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Remaking the Gulf Coast

But there was a moment when the whole thing—the optimism, the energy, the can-do spirit—threatened to implode. At 2 a.m. on day four, FEMA delivered a new set of flood-zone maps, documents that would likely dictate what could be built and, more to the point, what could be insured. By 11 a.m., everyone knew that the news wasn't good. Duany called the team leaders together for a tense meeting.

"I think the problem is totally recalibrating the aesthetic," Duany said to his generals, "not taking antebellum houses and cranking them up. The aesthetic has more to do with lighthouses. It will be like Tahiti. Totally cool."

But Stefanos Polyzoides, a Pasadena-based planner whose team was struggling with Biloxi's determination to build the maximum number of casinos, realized that if FEMA is, in effect, declaring large areas to be uninhabitable, or very expensive to inhabit, many residents, especially the poorest ones, are going to be forced out. "There is in this a political decision which is incendiary," he argued. "This is not a technical argument. This is a political argument." And the problem was that for all the talent in the big ballroom, no one there could design a solution that would avoid the coming conflict between public good and private development, between the interests of rich and poor.

The charette did generate an encyclopedic collection of well-thought-out, beautifully rendered plans. Polyzoides and the Biloxi team came up with drawings of sophisticated, pedestrian-friendly casinos that would line the street with shops instead of parking lots. An architect named John Anderson from Bay St. Louis drew a clever solution for the worst of the flood zones, a waterfront district with an open-air marketplace at street level—with stalls that could be emptied in advance of a storm—and housing units high above. Bill Dennis's team tried to tackle economic hardship by designing new beachfront antebellum-style mansions with rental properties out back, a strategy to offset the costs of rebuilding and better enable local home owners to hang on to their property.

But how will any of it happen?Who will pay for it?At the charette, Governor Barbour had declared that "the private sector is going to be more decisive on how the coast comes back than the public sector." But by the time he delivered his state-of-the-state address in January, he was boasting of a $10 billion allocation from the federal government, including $4 billion earmarked as grant money for underinsured homeowners whose houses were destroyed by the storm surge. Around the same time, former Netscape CEO Jim Barksdale, a native Mississippian who serves as chairman of the Governor's Commission on Recovery, Rebuilding and Renewal and who personally put up half of the $2 million budget for the charette, issued a report that was a call to arms for local leaders to "own the challenge of shaping a landscape and a legacy."

Certainly that's what Ocean Springs mayor Connie Moran is doing, owning the challenge. She's been trying hard to implement the New Urbanists' dreamy vision, but has wound up butting heads with the Mississippi Department of Transportation, which insists on rebuilding the highway bridge across the bay to Biloxi with extra lanes, in essence routing an interstate-sized highway right through the heart of her town.

Other communities are not quite ready for legacy shaping. In Bay St. Louis, "We're still dealing with the day-to-day stuff. We don't have all the utilities. We have a single open grocery store in the entire county," Allison Anderson, a local architect who participated in the charette, told me. Indeed, during the time I spent in Bay St. Louis, I drove for miles looking for something to eat and wound up lunching on a gas-station microwave sandwich. But that night I ate dinner at a barbecue put on by the local chamber of commerce and was deeply grateful for the saucy beef, the coleslaw, and the beer. Also, I was amazed by the cheerfulness of the townspeople, even as they told me stories of how they'd lost everything. When it comes to the part about resilience, I thought, the governor is right on the money. I bet that on my next visit to Bay St. Louis, I'll be able to eat at Trapani's.

Karrie Jacobs is a frequent T+L contributor.

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