South Mississippi is the test tube of the future

Published 6:59 pm Friday, September 8, 2006

If “the future” could be created in a laboratory, the image under the microscope would be south Mississippi.

Analyze the components of the future — faster and stronger building methods, more affordable housing, more livable cities, smarter zoning, shared government services, flexible financing, better transportation, higher-tech infrastructure, affordable catastrophe insurance, improved disaster preparedness.

At various points in the future, every community and every region will confront these issues — every one of which is being researched and resolved today in south Mississippi.

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The bad news: While most cities can deal with one or two of these issues at a time, weighing priorities and budgets, south Mississippi has no such options. Hurricane Katrina violently bulldozed our coastline, leaving tens of thousands of people with no homes, no jobs. Cities were left with wreckages of water and sewer systems, crumpled roads, and few, if any, public buildings. We have neither the option of choosing “one or two” projects nor the luxury of time.

The good news: We have help.

— Many of the nation’s leading experts in dozens of fields — from architecture to zoning — have seen the depth of the need and the height of the potential in south Mississippi and have offered the wealth of their knowledge. Experience and advice worth millions of dollars have been donated toward our recovery.

— Volunteer assistance has come and continues to come from around the globe, shoring up our physical and emotional stamina for the enormous task.

— In response to extraordinary efforts of our state’s leaders in Congress and in the state Capitol, unprecedented financial assistance has been appropriated to help deal with this unprecedented natural disaster.

Already, the challenges of our rebuilding are foreshadowing decisions that other regions can postpone for decades. A few of the results that our south Mississippi “laboratory” will someday offer to the world:

— That regional or multi-county districts save dollars and make more sense than having hundreds of separate, unlinked authorities handling water, sewer, stormwater and solid waste.

— That well-intentioned zoning mistakes of the past choked the life out of downtowns. That high-rises, low-rises, condos and bungalows can coexist and increase the values of all if smart, form-based codes ensure wise placement.

— That affordable housing relates to all income levels. Last year, for the first time, statistics compiled annually by the National Association of Homebuilders showed that a family earning the median national income no longer qualified for a mortgage for the median price of a new home. South Mississippi needs 70,000 homes rebuilt today. Through creative financing and innovative building methods, we are tackling this problem before much of the nation is aware of it.

— That there is no substitute for effective, visionary leadership and no such word as “overkill” when it comes to being prepared.

Upon the blank slate that once was Mississippi’s beautiful Gulf Coast we are building the future in an incredibly compressed time frame. What we build will be home to our grandchildren and will be an example, good or bad, to the world.

What a challenge. What an opportunity. While the rest of the world awaits the future, we’re building it today. And we’ve got one chance to get it right.