Post-Katrina Preservationists Fight On in Gulfport

Post-Katrina Preservationists Fight On in Gulfport

Almost three years after Hurricane Katrina ripped through the Gulf of Mexico, a determined group of architectural preservationists in Gulfport, Mississippi, is fighting to save Harrison County (Miss.) Public Library’s devastated Gulfport Public Library from the wrecking ball. The activists, who have formed We the People, met April 23 with legal counsel to strategize their next move as an April 29 deadline loomed for receiving bids to demolish the downtown beachfront facility, whose first floor was ruined.

The decision to tear down the 1966 structure, which had served as HCPL’s main library, came as a shock to the community. “We need to keep something of what we were,” area resident Betty Bittner told ABC-TV affiliate WLOX March 1 during a daylong save-the-library petition signing outside the damaged building, noting that the facility has “stood through two hurricanes” (the first being Hurricane Camille in 1967, which hit 13 months after the library opened). However, it was precisely because the library has suffered hurricane damage twice that made FEMA leery of insuring it a third time as a public building.

“At first we were looking at rebuilding everything,” Harrison County Administrator Pam Ulrich admitted in the April 14 Biloxi Sun Herald, explaining that officials were unaware of flood elevation requirements that it would restrict library operations to the second floor. “FEMA said if we moved [the library], they would pay up to $6 million for land and other costs associated with relocating. That’s when it began to make sense to move,” former Harrison County board member Larry Benefield explained.

The application approved by FEMA calls for construction of a new main library in nearby Orange Grove and a new downtown branch to be built further inland. Because federal regulations stipulate that the same entity own both a building and the land it occupies to qualify for FEMA aid, the Gulfport City Council ceded the municipality’s ownership of the beachfront library to Harrison County in December, adding its own condition: that the county tear down the beachfront library building. “The [library] board’s position is that we don’t want to put the headquarters there,” HCPL Director Robert Lipscomb told the Sun Herald, adding, “We want to move ahead, and we want to improve our library services.”

The city council refused activists’ request April 22 to ask the county to delay the demolishment. “I feel I did vote in haste [in December],” Gulfport Councilwoman Barbara Nalley conceded after asserting that she “will not sacrifice the library in Orange Grove to save this building.” Because FEMA has already okayed the relocation plan, it will not also fund a restoration of the original facility, agency representative Sue Ann London told the council, the Sun Herald reported April 23.

However, We the People attorney Henry Laird remains unconvinced, and is asking county officials to delay awarding bids before clarifying all the options for receiving FEMA funds. “Since we don’t have an answer in writing, why demolish the building until we do?” he said in the April 24 Sun Herald.

Posted on April 25, 2008. Discuss.