FOR GULF COAST STATES, AND THE region's builders, Hurricane Katrina's devastation is still untold. Still, a first-hand, mile-by-mile trek through the pulverized region reveals a community, and an industry, that is already bouncing back.
Most people in the affected states of Alabama, Louisiana, and Mississippi at least know someone who lost property or even a life in the storm. Many of the region's builders—the lion's share of whom are smaller residential construction firms—were themselves directly hurt in the catastrophe, with homes or businesses damaged or destroyed.
In their time of trial, Gulf Coast communities are falling back on core values and strengths: faith, family, and community pride; a die-hard work ethic; and the same improvisational brilliance that shined during the ad-hoc volunteer effort that saved hundreds, if not thousands, of lives during rescue operations in New Orleans and other low-lying areas.
And while the severe flooding of low ground has laid waste to whole towns and counties, surrounding areas are quickly returning to near-normal functioning, and beginning to take up the strain of a huge influx of displaced evacuees. As insurance money and federal aid begins to flow, many builders of all sizes are gearing up for the busiest years of their lives. Standing on Lake Shore Road in Mandeville, Louisiana, on September 14, plumbing company supervisor Wes Williams said, “This place is going to go crazy with people.”
“WE WERE FORTUNATE” Marty Milstead, executive vice president of the Home Builders Association of Mississippi (headquartered in Jackson), is one of those whose life was touched by Katrina. Raised in Pascagoula on the Mississippi coast, Marty had family and friends in the storm's path. His parents, a retired school principal and school teacher, evacuated and were safe, but their house was completely destroyed when the storm surge washed over it.
Marty went back to Pascagoula a few days after the storm. “When you see people you grew up with, went to high school with, walking around with plastic bags trying to find some piece of what used to be their belongings—it's just depressing,” he said. “It's not the stuff—it's what it represents, all the years of work that went into it. My parents are almost 70. At that age you don't expect to have to start over.”
Most of the people in Pascagoula carried no flood insurance, Milstead says. “That area had never flooded before, ever,” he says. “It wasn't in a flood zone.”
But the homes of a sister and brother-in-law, and an uncle and aunt, are intact, says Milstead. “We were fortunate, we really were,” he says. “And we're Christians. Our faith in God is helping us get through it.”
HOME BUILDERS ORGANIZE Two weeks after the storm, the Mississippi Home Builders Association was just starting to pull things together. “We are still trying to figure out who was directly affected, who lost vehicles or property,” says Milstead. The NAHB started a relief fund for members shortly after the storm passed, and seeded it with $1 million; the week of September 20, a Katrina Summit of state home builder associations was planned in Jackson, Miss., to strategize for the region's long-term recovery. “The Florida HBA has been through this before, and they have a lot of things to teach us,” says Milstead.
But driving into Gulfport and Biloxi on the afternoon of September 12, it was clear that contractors on the coast aren't waiting for a strategy before they get to work. Biloxi and Gulfport roads were choked with work trucks, and crews were active in many neighborhoods cleaning up and patching. Although many residents were still without housing or jobs, depending on Red Cross or other charity for food and other basics, power had been restored to many areas. Even close to the ocean front, some residents were starting to put their homes back into service.