EDITORIALS : FEMA still doesn't get it
Katrina Cottages
Akansas Democrat Gazette, Feb. 25, 2006

PASS CHRISTIAN, Miss.

MARIANNE CUSATO stands about 5-foot-nothin' with a headful of shoulder-length black curls that won't stay in place when she talks. She has the nervous energy symptomatic of youth, raw talent, and unleashed want-to. Miss Marianne claims to be 31, but she'd be hard-pressed to buy liquor without an ID.

A Manhattan-based architect from Anchorage, Alaska, by way of South Bend (Go Irish!), Ms. Cusato talks so fast a Southerner needs subtitles.

Say again? Pardon?

She's kind enough to repeat herself. Repeatedly. In fact, she just did, telling us once more that we can't call her an architect yet; officially, she's a designer. Okay. Yes ma'am.

She's also got visual aids. That helps.

She's holding up designs for something she calls the Katrina Cottage. Cute as the dickens. All beachy angles, peaks and front porches. Looks like something out of Adorable Coastal Living for the Incredibly Wealthy magazine.

It's not. What the Katrina Cottage is, is an alternative to the FEMA trailer. No joke. And get this: It costs less. Where the woefully
inadequate, tiny, yack-ugly, hospital-white trailer preferred by the Federal Emergency Mismanagement Agency runs us taxpayers about $75,000 per, Ms. Cusato thinks her cottage could be manufactured for about 45 grand. Or less.

Plus, you can add on to it. So it's a temporary solution with a lease for permanence.

Plus, it looks good. And it goes with the territory. You wanna beach-side community to look like a beach-side community ? Then you want architecture like the Katrina Cottage. (See for yourself: Go to CusatoCottages.com.)

Plus, it's made, according to Ms. Cusato, to higher specifications than most regular houses.

Sold!

"It's a long-term solution and creates assets," Ms. Cusato says, addressing a swarm of editorial writers touring the coast, or what's left of it. "Remember, people are still living in trailers from Hurricane Andrew. They call it temporary housing, but it's not."

Naturally, FEMA isn't interested. "I'd love to get FEMA signed up," says Designer Cusato. "But they won't budge."

Of course not. Why would FEMA want to invest (less) money in something folks actually wouldn't be embarrassed to live in for the long term, when it's got 11,000 perfectly hideous mobile homes rotting away in Hope, Arkansas? (Oh, and just in case anybody thinks Katrina's orphans have all the trailers they need, consider what the mayor of New Orleans told us. He said there are
about 4,000 FEMA trailers in the Big Uneasy. He knows of at least 45,000
requests for them.)

Clearly, this Marianne Cusato doesn't understand how government works.

And thank goodness for that! It's the Marianne Cusatos who may just save the devastated day. You'll find 'em all up and down the Gulf Coast. Where we see destruction, they see opportunity. Where we see mile after sad mile of what was, they see what could be. Where we see history reduced to debris, they see a blank slate. (If that last line sounds cold, it is. It has to be. Like it or not, the Mississippi Gulf Coast is starting over. There's nothing left, folks.)

Miss Marianne isn't alone. Lots of folks here are thinking from scratch. Like Will Longwitz, a former Washington lawyer turned all-around hand for Governor Haley Barbour's rebuilding commission. Or the mayor of Gulfport, Brent Warr, who took office weeks before the storm-so he's still inexperienced enough to believe he can get things done. Or the publisher of the Biloxi Sun-Herald, Ricky Matthews, whose newspaper became a lifeline to thousands-and still is. Maybe the most striking difference between post-storm Mississippi and post-storm New Orleans is these folks. It's as if the hurricane moved through and left a bunch of cando kids. Like shining shells washed up on the beach.

We met Ms. Cusato among the ruins. She was standing outside a windowless shell of a building made from concrete blocks painted Pepsodent white. Which only made it more depressing.

This is now the nicest building in town. It's also about the only building in town. Post-Katrina, the windowless white shell serves as community center, gathering spot and all-around hang-out.

This afternoon, the folks of Pass Christian are participating in something called a charette, which isn't as hoity-toity, designer-snooty exclusive as it sounds. Basically, it's a town-hall meeting where the folks who live and work in Pass Christian-or lived and worked here-talk about what they want their new town to be. And some folks with experience in architecture, design and city planning take notes and offer suggestions. Charettes have been held all up and down the Mississippi Gulf Coast, and at least one result is a big, thick, pretty-looking Pattern Book For Gulf Coast Neighborhoods.

It's a start, a blueprint. It's a plan. You know, what New Orleans and Louisiana don't have.

According to one of the town's leaders, Dave Dennis, 80 percent of Pass Christian is gone-though he guesses 85 percent of the population didn't leave. And the city lost 99.9 percent of its commerce. Only one business survived Madame Katrina: a pre-stress concrete company. Now it's in the any-kinda-concrete-ya-need business.

One grocery store services a 47-mile radius.

When the nothin' -much white, concrete building isn't the Town Center, the park is.

That's desolation. It's also an emptiness for dreams to fill.

So what's a nice Manhattanite like Marianne Cusato doing in a former place like this? Changing the world, of course. She's human, isn't she?

She shows us another drawing. Man, that thing's kinda small. Turns out it's shoe-box small, a little more than 300 square feet. Which is about the size of a FEMA trailer. (Local joke: They're so tiny you have to go outside to turn around.)

"I've actually designed closets this size," says Ms. Cusato, referencing her work for the rich- 'n' -richer in Manhattan. "But a lot of elderly folks don't want a lot of house to keep up with. And there are options to add on. These houses are designed to grow as people can afford more. Also, if you take affordable housing and make it beautiful, people will take pride in where they live."

Unlike the FEMA trailer, she didn't have to add.

OKAY, IT'S way too easy to criticize FEMA. It's the slowestmoving target this side of Dick Cheney. And everybody's shooting buckshot. FEMA is officially the hapless face of incompetence-whether that face belongs to ex-director Michael (Brownie) Brown or Michael Chertoff of Homeland Security or even George W. Bush. Doesn't matter. FEMA is a four-letter word on the Gulf Coast.

The realist in us understands that hundreds of folks work for FEMA, and they can't all be as irresponsible as their bosses. We're from Arkansas. We remember the good ol' competent days of FEMA under Yell County's own James Lee Witt. So we know how much good the agency can do.

The contrarian in us wants to find something-anything-about FEMA to applaud. Or at least encourage. Because, let's face it, there'll be more Katrinas. And when they hit-when, not if-this country will need a federal agency that can get the immense job done.

So here comes something for FEMA to embrace that'll make it look good-well, better. The Katrina Cottage! A little idea that could pay big PR dividends.

FEMA could do worse. And is.