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Katrina Clean Up: Planning Students Help Rescue Residents Drowning in Paperwork

Two UC planning students are on a cooperative-education quarter this fall in Harrison County, Miss. While there, the two students are untangling some of the intricacies of zoning for Mississippi residents left homeless by Hurricane Katrina.

Date: 11/20/2006
By: M.B. Reilly
Phone: (513) 556-1824
Photos By: Submitted by Derek Berardi and Ryan Schmitt
UC ingot University of Cincinnati cooperative-education students Derek Berardi and Ryan Schmitt are in the “thick of it” when it comes to piled-up paperwork. Indeed, sometimes a single  folder of the zoning-related paperwork they work with can measure, literally, 12-inches thick.

Derek Berardi and Ryan Schmitt
Derek Berardi, left, and Ryan Schmitt

“Local residents left homeless by Hurricane Katrina bring us their files of land- and zoning paperwork seeking to rebuild or just wanting to put up a manufactured home. Or they might just need to place another FEMA trailer on property where they’re living,” says Berardi, 21, of Steubenville, Ohio. “We try to help them with all the paperwork, whatever it is they already have and whatever it is they still need. But it doesn’t help that the paperwork is complex. Nor that it’s worded in a language similar to Greek.”

But that’s precisely where Berardi and Schmitt come in. As planning students in UC’s top-ranked College of Design, Architecture, Art, and Planning, they’re currently working three months for the Harrison County Zoning Office, as cooperative education students, to help residents understand and successfully negotiate zoning regulations in order to begin to rebuild their lives.

Schmitt, 20, of Mack, Ohio, adds that the county only implemented zoning laws and requirements six years ago. So, most residents have no familiarity with the zoning process and laws. That makes it harder for them to move through the process, and it requires Berardi and Schmitt to serve as teachers, mentors and, sometimes, therapists too.

Or interpreters. First, Schmitt and Berardi often have to read through the materials in those thick file folders to see where a particular residents stands in the zoning process and what further needs to be done. Then, they have to translate the language of any additional forms and help residents fill out any additional paperwork. 

Ryan Schmitt
Ryan Schmitt at work in the Harrison County, Mississippi, zoning office.

Though still at the mid-point of their co-op quarter, both Schmitt and Berardi already have the satisfaction of having made a difference. Schmitt tells of one woman’s experience which exemplifies the challenges faced by so many. She is, he says, a woman who lost a home “three times.”

Schmitt explains, “In a hand-written letter to the planning commission, one woman related how she’d lost a home to Katrina. Then, a charity had told her that if she found some land, the charity would build a home for her. So, she found some land. But at the last minute, the landowner backed out of the deal.” So, she then found a different plot to build on. “Then, the charity retracted its offer.”

Recalls Schmitt, “So, finally, she found a place for a mobile home, but then she needed what we call a ‘conditional-use permit.’ That went to the board meeting where all the zoning requests are finally approved or denied.”

“As the applicant, the woman had to stand up. The applicants need to do that so the board members know the applicant is present. Well, this woman had been through so much, she just started to cry out of frustration and anxiety. She just kept saying that all she wanted was a place to live, just a place to live,” recounts Schmitt.

It’s easy to see that emotions run very near the surface for the residents coming into the zoning office. Residents do often wind up in tears in the zoning office because “they don’t understand the process. They have files filled with papers, and they’re so tired of jumping through hoops. All they want is to get their lives back together, but they don’t know how to handle this additional hurdle.”

He admits that one visitor became angry at the process, the complexity of the language and forms, and stormed out of the office. Says Berardi, “I understand the process here can be cumbersome, and frankly, I can’t even relate to such frustration, never having experienced such tragedy firsthand. People just need to understand that we are trying our best to make things move along smoothly. Sometimes, the best way to get what you need is simply to be persistent and patient.”

As families are able to move from 14 foot-by-22 foot FEMA trailers and into manufactured homes, progress is being made. Still, some trailers house as many as six people. Some properties hold as many as four manufactured homes.

Destroyed house
A Harrison County home heavily damaged by Hurricane Katrina.

Not surprisingly, Berardi and Schmitt were unable to find living accommodations for themselves prior to moving to Mississippi for their co-op quarter. “We tried to find a place for three months,” claims Berardi. In the end, they moved into the home of their current boss, Pat Bonck, and Bonck moved into a FEMA trailer in the yard.

The UC students admit they’re grateful to their boss and even to the people of Harrison County who come into the zoning office. States Berardi, “People are very passionate about rebuilding what they have lost. We just want to make sure that we’ve put forth our best effort to make their efforts pay off.”

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