Historic Preservation After the Storm

Biloxi, MS – Behind the wheel of his SUV, Bill Raymond navigates through what's left of Biloxi's historic district, describing entire neighborhoods of old homes that have been reduced to fields of weeds under the city's remaining live oaks. Raymond is the city's Historical Administrator. Not an easy job in a town where he estimates 75% of the land-marked buildings are damaged or gone.

The grandest of Biloxi's historic homes lined its Gulf Coast beachfront. Built at the turn of the century by wealthy inland families in search of the cooling summer breezes, they survived countless hurricanes, until last fall.

Now the beachfront is a wilderness of empty lots; even the debris washed back out in the gulf with the storm. A few homes are being repaired, but others stand untouched in their devastation. Raymond pauses in front of a mansion whose massive front pillars still support an intact second story. Below it, the main part of the house gapes emptily, smashed in by the force of the storm surge.

"When I first saw this house," Raymond says, "all I could think of was a little kid when they lose their front teeth. That's what it looks like, the exterior walls look fine, the top looks fine, and then you look right in the front and it's just empty, it's a hole."

Despite massive efforts by its owner, Raymond explains this house just isn't savable - it's too unsteady to allow workers near enough to shore it up. And indeed, the next day, bulldozers arrive to tear the structure down, as the owner cries, and videotapes, the event from her front yard.

Before Katrina, Biloxi was a city that fought hard for its history, winning numerous state and national awards for preservation efforts. But in the months after the storm, aid was slow to arrive for owners trying to restore damaged historic homes. It was a critical lapse, Raymond says, and one other cities can learn from.

"Find out what resources are available in advance," he warns, "know how to get in touch with those resources, and connect those people to your homeowners, to be able to save these structures. That's why I think we lost more structures than we needed to, because those resources weren't available on time."

But the decision whether to demolish a home isn't just financial, it's also emotional. Many owners feel a need for immediate progress, even if it's just to tear down and start anew. Staff from North Carolina's state Office of Historic Preservation actually went to the Mississippi coast after the storm. Their first role, according to restoration specialist Jeff Adolphsen, was often as therapist.

"A lot of it is just like hand-holding," Adolphsen says, "sometimes people will just break down and you listen to them, and then you've just got to go on from there. Make sure that they don't just start ripping off everything on their roof so that they can get a contractor to come in the very next day."

One Biloxi family who faced that choice was the Swetmans. Katrina's storm surge swept their hundred-year-old beachfront home off its foundations, leaving it crumpled on the sand. Chevis Swetman says he was prepared to just have the house demolished. As the president of a local bank, saving the family business was a bigger priority than saving the family home.

So a week after the storm, Swetman's wife, Marcia, was at the house to salvage the fireplaces and other details, when an architect and a structural engineer from the National Historic Trust literally walked by, and pronounced the house savable... although it took a few more weeks for Marcia to persuade her husband to pay attention to their recommendations.

Swetman continues the story: "so I finally called them up and asked them what they would do, and they said, 'hire a house-mover,' which kind of blew my mind away, that you'd hire a house-mover to save a structure."

It only took a couple more days after that conversation to have giant bladders of compressed air begin the process of painstakingly lifting the house back onto its foundation. Now, a year later, the Swetmans are committed to returning their house to its historic quality.

Marcia Swetman leads the way across the sandy yard behind the house to unlock a long tin storage shed. Inside it, windows, doors, siding, and floor-beams are stacked in a jumble that calls to mind the warehouse at the end of Indiana Jones. Except, Swetman says, they intend to empty this repository out some day.

When it's finished, the house will stand out as a relic, in a neighborhood that's changed forever. The historic district stood on desirable waterfront property, and a lot of owners are looking at putting in high-density condominiums to cover the cost of rebuilding, some that has the Swetmans concerned. At least one of the neighboring lots is likely to go condo, and they can only hope it will stay a small-scale development.

After all of the effort to save their home, Swetman confesses she's frustrated with how quick some owners were to tear down damaged properties.

"I know some people who had houses we thought could be saved," she says. "Whether or not they wanted to live in them on the beach again, it might have been possible at some point to find someone who would want to bite the bullet and restore one of those. I can understand their need to move on to the rest of their life. I'm just disappointed that there wasn't a way for them to hold on to it and sell it to someone who would restore it later on."

Such a timely response, though, takes a lot of pre-storm preparation, something many historic preservationists are only now coming to recognize. George Edwards, head of the Historic Wilmington Foundation, admits he's never done a disaster plan.

The group is just starting work on a response plan, which Edwards hopes to have ready for next year. Until Katrina, he says, historic preservationists didn't think much about the weather, despite the fact that almost every city is vulnerable to some sort of natural disaster "and yet, interestingly, no preservation organization that I've worked for has an emergency plan. I think we've all played it off the cuff. Or we've made do as we've encountered the situation."

For guidance, Edwards has turned to materials prepared by North Carolina's state historic preservation office. And he wants to mobilize local architects and engineers to hit the streets after a disaster, like the team in Biloxi who helped save the Swetman house.

"Sometimes it's so crucial that we be able to raise a contradictory voice," Edwards says. "So often after a storm, there's an immediate response: 'let's knock everything down.' And we can't just do that carte blanche. We need to think about, 'can this building be saved?' 'Would the ownership be willing to save it?'"

Back in Biloxi, that phase of the preservation battle is over. Bill Raymond has saved the houses he could, and let others go. With so many of the old mansions destroyed, he's working to open his city's eyes to its new history. Biloxi, says Raymond, is much more than the historic mansions on the beach.

"You've got the story of the fishermen that came here," he says, "you've got a lot of structures, especially shotgun houses that were built in those days when we were such a big processor of seafood those houses tell a story. You've got the African American community and how that grew up and a lot of those houses still remain and that's a story needs to be told."

It's a lesson in humility Wilmington is hoping it won't ever have to learn.

Megan Williams, WHQR News