Gov't May Buy Thousands of Miss. Homes

The Associated Press
Tuesday, October 9, 2007; 11:45 PM

BAY ST. LOUIS, Miss. -- The federal government is considering buying out as many as 17,000 homes along the Mississippi coast and remaking the land into a vast hurricane-protection zone, raising anxieties that it could destroy the waterfront lives many residents are struggling to rebuild after Katrina.

The Mississippi Coastal Improvement Program could cost $40 billion, including buying the homes, building levees and restoring barrier islands. The land could be converted into wetlands or other public uses, such as golf courses or bike trails, but could not be sold for private development.

For Finley Williford, a 42-year-old boat captain, a buyout offer would have been tempting if it had come shortly after Hurricane Katrina destroyed his Bay St. Louis home on Aug. 29, 2005.

But instead of leaving, he invested countless hours of labor and more than $400,000 in two new houses for his family and his father.

"If they had showed up a day after the storm, I probably would have taken the money. It's kind of after-the-fact now," Williford said.

The buyouts would be voluntary, and the Army Corps plan envisions allowing casinos, hotels and restaurants to continue operating on the coast from Bay St. Louis to Biloxi. But until the proposal becomes more focused, residents are concerned that it could spell the end of their Margaritaville-like communities, where a lifestyle of beaches and boiled shrimp has flourished for decades, and many houses are already built atop stilts.

Williford fears the buyouts could stunt the growth of his nearly deserted neighborhood and harm property values if few other residents return.

"Just the rumor of it is slowing people down," he said, noting a neighbor suspended his rebuilding plan after hearing about the proposal.

Buyouts could be part of a similar plan in Louisiana, but Corps officials could not say how many properties may be involved or where they are.

"Buyouts are a possibility, but it's still just one of several options we're studying for the report," Corps spokeswoman Julie Morgan said.

In Louisiana, the Federal Emergency Management Agency is considering compensating residents who used their own money to elevate their hurricane-damaged homes while $1.1 billion was tied up in a dispute between state and federal agencies.

Otherwise, the tens of thousands of homeowners the state estimates have already begun raising their homes could be left with nothing.

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