The Persistent Good & Bad of Katrina

Everyone knows that hurricane Katrina almost destroyed America’s gulf coast between Biloxi, MS and New Orleans, LA. I hadn’t driven the Florida Panhandle or Alabama-Mississippi Gulf Coasts since just before hurricane Ivan did its thing in 2004. What Ivan missed, Katrina pretty much wiped clean.

In January of 2012 my wife and I took the long way to New Orleans and drove the coastline from Pensacola, FL to Waveland, MS just to see how much that area has recovered. The worst of Katrina’s impact was in the area between Biloxi and Waveland, MS. Where once the tourist would have seen great sugar sand beaches to the south of the gulf highway and stately white mansions shaded with huge live oak trees to the north, there now exists driveways to nothing or at best abandoned brick foundations where a mansion once proudly stood. If there were any winners it would have been the sign painters who made their money erecting “For Sale” signs at the entrances of each driveway.

In Biloxi and Gulfport the casinos are back and bigger than before. They are also more secure from the impact of future hurricanes. Immediately following Katrina the legislature of Mississippi passed laws permitting the casinos to build on land rather than being water based. This means they can build stronger, higher, and further back from the tidal surges that accompany every hurricane and tropical storm. Somehow my eye also caught the presence of a number of brand new Waffle Houses. When was the last time you saw a new Waffle House? Is that progress?

We stopped at a small BBQ joint in Waveland, where Katrina first came ashore, and talked to a couple of locals. They showed us a marker at the ceiling of the restaurant marking the high water mark left by Katrina’s storm surge. Waveland, like all the affected areas, has made somewhat of a recovery but a good part of its former population is still missing in action.

That’s still the story in New Orleans as well, much of the city’s former population has yet to return. You can drive around the 9th Ward and still see large expanses of vacant lots or boarded up homes. In the Lower 9th the homes that have been replaced are few and mostly the results of charity work by such people as Harry Connick, Jr. Driving through the city atop Interstate-10 reveals much of the devastation that remains unattended.

Major reasons for this lies in the reality that so much of the infrastructure needed to support populations is simply gone. Entire neighborhoods, along with the stores, shops, hospitals, schools, restaurants, bars, churches, and sources of employment were destroyed. In many places there remains little or nothing to come home to. Many of those who fled the city have rebuilt their lives elsewhere and have no compelling reason to return to New Orleans.

This is compounded by the fact that so many victims were the poorest of the poor in New Orleans and what little they had was taken from them by Katrina. Whether they owned their property or were renters they most likely had no insurance and if they did, it probably didn’t cover flood damage. You simply can’t rebuild if, you ain’t got no dollars.

I was recently at a large social gathering and witness to a table discussion concerning a seemingly wealthy Florida coastal resident who having lost a home in a hurricane was able to essentially manipulate his insurance company into rebuilding his home in violation of new building codes. Those, strangers to me, in the conversation seemed to endorse the cleverness of this man without questioning the legality or morality of his actions. Next the conversation turned to the Gulf Coast and New Orleans with emphasis on how those poor lazy Orleanians were just sitting amongst the rubble waiting for the government to rebuild their homes. Their evidence being, all those remaining boarded up homes.

I just think it is incredible how these people could have begun the evening saluting the flag, saying grace over the meal we were about to enjoy, and then seemingly condone the questionable actions of one of their own while chastising and condemning a group of people who were victims with no insurance company to take advantage of.

Katrina was one of those things that brings out both the best and the worst of people. I’ll never forget the Salvation Army being so quickly on the scene with a portable kitchen frying up simple hamburgers for the recently homeless and confused. The efforts of Brad Pitt, Wynton Marsalis, and so many others to provide new and affordable housing for people who lost everything. And I’ll also never forget the thousands who were left stranded without even the most basics of life atop flooded houses and at the Super Dome and Convention Center and how so many Americans pointed accusing fingers at them and spoke words of scorn and blame. Obviously both still exist. There are still good people doing good things to help the Gulf recover and there are still people who insist on being blind to the reality and being at ease with their bigotry and hypocrisy.

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