Corps seeking buyouts on storm-damaged Gulf Coast

Published 11:27 pm Wednesday, February 11, 2009

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is proposing to spend about $1.2 billion on Mississippi’s Gulf Coast to buy some 2,000 seaside properties, relocate a small town’s public buildings and restore hurricane-damaged wetlands and beaches.

A draft proposal released Tuesday follows in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, when Bay St. Louis, Waveland and Biloxi were destroyed in 2005 by a storm surge 20 feet or higher over most of this coastline.

The draft of the corps’ 40-year plan, called the Mississippi Coastal Improvements Program, will now undergo a series of reviews and face public scrutiny before being presented to Congress, possibly by November.

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Buyouts, though, remain a touchy subject among coastal residents eager to see their flood-damaged neighborhoods rebound with people and businesses.

“I’d like to see the area developed,” said Melvin Barnes, a restaurant owner in Bay St. Louis.

Unlike efforts in Louisiana, the corps’ plans for Mississippi do not envision enormous levees and flood barriers to protect against future hurricanes.

Under the plan, the corps would use $400 million for voluntary buyouts of up to 2,000 parcels of land. The remaining funds would go to restoring fragile barrier islands, reviving eroded marshes and other measures.

In 2007, the corps proposed a buyout plan for up to 17,000 parcels of land, but scaled back those ambitions after encountering opposition from residents fearful that the agency wanted to stunt redevelopment.

“For practical purposes, we could not acquire that many parcels and relocate those people into suitable housing without totally destroying the economy of coastal Mississippi,” said Susan Rees, a corps oceanographer overseeing the plan. “We are taking a very measured approach.”

Nonetheless, Rees said the buyout proposal would help.

“If we get 2,000 takers, then that’s 2,000 less buildings that get damaged, 2,000 less families that have to evacuate,” she said.

Katrina destroyed about 32,446 structures along the Mississippi coast and up to 25,000 other homes suffered moderate damage.

Attitudes may have shifted in favor of buyouts after last year when hurricanes Ike and Gustav flooded Mississippi’s coast.

“It took these last two … to rethink this issue,” said Harold “Buz” Olsen, director of administration of Bay St. Louis, a historic town walloped by Katrina. People in vulnerable areas are having second thoughts, he said. “People said, ‘Enough is enough.”’

Rees said the corps was not ruling out proposing more buyouts in the future.

Meanwhile, the corps is proposing to spend $477 million to restore barrier islands off the coast of Mississippi.

Mississippi’s islands, like those along other stretches of the U.S. coast, have eroded and broken up over time. The plan calls for more in-depth study of how to restore the islands and fill in gaps, for example at Ship Island. That island has split in two.

The corps is also studying other restoration measures, too.

For instance, it wants to conduct marsh plantings, widen beaches, build higher dunes and fight invasive plant species. Also, it envisions diverting freshwater from the Mississippi River into the Mississippi Sound to stop the advance of salt water and encourage wetlands growth.

Also, the corps is looking at spending $10.8 million to relocate to higher ground Moss Point’s city hall, police station and fire department. The town near Pascagoula was flooded by Katrina. In addition, the corps is talking about building a $14 million levee around a historic neighborhood of Gulfport, Forrest Heights, and spending $4.4 million to raise 25 houses in Waveland.

Before any of the work can begin, Congress must approve the plan and fund it.

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