Time and Tide: Bright Spots of the Recovery

This post is part of an ongoing series, “Time and Tide: Ten Years after Katrina.” Special thanks to Ken P’Pool, Historic Preservation Division, for writing this post.

Katrina’s destructive path was enormous. So many architectural “jewels” were lost and the homes of so many friends were destroyed that the mammoth task of recovery frequently seemed overwhelming for MDAH staff members and homeowners alike.

One of the true bright spots of the entire recovery effort, however, was the encouraging spirit of so many owners of historic buildings. Most were longtime Gulf Coast residents who loved their communities, their neighborhoods, and their ancestral homes and were determined not to surrender their history to a storm. However the challenges seemed insurmountable. Many homeowners felt that their “backs were to the wall.” Not only were their homes unoccupiable, but many had lost their jobs, and insurance companies were denying their claims. While they desperately wanted to save their historic homes, given the then-current financial uncertainties, they were not in a position to make a final decision. The only certain assistance that was being offered to them at that time was from FEMA— to demolish and remove their damaged buildings, even if the buildings could be repaired. If homeowners missed FEMA’s deadlines for submission of a right-of-entry for debris removal and if their insurance failed to pay, then the costs of clean-up would be on the owners’ shoulders—and that could amount to tens of thousands of dollars. Many people made heart-rending tearful appeals to us for help in securing more time to make a reasoned decision. Fortunately, in many instances, preservationists were able to help them secure that time.

In 2006, Congress appropriated moneys from the Historic Preservation Fund administered by the National Park Service, which permitted the states of Alabama, Louisiana, and Mississippi to establish programs to assist owners of historic buildings damaged by Katrina. The $27.5 million received by MDAH permitted creation of the Mississippi Hurricane Relief Grant Program for Historic Preservation that provided restoration assistance for approximately 300 historic buildings. Ranging from shotgun houses, to craftsman bungalows, to vernacular Creole and Victorian cottages, most of the grant projects were modest owner-occupied houses that constitute the majority of the Gulf Coast’s historic districts. Although not monumental or magnificent in scale, these historic houses speak poignantly to the Gulf Coast’s diverse ethnic and architectural history.

As difficult and trying as the recovery process often was, being able to help families get back into their historic homes and to save a part of their history was most rewarding. Hearing someone say (as they frequently did), “Thanks, we never could have saved our home without this grant assistance,” made all the work worthwhile.