Katrina: Getting Back to Normalcy?
From Ground Zero
by Keith Burton - GulfCoastNews.com
It has been more than three hard months since Hurricane Katrina forever changed the Mississippi Gulf Coast. Christmas is around the corner and the new year too. If you were to listen to local radio and television news media, and read the local newspaper, you could almost believe life on the Coast is getting back to normal. But life is not "back to normal."
Actually, if things were truly "getting back to normal" nobody would be saying that. After all, a normal life rarely needs a comment on how "normal" it is. So, for each reminder of how normalcy is returning to the Coast, the reality is just the opposite.
It remains a difficult life here. Thousands of people are living in tiny trailers, their homes are still rubble or less. Unemployment is over 25 percent, a level not seen since the Great Depression, and debris remains everywhere.
Nothing is normal, even for those who didn't lose much in the hurricane and still have their homes and jobs. For them, life now is a series of endless traffic delays, where the smallest errand is a major task and nothing is beautiful anymore.
Whatever normalcy the Coast has as we approach Christmas, it is that people are becoming used to living in chaos, debris, and uncertainty. This is a hard way to live and the stresses it is producing on Coast residents are being felt in the increasing numbers of illnesses and even despair. Everyone is noting that people are becoming strangely abrupt in their behavior. One minute you are okay and you can handle what life has handled you. Then the next moment a feeling of anger and anxiety fills your mind, which is hard to shake.
Many people that survived the hurricane with their possessions and jobs have expressed feeling guilty, when they see so many people, their friends too, have lost everything. It is a strange feeling, this post-Katrina guilt. And it distances people from one another.
This distancing marks the reality of the post-Katrina Gulf Coast. There are those that still have. And then there are those who's whole life is now summed up within the confines of a small FEMA travel trailer.
Much has been made about getting people into these tiny trailers. More than 35,000 are needed for families that lost their homes in Mississippi. And after three months of effort FEMA still needs to place about 10,000 more. But that is only part of the story about these tiny homes. For the most part, most FEMA trailers are going to those that have property, or once owned a home. People that don't, such as those that lived in apartments, have either left the Coast, or are among those that were lucky enough in the FEMA trailer lottery to be in the few temporary trailer parks setup on the Coast.
But there is more to this story of FEMA trailers. FEMA officials say that their projections anticipated that the total number of trailers needed to be around 35,000 in Mississippi. This could be a figure they decided to set and not by what is actually needed. We know that there are many people that have applied for FEMA trailers that were denied. GCN sought to find out how many people have been denied a FEMA trailer but nobody seems to be able to say how many. We were told that those figures were not available. We know people have been denied though. Bay St. Louis Mayor Eddie Farve, who lost his home, was denied a FEMA trailer. He eventually bought himself one after spending months sleeping at the City's fire station. But we don't know how many others are out there. People don't keep statistics on folks that have given up trying to get help and apparently FEMA doesn't either.
But living in these tiny trailers is no solution. It is help for these families but they need more than that. Everyone is struggling to get insurance settlements resolved and that is not going well. Even while huge sums are being expended by the insurance companies, most homeowners are finding that they have some battle on their hands instead of the help they need. And for the homeowners that suffered flooding without flood insurance, they have nothing but a slab to pay a mortgage on and no insurance recovery at all. There are many thousands of people in this situation and it is scaring the banks and mortgage companies that are certain to suffer losses when people quit or can't pay.
But more importantly, everyone knows that these tiny FEMA trailers are not real homes and they are temporary. The 18 months they can be used are beginning to look shortsighted. Rebuilding the number of homes needed is certain to take longer than the trailers are supposed to be used for. FEMA says families have to move out 18 months after the date of the natural disaster no matter when people received their trailers, and the clock started ticking August 29th.
Anyone that has been watching the news about Katrina will see some pretty impressive money figures being tossed about. One could assume perhaps that the millions of dollars in aid and the tons of relief supplies and thousands of man hours spent should have the Katrina disaster well in hand.
But after three months, less has changed than the numbers suggest. Debris pickup, while in the millions of tons, is just only one-quarter finished. If you don't live here, I will help you picture this. The entire Coast and every city still looks like it is in the midst of a junkyard. Trash and debris line the streets in little to big piles. Refrigerators and even boats are still in trees and the remains of destroyed cars are everywhere. The Interstate highway on the Coast, city boulevards and streets in every town are lined with trash. It is as if all the litter from every city everywhere found its home here.
Most people think of hurricane debris as just being collapsed houses and downed trees. But it is more. It is the billions of small things. Paper, plastic, old magazines, insulation, you name it, all scattered in little pieces everywhere. The stuff is hard to pick up. It is partly this atmosphere of trash that wears on people. Some people have even described the Coast now as looking more like the barrios in the poverty-stricken counties in South America. While that may be normalcy for the thousands of illegal immigrants working here, it is not what we call normal. It does seem that it is normal now for the federal government not to enforce immigration laws with contractors and businesses.
Normalcy on the Coast also includes the lack of diversions. Other than working and hassling with FEMA, insurance companies and contractors, there is little to do here. Most of the Coast's unique restaurants were destroyed with the remaining being a few fast food or chain restaurants that line the interstate and along U.S. 49 in Gulfport and Pass Road. Even then, every restaurant is short staffed and service requires patience. Fast food isn't fast here.
Walking on the beach or visiting the area's parks are also out of the question. The beach is still littered with the debris from Katrina's fury and the parks, well, the cities are having trouble keeping them up.
Most social activities and organizations have still not returned to activity. Most public organizations need volunteers, and many people still are struggling with their own problems and are exhausted. People with medical needs are also having trouble as many area doctors have left, or had their offices damaged and records ruined. And the delays in seeing a physician are common.
The stores that remain are constantly packed. That is a good thing for tax revenues, as it will help the struggling cities pay bills, but going to a grocery store is an arduous experience with long lines and sometimes shortages of common items.
Christmas has a way of adding stress to people's lives. When money is tight and people are anxious about the future, the joy that the Christmas season can bring can add to problems within families and that is happening everywhere here. No normalcy there.
Local government officials are hunkering down and are not as visible as normal. They have been facing truly difficult times and know they have many more months of struggle ahead of them. Some really don't want to answer the questions they know will be asked of them. They want to put on a positive outlook, but it is not easy.
School system officials also know they face some tough decisions next year as they know they will have to lay off teachers since schools will be short of money and have fewer students. No normalcy there either.
Many people talk about how the Coast is in recovery, but it is not that. The Coast remains in a very needy condition. As insurance settlements have been slow, and the federal and volunteer help to assist families is still badly needed, it is clear the Coast is not in a recovery mode. Rebuilding has not really got underway. If recovery from Hurricane Katrina is underway, as so many people want to believe, then it is not a normal recovery.
Progress is being made, but it is in small incremental steps. More streets are getting cleared from the debris, and a store here and there returns to business. But at this point, and for many more months to come, progress will not be dramatic unless there is a real national commitment to help. That is what it will take.
There is a growing concern here that the nation and its leaders do not have the will to do what is right regarding the Katrina recovery. That it appears the the nation doesn't have the will to take care of its own and the promises by the President to rebuild the Coast were just empty promises. We hope this is not normalcy. For if this is true, then our nation is gravely in danger. It won't take long for the rest of the world to realize that if we cannot take care of our own and our leaders fail to keep the promises to our own citizens, then we are a nation not be to trusted, but pitied. And a superpower we will soon cease to be.