Waveland was one of the Mississippi cities hit hardest by Hurricane Katrina 10 years ago. But, as MPB’s Evelina Burnett reports, the hurdles didn’t stop there, as the city and its residents have struggled to rebuild in the face of multiple obstacles.
“There was a building right here on the corner, and then there was a drugstore and some shops on the right hand side….” Standing on the second-floor balcony of Waveland City Hall, Mayor Mike Smith points out what used to be here on Coleman Avenue, the city’s main downtown thoroughfare.
There were 29 businesses here before Katrina; today, there are six, four of which are located in a city-owned business incubator. South of City Hall, it’s largely empty lots.
Luckily, the city has another commercial district, away from the water, and sales tax revenues overall are higher 1] than before the storm. The mayor says business-wise, the city’s doing OK.
“What we’re hurting at is our residents," he says. "We had roughly 8,000 residents when Katrina hit, and we’re at about 6,400 now.”
Nearly every residence in this small city was damaged or destroyed by Hurricane Katrina, many inundated by the almost 30 foot high storm surge that crashed through the area. Today, Mayor Smith blames the cost and unpredictability of flood insurance for the city’s slow redevelopment.
“I attribute it mainly to the Biggert Watters Flood Insurance Reform Act of 2012," he says. "And since we adopted the new digital flood insurance rate maps back in 2009, that put 90% of the city in a flood zone, and so it makes it more difficult with the flood insurance cost to rebuild.”
Federal requirements to rebuild at higher elevations may also be factor in discouraging some.
Other Mississippi coast towns are blossoming in the wake of Katrina. Bay St Louis, next door to Waveland, is bustling with new beachfront restaurants and shops. But Waveland hasn’t been able to get that kind of momentum, possibly because it was virtually flattened so the waterfront rebuilding here has had to be from scratch.
Kathy Pinn had a business here on Coleman Avenue. She re-opened her gift shop in the city’s commercial area off the beach in April 2007. But the recession that took hold the following year hit her business hard, and she closed in 2009.
Pinn says she remained hopeful about coming back to Coleman Avenue. But then, “the BP oil spill happened, and a lot of people who were thinking about – that was about 4 and half years, about five, into the recovery, that just stopped a lot of growth that would have come in that point in time,” she says. “Just made everybody re-think it.”
Two years ago, Pinn and her husband moved to Illinois, where they have family. Many retirees left Waveland after Katrina. The city also lost much of its second-home market. Before Katrina, about 12 percent of Waveland’s houses were second or seasonal homes.
LiLi Stahler Murphy, an alderwoman in Waveland for eight of the past 10 years, says bringing back that market could make a big difference.
“Traditionally, Waveland has been the first beach from New Orelans, and many New Orleans families have have had summer homes for generations," she says. "Unfortunately, New Orleans had its own troubles after Hurricane Katrina, so many of those folks have not come back. To see that second-home market increase would be a great help to us."
Betsy Montjoy is Kathy Pinn’s daughter. She also lived in Waveland before Katrina; her home now is in Bay St. Louis but, as a real estate agent, she’s closely watching the Waveland market. She says the market is slower than in Bay St. Louis, “but what happens in Waveland is that people who lived there before the storm - they don't want to go to Bay St. Louis or Diamondhead - they want to be back in Waveland," she says. "It's that passion; it's that commitment. I have people who want to buy property for their kids to come back to in Waveland. So there’s still a big connection to the city.”
Mayor Smith says the city of Waveland, which went through a financial crisis several years ago, is now on good economic footing. The city also seems to be doing what it can to make itself attractive to potential businesses and residents. Mayor Smith says the city received about $300 million dollars in federal funding and now has brand-new just about everything – public buildings, infrastructure, a fishing pier.
Smith, who became mayor last December, says his goal is to bring Waveland to where it was before Katrina.
“And I don’t mean just in building-wise,” he says. “But just in the attitude that people had. It was a very nice relaxing place to live, and it’s been quite busy since then, but I want it to be like that again.”
Waveland will mark the 10th anniversary of the storm with a “hurricane homecoming” this Saturday from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. at its Ground Zero Museum, also on Coleman Avenue.