Hometown: Pass Christian, Miss.
Pass Christian residents Henry Laird and Gale Singley are sitting on the steps to their empty swimming pool three months after Hurricane Katrina transformed it into a miniature saltwater ecosystem. After the storm, they discovered barnacles growing around the pool's edges, fingerling redfish and sheepshead, jellyfish, and oysters. Today they noticed marine worm egg cases.
This surreal scene is only one of many that greet Pass Christian citizens every day. The coastal community of 6,500 saw 80 percent (some reports say up to 90 percent) of its buildings flattened by Katrina. Laird and Singley were relatively lucky.
"We had 9 feet of water inside, but our home was built six years ago to the latest building codes," says Laird. "So the house is intact, but we had to replace the wiring, plumbing, flooring, drywall. After the salt water destruction, the mold and mildew moved in (we had a month of 90-degree weather after the storm), but we were able to salvage a few things."
Laird and Singley were engaged to be married Oct. 8, surrounded by friends and family in their backyard gardens, but Katrina threw a bit of a wrench into those plans. They still haven't set a new date.
Residents Jim and Gayla Schmitt intended to board up their 150-year-old house and ride out the storm, but Jim, a contractor, was too busy boarding up houses on the beach (they were all destroyed) to tend to his own. They left just before Katrina made landfall and ended up at Gayla's cousin's house in Tallahassee, Fla. When they returned three days later, they discovered their home intact but bearing the scars of 3 feet of water, even though it's 21 feet above sea level.
"We made it through Hurricane Camille, but we weren't so lucky this time," says Gayla. "Everything was coated in 2 inches of black, slimy, smelly mud. Everything outside looked and felt like we were in a movie. It felt like 'War of the Worlds.' We hung hammocks over the mud on the side porch and slept in them for a month and a half before we could move into a FEMA trailer. All day and all night the helicopters went by with searchlights -- not searching for us, but for bodies. They were searching for bodies."
Pass Christian -- "The Pass," as it's called by locals -- was named for the nearby deepwater channel known as Christian's Pass, which was navigated in 1699 by Christian L'Adnier, a member of the crew of the French explorer Pierre Le Moyne d'Iberville. In the early 1800s, The Pass became a resort village, drawing wealthy vacationers from New Orleans with its ocean views, invigorating breezes and balmy weather. Not surprisingly, the earliest yacht clubs in the South were formed here, earning it a name as the birthplace for that sport in the South.
In the 1840s and '50s, then again in the early 1900s, The Pass experienced building booms that saw large, stately homes built along the beachfront. Before the storm, about 100 of those homes were either on the National Register or nominated to be listed.
"The Pass we chose to live in was a wonderful small village with one or two streets of commerce, a couple restaurants, a fine jewelry store, a couple clothing stores, a great hardware store, a vet, a park, a grocery store ... and most of these were within walking distance of our home," says Henry Laird. "As sleepy a village as it's been for the past 150 years, it's a tolerant, racially diverse place. It had excellent schools with no big segregation issues. Our neighbors -- and we -- choose to live here because of the beauty, the get-along attitude."
"Our postman makes a Christmas CD for us every year," says Gale Singley.
Like most of the surrounding communities, Katrina threw Pass Christian into complete disarray. With thousands of his fellow citizens, Mayor Billy McDonald and his wife fled before the storm's rage; then he was prevented from immediately returning by his wife's failing health and his own bout with illness. Most of the town's low-income residents have not yet returned; only a few hundred of the total population has found their way home.
But there are bright points of hope and determination, too. The recovery process is making real progress, says Gayla Schmitt. "We've reached a point where most of the houses are gutted out -- the ones that can be, that is. Most of the debris is getting removed. Most of the chain-sawing is done. FEMA's subcontractors are starting to remove the rubble."
Before the dust settled, Mayor McDonald's chief administrative assistant, Malcolm Jones, stepped up to guide residents through the recovery process. Serving as a point person for FEMA, insurance company representatives, and outside consultants such as the members of the Mississippi Renewal Forum, Jones faced immediate and pressing issues. Utilities needed to be brought back online. Relief workers needed logistical support. Pass Christian's financial reserves were stressed almost immediately.
"We're in such financial straits that we have to try to figure out the best way to replace our tax base and protect the charm of our community," Jones admitted to a USA Today reporter in mid-November.
Add to this a post-disaster breakdown in communication between the town officials and the residents, and you have a theater of conflict that played to full houses here and in many of the neighboring towns.
Amidst the turmoil, though, "Malcolm has been incredibly great at getting the recovery effort under way," says Laura Hall, a principal with California-based Fisher & Hall Urban Design and the design team leader for Pass Christian during the Mississippi Renewal Forum in October.
At the Forum, Pass Christian officials and residents offered guidance to the team members as to how Pass Christian should be rebuilt and renewed. In its summary report, the team listed a series of goals and strategies to reach those goals, based on that feedback.*
The first "necessary tool" was chosen by the people of Pass Christian during an all comers meeting on Dec. 1, 2005; namely, a SmartCode that will allow The Pass to re-build itself in a pattern similar to its original form, while intensifying its most desirable elements such as walkability, mixed-use buildings and civic structures.
"The Vision Committee from Pass Christian has been educating itself on the Smart Code," says Hall. "They made a recommendation to the City Council to move forward with the SmartCode, and the response from the residents was overwhelmingly positive. The [Dec. 1] meeting was standing-room only; more than 350 people showed up. It was a huge showing for Pass Christian -- and it's the smallest town.
"Because of Pass Christian's very small size, almost complete destruction, strong leadership, and general embracing of new urbanist ideas, they are well-poised to be a great Gulf Coast model for regionally appropriate rebuilding and renewal," says Hall. "I told Malcolm Jones, 'Now is the moment. If you pull out your last reserves of energy and get your town coded, then you can move forward.' "
Pass Christian joins the communities of Gautier and Gulfport in its pursuit of a SmartCode. The next step for The Pass is to follow a complete public process, which for residents means the opportunity for additional input as the SmartCode is developed and calibrated for regional and local realities. While FEMA regulations continue to pose a formidable stumbling block to the desired form of the Mississippi Gulf Coast, the residents of Pass Christian remain hopeful they will see the town they love rise again from the rubble.
"The people there are active, they go to all the meetings," says Hall. "The biggest issue is FEMA wanting to elevate their homes 15 to 20 feet. People say the home type they loved to live in is going to be extinct, and they will not sit by. They will not tolerate the extermination of their town form."
First things first, though, says Henry Laird. "It's a question of when the rebuilding will start -- not if. If we can get our tax base on its feet again, get our schools funded, and provide loans for our low-income residents, then we will rebuild; we will rebound.
"I want a restaurant or two to open in The Pass. A store or two. I want to see some ryegrass planted. I want the trees to recover. It doesn't take much incentive for people to say, 'It's happening. Let's get on the ball and rebuild.' But they need a place to walk to."
"In the meantime," says Gale Singley, "I'll chip the oysters off the sides of the pool."
*For a detailed list and explanations of the Pass Christian team's recommended strategic actions, see the Pass Christian community report at www.mississippirenewal.com.