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Along the Gulf Coast, they speak of this need to wipe the slate clean, to rebuild in ways grand beyond possibility. But Ken P’Pool had this other thought: Why not just leave it all where it once stood? This is the team he hired to do just that.

story by Dan Oshinsky / photos by Dan Oshinsky
published August 31, 2010

Ken P’Pool didn’t know how much damage there was, so he and his staff started loading up their cars and driving down to the coast, four hours down from Jackson and four hours back, until life felt like road tripping down a Möbius strip. P’Pool had watched as the roof of the Old Capitol in Jackson had peeled back during Katrina, the Old Capitol having been built back during the Van Buren administration. We’ll need some money for that too, P’Pool thought.

Then P’Pool and his staff went south, in search of others. P’Pool knew what anyone who’d lived through a hurricane knew: after the storm, in the days between reconstruction and re-election, government officials tend to make promises. They speak of this need to wipe the slate clean, to rebuild in ways grand beyond possibility.

But P’Pool had this other thought: Why not just leave it all where it once stood?

P’Pool is the deputy state historic preservation officer for the Mississippi Department of Archives and History (MDAH), which is a long way of saying that he’s a state-authorized defender of the past. When he looked at the first NOAA satellite pictures of the coast after the storm, he told his staff that Katrina wasn’t just the worst natural disaster in history.

“We felt it was also the largest cultural disaster that had ever struck our coast,” he says.

So for some time after that, P’Pool’s life had order: wake up in Jackson, drive four hours to the coast, survey destroyed property of a historic nature, drive home, sleep, repeat, all day, every day, with the hopes of locating homes and buildings that were either listed or eligible for the National Register for Historic Places. Many buildings that were built more than 50 years ago qualify for the designation, and P’Pool wanted to save as many historic properties as he could.

P’Pool knew that there would be money available for his cause. He didn’t know how much, but he knew that there would be some, and when the bureaucrats came with their red pens, he wanted to be able to show them his inventory.

When they came, P’Pool had his numbers. In a conversation with Thad Cochran, one of the state’s Senators, he delivered the estimate: $60 million. He’d need that much to fix all of the historic homes on the Mississippi coast. Never mind that the United States Congress had never before pledged taxpayer dollars to specifically repair historic homes damaged during a natural disaster — what’s $60 million to a Congress that hands out more giant checks than Ed McMahon? P’Pool’s colleagues in the Historic Preservation Offices of Alabama and Louisiana gave their estimates to their representatives in Washington as well.

The representatives returned from Congress with this: the Emergency Supplemental Appropriations Act for Defense, the Global War on Terror, and Hurricane Recovery, signed into law on June 15, 2006. It included $6.6 billion for the Army and $1.3 billion for the Navy. And under Chapter 5, it featured an unprecedented financial package: $40 million for Alabama, Louisiana and Mississippi to allow the Historic Preservation Offices of each state to repair damaged homes along the coast. P’Pool’s office received $26.5 million from the taxpayers.

Now P’Pool just needed a staff willing to live inside a disaster zone, deal with unspeakable levels of stress and distribute $26.5 million of funds to fix $60 million worth of damages.

So he hired these guys.

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A Biloxi home being rebuilt with MDAH money

(Above) An MDAH-repaired home on Biloxi’s Beach Boulevard. (At top) MDAH’s entire Gulf Coast office staff (from left to right): Ron Miller, Leesa Harris, Trevor Brown, Christina James and Jeff Rosenberg.

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Trevor Brown was in Savannah, Ga., when Katrina hit. Ron Miller was in Nachez, Miss. Christina James was in Charleston, S.C. Jeff Rosenberg was in Bristol, R.I. Lessa Harris was in Huntsville, Ala. None were from Mississippi.

And this wasn’t one of those jobs that just pops up on Monster.com, and even if it had been, the job description [1] would have scared any of them away. But out of lives elsewhere, they came to Biloxi, some starting in October 2006 [2], the job passed along to them by word-of-mouth. They spent their first weeks on the coast with their lives still packed into the trunks of the car, just in case they decided that they couldn’t live in a disaster zone a day longer. Many others came to work in MDAH’s Gulf Coast office, a division of the Division of Historic Preservation; many didn’t last the first month.

When the Gulf Coast office opened, some of the casinos were back, but the rest of Biloxi wasn’t. There were no grocery stores, no gas stations. There wasn’t even a definite plan for how to get the $26.5 million into the hands of homeowners.

“We had a lot of hiccups trying to get this program going, figuring out how to get the money out to people,” admits Harris, the office’s associate director.

But James — one of three preservation specialists on site, along with Brown and Rosenberg — says that after spending time on the coast, she just couldn’t justify leaving, despite the non-stop hours and the stress.

“Once we’d gone and met these people, and seen what they’re struggling with, and heard their stories, and seen what their damage is, and feel like we can help, it’s hard to walk away from that,” she says.

The office started to find its legs after a few months. The first of four rounds of grants were given out at the end of 2006, after several hundred applicants submitted paperwork and photos. The team of preservation specialists sorted through the applications, looking for homes that were eligible, and many on the coast were not. To be eligible for a grant from MDAH, a home had to have at least three of four walls still standing after the storm. It had to meet the National Register of Historic Place’s requirements, so it needed to be either old enough or built within a historic district. Most importantly, damage to the home needed to be proven, ideally through photographs, though there’s space on the application for damages to “be clearly and convincingly argued.”

So Brown, James and Rosenberg took on the near-hourly task of explaining and re-explaining what they could and could not do with grant money. [3]

“A lot of people had a hard time trying to grasp what our program actually does,” Brown says. “We’re not coming in just to fix your house or give you money, like these other programs…. We’re trying to keep these houses as historic as possible.”

After the hurricane of 1947 and Hurricane Camille, there was never a push to preserve historic property on the coast, says Murella Herbert Powell, Biloxi’s historian emeritus. But in these five years after Katrina, Powell says the community is finally starting to understand that the buildings are an essential part of the coast’s past.

“I think there’s more awareness now,” she says, “that we’ve got to protect what we’ve got.”

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MDAH money is working to rebuild this home in Bay St. Louis

An MDAH project in construction in downtown Bay St. Louis.

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Officially, under an MDAH grant, eligible homeowners would be fixing their own homes, but the staff explained that this wasn’t just a matter of a bureaucrat cutting a blank check. There would be proposals, follow-ups and consequences — money could and would be revoked if plans weren’t followed. Along streets with no street signs and uncleared debris, Brown, James and Rosenberg took 10 to 15 site visits per day, deciding for themselves whether or not a home was eligible. Some property owners on the coast returned home to find a note on their door: Your house might be eligible for an MDAH grant. Call us.

Many did. In all, the office received upwards of 1,000 applications from homeowners all across the coast, but Brown, James and Rosenberg say they visited thousands of other homes that weren’t eligible for MDAH grants. Word that the federal government had made additional funds available didn’t stay secret for long.

“We have people call every day looking for money, five years later,” Harris says. Miller, the office’s director, remembers the phone calls from homeowners who’d just been awarded grants. Rarely, he says, did they ask when their project could start. Most just wanted to know when it would be finished.

Ellis Anderson wasn’t among those surprised to learn that she was living in a historic home. When she first moved to Bay St. Louis, the western Mississippi city that later saw some of the worst waves and winds of Katrina, she opened an art gallery inside a 150-year-old home that locals call the Monkey House. [4] Later, she bought the Webb School, a 97-year-old property that had once been used to teach elementary school students. After buying the school, Anderson learned that it was one of Hancock County’s only state-designated landmarks, so she got in touch with MDAH — all years before Katrina hit — to solicit advice during her renovation of the school. She says she considers herself a steward of the Webb School, maintaining it for future generations.

When Katrina hit, Anderson again turned to MDAH — but this time for a grant to repair the property. She built a new kitchen made entirely with cabinets that had been blown into the debris on Bay St. Louis’ streets, and when the builders arrived to help her fix the Webb School, she had just one thought:

“Tell me what it would take for this place to take two Katrinas per year.”

Anderson’s home isn’t the only notable property to utilize an MDAH grant. On the Biloxi beachfront, Beauvoir — the retirement home of former Confederate President Jefferson Davis — sustained significant damages during the storm. For the 150-year-old home, MDAH awarded $1.04 million, which helped restore the interior design of the buildings and maintain some of the property’s original oak trees. MDAH gave $270,000 to restore Gulfport’s Historic Carnegie Library, built in 1916, as well $250,000 to help rebuild their City Hall.

When the project started, Ken P’Pool received a historic-home-related email every two minutes every hour of every day for an entire year.

Only recently has the team at the Gulf Coast office begun looking back on their body of work and realizing the full scope of what they’ve done. In four years, contracts on 263 historic buildings were awarded. 209 have been built in full; 45 more are under construction. In all, they’ve awarded $24.7 million to property owners on the coast.

“Looking at our projects, what we’ve done and what we have left to do, I think getting to this point is a relief…,” James say. “What we’ve accomplished makes what we have left to do not as overwhelming.”

They couldn’t always say the same. Every employee at the office has a dozen stories from their time on the coast, each more outrageous than the last. They speak of the grant recipients who died hours after getting the final checks to pay off his/her construction costs, the projects that outlasted the marriages of the families living inside the home, the death threats that arrived when a homeowner’s grant proposal was rejected. They remember families who bought historic-looking items at Home Depot and tried to pass their property off as authentic. They remember all the hours they spent as amateur psychologists, offering a shoulder to cry on when homeowners just broke down on their front porches.

They remember that, as Rosenberg says, “If we’re not here, things aren’t going to happen.”

They all wish they could have done more. Back at the Jackson office, P’Pool regrets that so many homeowners accepted FEMA’s offer to demolish a damaged property free of charge.

“If we could have had funding sooner,” he says, “we could have saved more.”

MDAH’s money will run out in 2011. Four of the office’s remaining staffers originally signed on to work two years at MDAH; some are now entering their fourth year of service to the state.

“This office, we’ve been like a family,” Harris says. “We’ve been through a lot together.”

Once history gets rebuilt, maybe their own futures can begin again. Brown, James and Miller plan on leaving town when the Gulf Coast office closes. But both Harris and Rosenberg say they will stay on the coast they helped put back together.

“It feels like home,” Rosenberg says. “It is home.” ❑