Almost three years after Hurricane Katrina pushed a 30-foot-high surge of water through East Biloxi, Mississippi, tall weeds grow along streets once lined with houses. Biloxi’s casinos have been reconstructed, larger than their former selves. Many residents have returned to neighborhoods that missed the worst of the flooding. But those weeds rise in the easternmost part of the city, on a low-lying peninsula where almost half the houses were destroyed. It was a neighborhood of modest cottages and bungalows, with longtime residents who lived in the same houses for decades shopping and attending church alongside newer residents, primarily Vietnamese, who had revitalized the city’s fishing fleet. Many lost everything.
Rebuilding after the disaster has been slow here, but no community has handled the recovery of worst-hit neighborhoods better. Its success has been due to a unique partnership between the Gulf Coast Community Design Studio (GCCDS) and the East Biloxi Coordination Center.
Since London’s Great Fire in 1666 architects have seen disasters as opportunities to cast off the mistakes of the past and build bigger and better. The GCCDS, which has taken on most of the architectural-design duties of the partnership, views its mission as considerably more modest. “We work like a design practice,” says David Perkes, who heads the studio. Yet he rejects the big-picture role designers often choose. “You can’t have any impact without partnering with people already there.” The key question, Perkes underlines, is not what needs to be designed, but “How can we help?”
Perkes is an associate professor of architecture at Mississippi State University’s College of Architecture, Art + Design, based in Starkville. He had been helping low-income communities for seven years already, running the Jackson Community Design Studio. But as the enormous scope of Katrina’s devastation became clear, Perkes and his dean at Mississippi State decided to move the studio to the coast within weeks of Katrina’s landfall.
As the Biloxi move was being planned, local city councilman Bill Stallworth and Sherry-Lea Bloodworth—whom Architecture for Humanity (AFH) hired as its Gulf Coast coordinator—set up the East Biloxi Coordination Center in a flooded African Methodist Episcopal church to synchronize the work of dozens of relief organizations. “I met Bill Stallworth early on,” Perkes explains, “and he saw the benefit of having the architecture school involved. For us, it proved a really important decision.” The center not only coordinated the work of dozens of volunteer organizations, but it also surveyed the conditions of homes and helped local residents with cleanup. Since then, it has assigned case managers to help with paperwork for insurance and government grants, and assisted people in scoping out needed repair work and working with contractors. Nowhere else in the post-Katrina landscape do you encounter any government or nonprofit agency offering such systematic and comprehensive aid of the kind residents—especially those of limited means and education—have needed most.
At the start, the work ranged from “GIS mapping to crawling under a house,” Perkes says. The tasks were unglamorous but key: “If you help a community group make, say, a map, they see that architects have design skills. It introduces to people the possibility of improving their own environment.” As they faced utter devastation, many didn’t know they could do better than buy plans from hardware stores or use drawings that church groups had downloaded from the Internet. “It opened opportunities to do things people hadn’t thought about before,” Perkes says.
Only when homeowners’ needs are understood and financing is in place (cobbled together from savings, insurance, and grant programs from state, federal, and private sources) do center case managers refer them to the GCCDS for architectural services. Perkes says he typically has about $70,000 to build a house from the ground up, which means that the house must be small and exceedingly simple to erect, since volunteer labor is essential to stretch such limited funds.
Most of the new home designs subtly upgrade the hip-roofed cottages and small bungalows commonly found in the area. An attractive wheelchair ramp wraps some houses such as Edward Parker’s (opposite), since as many as a third of the residents, many retired, need mobility aid. In other houses, a few carpentry flourishes dress up a screened porch. Studio designers often push ceilings to the underside of rafters and add clerestory windows to aid ventilation and brighten the interiors.