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Family Resurrects Dream House on Mississippi Coast

Along the Mississippi Coast, the debate continues: how best to rebuild towns and neighborhoods destroyed by Hurricane Katrina. As experts weigh in on aesthetics, city bureaucrats are contemplating how to comply with new federal insurance regulations.

Ten months after Katrina, the area remains barren. Lots are for sale but prices are not falling because land on the coast is still considered valuable. As many take a wait-and-see approach, one Gulfport, Miss., resident is busy restoring his dream house by the sea.

Jim Wetzel's Georgian-style home lies just off Highway 90. The brick structure, with a white porch and four white columns, sits among dozens of lots that have been cleared along that stretch of coastline.

Katrina's 29-foot storm surge tore away a staircase and left nothing but a slab of marble and granite on the first floor. The second floor stayed largely intact. Wetzel says he thinks the strength of those four columns may have kept his house upright.

While some might question Wetzel's decision to rebuild, it made sense to him to stay. He grew up in the South and has worked as an attorney in Gulfport for 25 years.

Although Wetzel was eager to get things back to normal, his wife, Garnette, needed persuading.

Wetzel says it took six to eight months to convince his wife they should rebuild. He promised they could return to the life they had known since 1987, when they first moved into the house. They raised their only son there. Five days before Katrina hit, they celebrated their 30th wedding anniversary.

"It's nice to see things coming back into place," Wetzel says. "I've had weddings here. I've had political parties. I've had wonderful times here with my wife and my family. I cherish those, and I want to have those back."

Wetzel and his wife had flood insurance and other coverage that met part of the cost. They also had the means to come up with the half-million dollars needed for rebuilding.

Now they're being hailed as an inspiration. In his State of the City address earlier this year, Gulfport Mayor Brent Warr mentioned the Wetzels by name, and he hopes a whole region takes notice.

"They didn't go out and promote themselves," Warr says. "They just got out and got to work." That attitude, he says, embodies the Mississippi spirit.

"We're not good at begging," Warr says. "We are good at working hard. That's what he did -- set a good example for all of us. If he can do it and keep his business going, so can I."

Wetzel's eyes sparkle as he breathes in the salty air and thinks about the future.

"In a sense, I'm a lucky one," Wetzel says. "I still have a very good law practice. I had something to build back on. I'm really looking forward to the day that I can turn on the lights on the front porch, just to show there's somebody living on the front beach of the Gulf Coast of Mississippi."

Wetzel says his home could be ready for his return at the end of August -- in time for the one-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. But he's waiting to move back until November... near the end of the hurricane season.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Whether covering the manhunt and eventual capture of Eric Robert Rudolph in the mountains of North Carolina, the remnants of the Oklahoma City federal building with its twisted metal frame and shattered glass, flood-ravaged Midwestern communities, or the terrorist bombings across the country, including the blast that exploded in Centennial Olympic Park in downtown Atlanta, correspondent Kathy Lohr has been at the heart of stories all across the nation.