Catering to rebuilding


BILOXI, Miss. -- It is a sort of post-Katrina state fair. A trade show custom-tailored for a ruined land. A convergence of building and zoning experts, readily accessible bureaucrats, and salesmen who have just the extra-thick siding you've been looking for - the kind with the patented Twister Lock and Cyclonic Locking System that withstands winds up to 187 mph!

Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour is billing it as the first "Recovery Expo," a free event that opened Friday at the Mississippi Coast Coliseum and runs through the weekend. Organizers are hoping the state's hurricane victims will leave here with their legal questions answered, a prefab home picked out, and new energy that will help the long-suffering coast bloom with building projects as the first anniversary of the storm approaches Aug. 29.

Mississippi's rebuilding effort has been heartening and frustrating. Thousands of Gulf Coast residents are still in mobile homes, and many waterfront communities are strewn with ghostly husks of businesses and homes.

But Gavin Smith, the state recovery director, says momentum is starting to build: Residents are receiving their insurance payouts, and small business loans are sprucing up commercial properties. Last month, the state began distributing a portion of $5 billion in federal rebuilding aid to 17,000 homeowners..

"We think we're right at the cusp of the point where people will start building in earnest," Smith said.

Some of the most ardent believers in that forecast were the dozens of building industry representatives who dominated the Expo. If the style of their message owed a debt to Dale Carnegie, the substance took a cue from the little pig who built with bricks. Their names alone set the theme: Kodiak Steel Homes, Safeway Homes, House Raising of the Gulf Coast LLC, FloodBarrier Inc.

A company called Oceansafe Housing hawked a hurricane-proof home with walls made from a kind of steel and polystyrene sandwich. Employee Susanne Bohr said the idea has been a success in the Caribbean.

A salesman named Steve Bishop offered an array of hurricane-proof doors and windows. He was hoping to hook up with some big condominium developers. He had some advice for them, too: Build the high-rises with multilevel car garages on the first few floors.

"Then you're going to lose cars, not people," he said.

One booth promoted the "DuPont Storm Room," with a model on display. It seemed normal enough, about the size of a guest bathroom. But the accompanying text noted that it was reinforced with Kevlar: "the same life-saving fiber used in bullet-resistant vests."

Aaron Steele was fielding questions at the Internal Revenue Service booth a few feet from the storm room. Steele is based in New Orleans. He lost his house in the Gentilly neighborhood and is busy rebuilding. A Kevlar room wasn't part of his plans.

"Since I didn't stay for this one and won't be staying for any future ones, I don't know if I have a need for that," he said. "My thing is 'Get outta Dodge.'"

Neil Smith, the DuPont distributor, said the storm room doesn't make much sense directly in the flood zone but could be helpful a couple of miles from the beach, where the greatest danger from a hurricane is wind damage rather than water.

A number of exhibitors promoted their prefabricated houses, which these days go by the name "modular" housing, to sidestep trailer-park stigmas. Across the Gulf Coast region, officials are hoping that architecturally spiffed-up versions of this old, affordable idea will help bring long-term housing to the region, and fast.

Barbour, who kicked off the event Friday morning, said that with chronic labor shortages, the region has to rely on homes that are at least partially assembled in a factory.

"We have to replace 70,000 units of housing," Barbour said, referring to the number of homes destroyed or rendered uninhabitable by the storm. "We've never built more than 2,800 units of housing on the Mississippi Gulf Coast in one year."

A number of modular homes were on display in the arena's heat-baked parking lot. Many of them made concessions to the vernacular architecture of the region, with wide porches, touches of gingerbread, an attempt to simulate the look of wood.

The expo was also host to a number of government agencies to answer questions about job training programs, evacuation routes and new height requirements for houses. A Federal Emergency Management Agency booth displayed a "Home Builder's Guide to Coastal Construction."

Richard Fausset writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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