Property owners are returning in greater numbers to South Mississippi beach lots, where building officials report home construction is picking up 10 years after Hurricane Katrina scoured the waterfront.
Dan and Randy Smith felt the time was right to rebuild on Beach Boulevard in Gulfport. They lost a vacation home on a narrow lot to Katrina. The two-story retirement home contractor Plum Homes is building for them sits on two lots.
The Smiths at first retired to Paris, Texas. But they plan to move into their new waterfront home in Gulfport next week. They've been watching and waiting for this day.
"There's a lot more business activity along the beach, a lot more restaurants," Dan Smith said. "With all the cleanup that's taken place, it doesn't look like a disaster area anymore."
Coast builders and city officials say circumstances are improving for waterfront construction: more insurance options, more affordable fortified construction that reduces insurance costs, and building techniques that raise homes above flood elevations without giving them the look of bird houses.
Gulfport has gone one step further by offering homeowners a city-tax break for rebuilding near the beach. Dan Smith applauds the city's foresight, saying the break allowed them to put more money into their home and should encourage more property owners to build back on the beach.
Gulfport reports building permits are up for homes on U.S. 90, with three permits requested so far this year, compared with only one in 2014 and none in 2013.
"It's making more sense for homeowners and builders to build right now," said Greg Pietrangelo, Gulfport's urban development director.
In Ocean Springs, building official Hilliard Fountain said 15-plus homes within 500 feet of the water have been started or finished in the last 1½ years.
"We are seeing a definite upswing, but you are still seeing quite a few lots that are open," Fountain said. "Within the last year and a half, it's like somebody has opened the flood gate."
The 'gold standard'
The Smiths' house is built strong, said builder Kevin Taylor, owner of Plum Homes.
"The more fortification you use, the more discounts you get on your insurance," Taylor said. "This house isn't going anywhere. If it does, we're all in trouble."
Plum built the house to the "gold standard" set by the Insurance Institute of Business and Home Safety, an insurance industry-sponsored nonprofit with construction standards acknowledged by insurers in the form of discounts. The home is one foot above the National Flood Insurance Program's required elevation, which entitles the Smiths to a flood-insurance discount.
Fortified construction has become standard for the beach. The Smiths' house is built of concrete, including the chain-wall foundation. The walls are 10 inches thick, the windows shatter-resistant. It includes many other building features that make it less likely to pull apart in a storm.
Plum has won awards for its high-end custom homes, but fortified construction can be incorporated into more-modest budgets.
'Still a struggle'
On the beach, most lots are in flood-velocity zones subject to wave action or in special flood-hazard areas subject to less-turbulent soakings from hurricanes.
Clay Gutierrez, owner of Concrete Building Concepts, has a home under construction a block off the beach in Biloxi at a cost of about $100 a square foot, or $170,000 total. It has a concrete chain-wall foundation filled with dirt that raised the first floor to 22 feet above sea level -- 3 feet higher than the base flood elevation.
The roofing system is engineered to withstand winds of 155 miles per hour, he said.
"I'm building a stronger, more wind-resistant home," he said. He estimates the cost to be 10 to 15 percent higher for fortified construction, but lower insurance rates mean homeowners can recoup the difference over a period of years.
He said property owners are doing their homework on construction and insurance costs. A year ago, he was averaging one call a week about construction on or near the waterfront. Now, he said, five to 10 calls a week are coming in.
The sight of homes going up near the waterfront lifts the hearts of Coast residents wearied by Katrina's destruction, the recession and the 2010 BP oil catastrophe.
Long Beach Mayor Billy Skellie is no exception.
"We're starting to see some pretty nice houses -- new cottage-type houses -- starting to build south of the tracks," he said. "We're getting a good bit of activity. The beachfront's still a struggle."
Skellie noted the lowest areas on Beach Boulevard are seeing less activity, including residential areas of Long Beach, West Gulfport and East Biloxi.
Barring a hurricane, though, builders are encouraged by the increased interest and business.
"The general destruction of Katrina scared people off the waterfront for a long time," Gutierrez said. "People are now starting to want to rebuild. People gravitate toward the waterfront. That's just the way it is."
He'll get no argument from Dan Smith as he looks out a picture window onto the Mississippi Sound. "That's why we're here," he said. "This view."