Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast on August 29, 2005 with a force and intensity that was greater than forecast. The city of New Orleans suffered the greatest damage, largely because the city is shaped like a bowl, and the levees that hold back the bodies of water that surround the city broke and the entire place filled with water. The communities along the Gulf of Mexico, such as Gulfport and Biloxi, also suffered greatly, particularly the homes and businesses within a few blocks of the beach, due to 27 foot waves known as storm surges that literally knocked down buildings and washed them either inland or out to sea. (There’s a lot of great detail on Wikipedia if you’re interested: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hurricane_Katrina)
As Katrina proceeded, it whirled up Interstate 59 like a weed whacker, snapping trees in half, knocking down signs and utility poles, and peeling roofs off of buildings. This was the damage that was sustained in the Hattiesburg area (central Mississippi), causing some areas to be without power for up to four weeks and some businesses to close due to a lack of capital to rebuild.
A year and a half later, there have been many signs of a return to normalcy. The Hattiesburg area still bears many of the scars of the hurricane — hundreds of splintered tree stumps, and some homes and other buildings that still have plastic on the roofs. However, in central Mississippi, life seems to be commencing relatively normally. Cleanup and recovery there began right away. (Our Site Manager, Mike, described how the community came together to remove all the fallen trees and such: “The hurricane destruction was nothing compared with 8 truckloads of rednecks with chainsaws.”) In the communities along the Gulf of Mexico, the priority has been on economic redevelopment, particularly for the tourism industry. This means that the casinos along the coast have been rebuilt and are open for business, creating jobs for locals and offering opportunities for tourists to “contribute” to the local economy. Tourism is also alive and well in New Orleans, where the French Quarter bounced back relatively quickly and the areas of town that didn’t suffer from much flood damage have returned to a degree of normalcy.
However, the report from Biloxi, Gulfport, Bay St. Louis, and the other communities along the Gulf Coast are that many homes (both primary residences and summer homes) are still piles of rubble or concrete slabs. (Check out our photos from August 2006 of Gulfport and Biloxi.) Many of the families that live there are residing in FEMA trailers, either on their own property or in FEMA trailer communities. The state of Mississippi’s recent settlement with State Farm should expedite the recovery efforts there.
New Orleans is another story. While it’s possible for a visitor to certain parts of the city to avoid seeing much hurricane damage, if you travel through the various sectors of the metropolitan area it’s impossible to miss the effects of the disaster, regardless of what socioeconomic class resides in each neighborhood.
When we drove down on Sunday afternoon from Hattiesburg to the New Orleans area, we first went to St. Bernard Parish. What we found there was a mix, but gave us some hope. We saw homes that appeared to be undamaged (most likely repaired) with families living there and nice cars parked in the driveways. We saw others where the families were out on this lovely spring day working on repairs, such as replacing the roof. Some of these homes had big white trailers parked on the front lawn or in the driveway, where the families could live while repairing their homes. Other homes, however, looked as though they hadn;’t been touched or even looked at. Several houses had a “For Sale” sign on them, even though the home had clearly suffered hurricane damage that hadn’t been repaired. Others looked as though the families had simply left and not returned. Each of the types of homes I describe here were intermingled: a vibrant family home sitting next to an abandoned house.
Next we headed for the Lower Ninth Ward. It was devastating. On block after block, the only sign that the waters had receded were the spray painted signs that the homes had been inspected by various relief agencies. To be sure, there were a few homes that had fresh paint and seemed to be fully restored, and others with a sign in front indicating that one of the various charities was working on it. There were communities down the street full of FEMA trailers, where perhaps some of these families are living while waiting for the opportunity to fix their homes (in the Lower Ninth, there aren’t big yards or wide streets in which to park a FEMA trailer in front of your house). Overall, though, the neighborhood looked as though it had been emptied of its residents, perhaps permanently. It was easy to see how evacuees would think that there was nothing to come back to.
After the grim sights of the Lower Ninth, we wanted to check out some of the middle and upper class areas of town to see if they were recovering any better. We didn’t quite manage to find the neighborhoods that we had driven through when we were in New Orleans last August, where we had seen many homes gutted to the studs but in the process of repair. Instead we ended up near City Park, where we witnessed many upper class homes that seemed to be in good condition, right next to others that still had collapsed roofs and other things of that sort. Not nearly as devastating as the Lower Ninth, but surprising to see that after a year and a half, things had not returned to normal.
The experts have been estimating that recovery from Hurricanes Katrina and Rita will take at least 5 years. Based on our observations of the areas we’ve visited, this seems to be accurate, or slightly optimistic. The Gulf Coast region continues to need our prayers, donations, and attention.