyed up against us before the wave came on shore, and it really helped shed the water from our building.”
ASSESSING THE DAMAGE Very few area builders were as lucky as Wilkerson. “Our members, the home builders in the affected area, are just as devastated as any other business,” NAHB executive vice president and CEO Jerry Howard told a gathering of reporters in late September. “The home building infrastructure in the areas devastated by Hurricane Katrina is just as damaged as any other type of infrastructure.”
Howard estimates that about 9,000 NAHB builders live and work in the Gulf Coast region hammered by the storm. “We don't yet know the extent of their ability to go back to work or not,” he said in September. “We are still trying to take inventory.”
Many of the builders worst hit by the disaster were not yet in a position to help with cleanup and recovery, noted Howard. But he pointed out that the region's established builders will be at the forefront of the coming effort to rebuild the cities and towns of the Gulf Coast.
“The first priority of our organization is to get the home building industry back on its feet,” said Howard. “We've appropriated monies from our budget to send down to our members in the affected region to try to get their lives and businesses back in order. For two reasons: One, it's the right thing to do for our members, and secondly because we are going to have to rely on them to do the rebuilding when the time comes.”
DOWN BUT NOT OUT Getting back on their feet is not going to be easy. Builder Steve Shivers, working in the Pass Christian and Long Beach areas, lost 11 homes under construction, according to Rachel Branch, executive vice president of the HBA of the Mississippi Coast. “Of the builders on my board,” says Branch, “every one of them lost either their own homes or their offices, and many of them lost both. My last year's president, John Ruble, is living on his boat right now—his home was destroyed, but the boat made it. And his office is OK.”
Builder Carl Hamilton's own home in Ocean Springs got 8 feet of water, says Ricky Wilkerson. New homes and homes under construction took a beating: Of the Porteaux Bay subdivision, a 200-plus-unit development, Wilkerson says, “There is not a house in there that [was] not destroyed.”