MSU wrote us up on their website. Props.
STARKVILLE, Miss.--Nearly two-and-a-half years after Hurricane Katrina ravaged the Mississippi Gulf Coast and New Orleans, the scars of the Category 3 storm still are etched deep in the landscape along U.S. Highway 90.
Mere blocks from the major east-west highway where Federal Emergency Management Agency trailers and makeshift dwellings have replaced multimillion dollar homes, Division Street traverses the heart of the city of Biloxi. Separated from the hotels and casinos, the once bustling neighborhoods along its way are marked mostly by vacant lots. Prior lives are evidenced by countless empty slabs of washed-away homes, many of which were owned by the elderly or those of modest means.
Quietly and with little fanfare, the staff of Mississippi State's Gulf Coast Community Design Studio is helping renovate or rebuild more than 50 homes for residents, most of whom lost everything in the hurricane and ensuing flood. The community outreach branch of the university's School of Architecture has been in operation since shortly after 2005's record-setting August storm.
The studio works in cooperation with the East Biloxi Coordination, Relief and Redevelopment Agency, a community-led effort usually referred to as the Hope Coordination Center. Located on Division Street, it provides residents with a one-stop resource for recovery.
MSU studio director David Perkes was operating the School of Architecture's Jackson design center when Katrina hit. "When the hurricane came ashore, it only made sense that the community design program should relocate to the coast," the associate professor recalled. "We basically closed shop in Jackson and came down with a small staff to get things running."
Perkes said the team "hit the ground running and hasn't looked back." Funded largely by a U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development grant, the Harrison County studio involves a staff of 10, including students from MSU and other universities who spend a semester earning both academic credit and considerable hands-on experience in design and construction.
Residents seeking to rebuild or renovate damaged homes meet with Hope Center representatives to begin the process and arrange financing. Once financial issues are settled, they shift to the design studio, which provides design plans necessary to begin the construction phase.
Perkes said close cooperation between the independent entities working toward a common goal has made a success of all their efforts. Add to this the reality that a majority of the actual construction must be completed by both short- and long-term volunteer organizations.
He also observed that the design studio's hurried location in 2005 at the Hope Center has proven, ultimately, to be of tremendous benefit for all concerned.
"We wanted to be right in the middle of things, where the work was," Perkes said. "Being right in the middle of things has allowed us to become a familiar part of the community, letting residents get to know us personally and not see us as outsiders."
Participating students also agree that the setup works both ways for them. During semester-long tours of duty, they will spend nearly as much time driving nails and running saws in the neighborhoods as they do behind computer screens at the studio.
"The personal aspect of knowing homeowners by name makes our contributions here much more meaningful," said junior architecture major Emily Parsons of Starkville. "When we are working, it isn't (class) project number such-and-such. It's Patty's house.
"The big thing for me is to be able to do something for someone else," she added. "This is about the people I am going to be able to help and lives I am going to be able to change. It's very important to me to be able to give residents a home, not just a building or a roof over their heads, but a home."
Though initial HUD funding is nearing the end, the design studio's mission is far from over, Perkes said. In fact, he added, work is picking up speed as new projects are added daily.
New funding sources are being explored and soon will be in place to ensure the studio's future, Perkes said. As evidence of expansion, he mentioned a satellite design studio that recently was opened in Bay St. Louis, seat of neighboring Hancock County.