Saturday, November 26, 2005

Gulf Coast Hell-a-Days

""FEMA continues to be able to mess up a one-car funeral... The federal response, from highways to housing to trailers, is completely unacceptable."
-- Rep. Gene Taylor (D-Ms)
We saw it in Pensacola a year ago during the holiday season. Now it's happening immediately to our west.

Complete devastation. Thousands of displaced families. A sea of blue roofs stretched across any structures that remain standing. Families sheltered from the cold in tents or, for the lucky ones, trailers. Inexplicably cruel or incompetent insurance adjusting. Mass depression across the entire population. Widespread suicidal ideation. And, that omnipresent feeling that the world has forgotten all about you.

Three months after Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast, hundreds of thousands of storm refugees remain sheltered by nothing more substantial than tents. New Orleans, habitable only on the highest ground mainly in the French Quarter, is said to be "more like a village" than a city. As Ernie the Attorney says, "Things are very strange in New Orleans right now."

Highway 90 bridges in Biloxi are still out, and may not be rebuilt for as long as two years. Communications are so bad in his town, the mayor of Bay St. Louis has called for a "meeting on the lawn" today for those locals who can get there to discuss what's to be done with a city that Katrina virtually obliterated.

Perhaps the most gripping look at these hell-a-days along the Gulf Coast appeared in the Washington Post the day after Thanksgiving. Reporter Michael Powell filed a riveting dispatch from Pass Christian, Mississippi. Excerpts:
Three months ago, Katrina all but scoured this old beach town of 8,000 off the face of the Earth. To walk its streets today is to see acres of wreckage almost as untouched as the day the hurricane passed.

* * *
Like New Orleans to the west, hundreds of square miles of Mississippi coastland look little better than they did in early September, and many people here harbor anger that the federal government has fallen short and that the nation's attention has turned away. At least 200,000 Mississippians remain displaced, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency is short at least 13,000 trailers to house them.

Fifty thousand homeowners lack federal flood insurance and cannot rebuild. The casinos, which employed 17,000 people, won't begin to reopen until next year, and the unemployment rate has quadrupled, now topping 23 percent in the coastal counties.

Half a dozen towns, Pass Christian among them, are borrowing millions of dollars to pay bills, and some officials are talking about surrendering charters and becoming wards of the state.

"FEMA continues to be able to mess up a one-car funeral -- we don't begin to have enough money for major reconstruction," said Rep. Gene Taylor (D), who lost his own home in Bay St. Louis. "We're going to have a lot of defaults and bankruptcies.

"The federal response, from highways to housing to trailers, is completely unacceptable."

The personal shock of it all hasn't subsided. Locals say it's not uncommon to hear perfectly rational people talk of suicide.

* * *
The hurricane pushed tens of thousands of coastal residents north and west, spreading over four states. The longer it takes to rebuild houses and businesses, the more officials worry that the dispossessed, particularly the working class, may never return.

"The response of the federal government is bewildering and deplorable," said Bruce Katz, director of metropolitan policy at the Brookings Institution, who has written two studies of the Katrina response. "We know how to deliver quality affordable housing in the United States -- we just need the will and leadership to do it."

Public housing authorities along the Mississippi coast lost 2,000 apartments and suffered $155 million in damages. But the federal government, which expects to spend close to $2 billion on temporary trailers, has not offered a dime to rebuild public housing. A spokeswoman with the Department of Housing and Urban Development said the agency's budget could remain just as tight next year.

Roy Necaise, chief operating officer of a regional Mississippi housing authority, said: "We have no federal funds, absolutely none, to rebuild. There's absolutely nothing standing on the coast right now, and it's going to be a long time before we're able to bring folks home.

"Washington has totally let us down, and it's a disgrace."

The lack of federal flood insurance is an even greater problem. When 30-foot walls of water crashed into coastal towns, thousands who lived outside official flood zones lost their homes.

* * *
Two weeks ago, FEMA officials began releasing guidelines that will require most coastal houses to be built on stilts. That is perhaps advisable in a hurricane zone, but it will add tens of thousands of dollars per house to construction costs.
To be sure, Mississippi voters brought some of this pain on themselves every time they went to the ballot box and voted for politicians who promised to tighten 'welfare' rules, elect 'strict' judges, and punish the unemployed. Now, those chickens are coming home to roost:
[T]his politically conservative state has a threadbare safety net. Two weeks ago, county officials lifted an informal moratorium on evictions. Tenants cannot claim rent breaks for water-damaged apartments. One can sit now in housing courts in Gulfport and Biloxi and watch judges order the evictions of hundreds of tenants, often with a speed that startles the tenants.

"There's a hanging judge mentality and, my God, it's going to create a social crisis," said John C. Jopling, a lawyer with the Mississippi Center for Justice, which represented a few tenants.

* * *
Rosie Alexander, a woman around age 50 with a fast smile, grew up in Point Cadet and lives in a nearby apartment. She has a master's degree in nursing and worked in a casino. She's out of work, and this state pays the lowest unemployment premium in the nation. Her old casino sent a letter stating that if she's rehired, she must accept an entry-level wage.
Even so, it's impossible not to empathize with storm victims who continue to be overwhelmed by the crisis:
The anxiety about what was lost and what might come exacts a psychological toll. Before Katrina, county officials said ambulances made about eight calls per month on mental health emergencies. In October, ambulances transported 167 people for psychiatric treatment, many suffering from post-traumatic stress and some talking of suicide.
Ms. Alexander's home, we are told, "stinks of mold." A promised trailer hasn't been delivered by FEMA. She's still struggling to rescue what possessions she can. In an act even she recognizes was "foolishness" she wrote to Oprah Winfrey asking for help. Not necessarily for herself:
In her darkest moments, she worries that bridges will be repaired and freight trains will rumble through Biloxi again -- and too many desperate people will seek their end on those tracks.

"I have nightmares, I have flashbacks." She shakes her head; she has talked for an hour with many tears. "I get so upset with all these rich people who say Biloxi will come back bigger and better. Not for us. No, no, no. Nobody I know is getting better."
We know something of that feeling. Northwest Florida , although much smaller in area and population, remained damaged to a similar extent one year ago at this time. The people here were living through the same dark days. Feelings of hopelessness, rage, and abandonment were common.

Too many are here still are feeling the effects of Hurricane Ivan and the shocking aftermath of loss of lvoed ones, homelessness, adversarial insurance companies, Fema incompetence, widespread job loss, financial desperation, increased sickness, and mass depression. But our own experience is instructive.

Don't give up, Gulf Coast. Life will get better, eventually.

And we're with you. We won't let the rest of the nation forget you.

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