BAY ST. LOUIS, MISS. — This coastal resort town is on the front line of a project to gauge support for a mass federal buyout of 17,000 homes near Mississippi's Katrina-ravaged shore. This could become the nation's most significant attempt to radically reconfigure coastal communities -- converting huge swaths of flood-prone residential lots to public wetlands.
Until now, the Army Corps of Engineers has reserved buyouts for areas prone to river flooding. Some people, such as Susan I. Rees, the director of the corps project, believe the current assessment is the beginning of a serious national debate on whether Americans should retreat from the coasts. The costs and risks of future flooding are simply too great, they say -- especially if, as many believe, sea levels are rising and hurricanes are starting to get stronger.
"People have been talking about this for some time now, but no one has really said you don't need to live on the coast anymore," Rees said. "The whole concept of trying to remove people and properties from the coast is very, very challenging. The desire to live by the water is strong."
The plan, which officials stress would be voluntary, has shocked many in Bay St. Louis, which is struggling to rebuild after Katrina. Residents say they had no idea that while they were taking out loans and investing their savings to rebuild their homes, federal officials were drawing up proposals to erase more than half of the city's land mass.
"It's just aggravating," said Desiree Clark, 28, a nursing student whose almost-rebuilt house on pilings is waiting only to be covered in vinyl siding. "If we had known there was going to be a buyout, would we have shoveled all that mud out of our home?"
In 2005, Congress asked the Corps of Engineers to assess how to protect coastal Mississippi from damage by hurricanes and other storms and saltwater intrusion, as well as ways to preserve fish and wildlife and prevent erosion.
Most Mississippi homeowners, however, did not learn about the project until last month, when the corps held a public meeting in Bay St. Louis. Corps officials are now scrambling to win support from local civic leaders before they submit the $10-billion project to Congress at the end of the year.
Some experts are advocating a full-scale retreat from the nation's shorelines, but corps officials say there is no current plan to extend the project to other regions.
"Ultimately, a retreat is our only solution," said Orrin H. Pilkey Jr., director of the Program for the Study of Developed Shorelines at Duke University in Durham, N.C. He said the coast is eroding, sea levels are rising and there is growing concern -- though no scientific consensus -- that hurricanes may be becoming more forceful.
While the risk of coastal disasters is greatest on the Gulf and southern Atlantic coasts because of the low topography and strong risk of hurricanes, experts say rising sea levels will eventually affect the entire U.S. shoreline.
A 2000 study by the Federal Emergency Management Agency estimated that by 2060, erosion could wipe out one of every four homes within 500 feet of U.S. coasts.
Gary Griggs, professor of earth and planetary sciences at UC Santa Cruz, said that in California, particularly vulnerable "hot spots" include north San Diego County, where beaches are narrow and cliffs are heavily developed. He added that similar risks are posed in Malibu, where people live right on the beach.
Experts say a retreat, however, does not have to mean a mass federal buyout. Another potential option is for the government to stop allowing those who live along the coast to rebuild their homes after hurricanes and storms.
Many in Bay St. Louis argue that instead of urging people to leave, federal officials should help build stronger and more elevated structures that can withstand powerful winds and floods.
"They're pushing the panic button" because of Katrina, said James C. Thriffiley III, president of the Bay St. Louis City Council. "They're taking this one event -- the worst possible catastrophic hurricane -- and basing every decision in this town on it."
Facing such a volatile and far-reaching issue as coastal development, Congress will likely not end up approving the corps' plan to buy out so many homes along the Mississippi Gulf Coast, Thriffiley and other local officials say. Residents, they say, did not greet corps representatives warmly at the September public hearing in Bay St. Louis.
Yet Thriffiley worries that mere talk of a buyout is stalling the city's rebuilding effort: Homeowners are wondering whether to continue repairing homes that may eventually be torn down. Business people are reconsidering plans for new restaurants and stores. Investors are pulling out of construction projects.
"The entire community is now in limbo," he said.