What does it take to rebuild a city?

Here is a wide-ranging response Mayor A.J. Holloway gave reporter Jerry Mitchell of the Clarion-Ledger newspaper in response to the question “What does it take to rebuild a city?” The exchange occurred on Sept. 17, 2005, about three weeks after Katrina struck.

This storm has been totally devastating for Biloxi and the Mississippi Gulf Coast. Rebuilding the city will be a long-term process. The first task, which began even before the winds had subsided, was to rescue people trapped in east Biloxi. At the same time, our public works crews and our stand-by contractor were out clearing major roadways to allow emergency vehicles to respond to calls. We had more than 200 emergency calls stacked up at the end of the storm, so we had quite a task at the outset. I’m very proud of the work of our police and fire departments and our Public Works crews. These folks have been out there since before the storm working long days, and in many cases neglecting their personal losses.

Some questions have been raised about the timeliness of the federal response. We’ve always known that we’re going to have to be self-sustaining in the immediate aftermath of a storm, but some of our residents have questioned just how long that period was supposed to be. I agree with the President. The response could have been quicker, but it’s pouring in now, in terms of vital supplies. Our goal in the initial recovery was to make sure we didn’t have two disasters — one being the storm itself, followed by the recovery effort turning into a disaster. It’s been difficult to organize because the amount of relief — food, water, ice, clothing, etc. — poured in, in many cases without advance warning, because people were seeing the news reports.

That was our first concern — taking care of people and making sure they had the sustenance they needed — water, ice and food.

In the past several days, we’ve worked to restore water services, wastewater treatment and we’ve continued to remove debris. At the end of the day yesterday, more than 140,000 cubic yards of debris had been hauled. We have three contractors and more than 300 trucks hauling  debris from all parts of the city, and I’ve told them I’d like to see this task completed in 45 days. We expect the debris removal to cost in the neighborhood of $50 million.

Our priority now is to get people in temporary housing. FEMA is providing campers and we’ll look to have mobile homes in place or perhaps even a tent city or two to sustain us short term.

It’s vital that we get temporary housing in place for people. We lost more than 5,000 of the 25,000 structures we had in Biloxi, and that’s only our initial assessment. Some, I believe, will not be able to re-build in the areas where they had lived, particularly in some areas of Point Cadet. Another particularly hard hit area was Eagle Point, which is north of the Bay of Biloxi. You can see the devastation on a map on our web site. The areas of Point Cadet are totally red, which means they were destroyed or are inhabitable.

I’ve been encouraged by what I’ve heard personally and publicly from President Bush. I met with a bi-partisan group of senators Friday — Bill Frist, Ted Kennedy, Joe Lieberman, John Warner and our own Thad Cochran, to name a few — and I was encouraged by what they said to.

In the very near future, I plan on following up on the promises of federal aid. The biggest challenges are going to be to rebuild our water system, our wastewater infrastructure, two of the three bridges that lead into our city, and the major roadways. We have to provide the basic infrastructure that will allow our economy to start rebuilding, which will lead to jobs for people, so they can begin to get their lives back in shape. I dare not use the phrase "back to normal" at this point, but we’re getting their day by day.

I’m very proud of the way our residents have conducted themselves in this crisis. Many of us have been through hurricanes before, but nothing like this. The people of Biloxi and the Mississippi Gulf Coast are resilient and they’ve demonstrated that time and again.

We find ourselves at the most pivotal point in the 300-year history of our city, and we owe it to our ancestors who survived so many storms to do it right and rebuild this city in a fashion that will make the entire state and the entire country proud.

I realize that many parts of the state have suffered from this storm, and they have my sympathy, but I also think that the devastation to our way of life here in Biloxi has clearly shown the significant impact that we have on the state economy. We want to return to that point, but it’s going to require some important decisions that will have long-term impacts.

The state, for instance, is going to have to discuss where we go from here on the casinos. Do we want such an important economic engine directly in harm’s way? Do we want to have them in the water, on the water, or, perhaps near the water? I believe some are going to say let’s put them onland, but on their existing properties. Some may say let’s let them operate temporarily in their hotels, which can be up and running in a matter of months.

This is not just about tax revenue for the state or local governments. This is about 15,000 jobs, and an industry that is the lifeblood of our local economy.

I’m also planning to meet shortly with the Biloxi City Council to propose that we begin looking at long-term zoning and land-use options for our city. I anticipate the federal government is going to have some new regulations on what people can build and where they can build it. We’ve always followed the building codes, and we’ve closely regulated any construction on or near flood zones. This storm, of course, flooded areas that had never seen water before, which leads me to believe that the recognized flood zone may expand.

I believe that we should engage a broad-based, blue-ribbon panel of residents, engineers, architects and business leaders to help draft options for the re-birth of our city.

This is a great opportunity for us to resolve a number of issues we wrestled with before the storm. Traffic is the biggest one. I hope that we can use this opportunity move the CSX railway from the most densely populated area of the city — directly through the heart of the peninsula — to north of Interstate 10. The time is right, particularly since the rail bridges in Bay St. Louis and Biloxi are heavily damaged.

We can use that railway through the peninsula as a roadbed for a major east-west corridor, which we could call U.S. 90, and allow the current U.S. 90 to be a scenic roadway. The fact is, we were trying to use it as a major throughfare in the past, and it’s just not able to handle such a large volume of traffic — without encroaching on the beach or cutting down oak trees, which are two things I definitely don’t want to do.

The other issue we can resolve is having sufficient high-rise bridges into Biloxi. The bridge between Biloxi and Ocean Springs is in shambles right now, and a six-lane high-rise is in the works. We need the same sort of attention to west Biloxi, where our two-lane, low-lying Popp’s Ferry bridge is heavily damaged. We need to seize these opportunities.

The issues of where people can build and not build is certainly going to be controversial, but I’m going to do what I’ve done the last 13 years I’ve served as mayor: To do what is right for the entire city, and to realize that the decisions I make have a profound impact on people’s lives. The decisions these days, of course, are going to have long-term impacts.

These things I’m talking about are going to costs hundreds of millions — if not billions — of dollars, but I’m encouraged by the things I’ve heard from the governor, the president and key members of the senate. We can do it, and we can do it right, but we’re going to need help before we can return to being a significant part of the state economy.

Meantime, we’re working hard to helping people rebuild their lives on a day-to-day basis. We’re on the verge of tacking the bigger picture, and I believe that we’ll be able to count on the support we’ve been promised.