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Katrina Recovery:
Just Fine - Everything is Just Fine.
BY: Kathleen Johnson    Filed 8/29/09

Four years. Hard to believe that four years ago we were watching the impact of Katrina unfold on television in every corner of the United States. It was surreal then - and it is just as surreal now.

I became fascinated with a little town called Waveland in Mississippi when a reporter dismissed the little town with a passing comment of "No reports on the status of Waveland". How, in this day and age, three days out from the 29th, could there be no reports on what happened to Waveland? We can fly to the moon, we can send troops to all parts of the world - but we cannot take the time for someone to send a status report on the status of Waveland and the residents? And if the reports are not forthcoming - what is happening to the residents? Who is helping them?

I knew that the demographics of that little town would mean a high proportion of elderly were impacted. And that is what set me on a path to come assist. And four years later I am still here. And it is still surreal. The homes that have been rebuilt struggle to keep up with the lush growth that is thriving in this humid sultry climate, the vines of summer hide the stark slabs and splintered pylons on thousands of lots, and "For Sale" signs abound. in some places the entire block is for sale - the empty lots, the remaining slab, the gutted home, the completed home - those residents befuddled by the impossibility of rebuilding due to lack of funds, lack of employment, the unwillingness to invest in an area that could suffer that same loss again with the next hurricane, or the impossible high insurance rates that sometimes equal the amount of the mortgage.

But if you ask - they will tell you they are "Fine, just fine" with resignation in their voice as the recovery has been insufferably slow and a bureaucratic nightmare. The southern culture does not allow windows into vulnerability. You will not get a straight gritty answer on exactly how the recovery is impacting them. I know - I have been doing intakes on clients for going on four years and it is with patience that you get the "rest of the story" and it has to be behind closed doors. Otherwise, they are fine, just fine.

I remember, a few months after I came to volunteer, watching as the FEMA trailers were being delivered to these stark freshly cleared lots scarred by the front end loaders. Next step was for the resident to have a load of dirt delivered and spread out to cover the black briny mire left by Katrina and the scars of earth moving equipment - and it was red clay dirt as it was readily available and when it rained it stuck to everything that even came close staining it that murky red. So there was the FEMA trailer sitting in a stark sea of red dirt as there was no vegetation re-growth until the following spring.

Next came the brand new boat as the FEMA funds arrived, the four wheelers, the new car, and the occasional motor bike. All parked carefully in a row next to the FEMA trailer as the residents tried to replace all that was lost and show those passing by that all was fine, just fine.

And so goes the marketing of the disaster. It was critical to get the economic engine up and running as soon as possible. So a Hollywood prop was built down the business corridor and along the beach. Eyes right to that shining white sand pumped back in replace that lost to Katrina, eyes on the black and bright shiny asphalt laid down to replace the buckled road from the impact of Katrina - but eyes "left". No, that would show the miles upon miles of empty lots. So the marketing pictures never show that view - just the bustle of tourists on the beach enjoying the sun, sea and sand.  And, of course, the sculptures - the new tourist attraction. Those sculptures made from oak trees that demised as a result of the storm that were carved to reflect all that is sun, sea and sand and touted in the brochures as a tourist attraction for lack of places to send tourists outside the Casino market.  Waveland, not to be outdone on this new tourist fashion - imported a dead oak tree from Pass Christian, planted it in concrete at the corner of 603 and 90 - and had it carved in the theme of sun, surf, and sand. It stands there stark as there was no real landscaping done and the native vegetation struggles to thrive at this main thoroughfare on 90 leading to the beach.

To the nation went out the marketing call for the tourists to return - after all the beach was shining sand, the business corridor propped up and waiting for the tourists to once again stop on in for some southern hospitality, and it was a critical need as there is essentially no other industry in these here parts except the Casino - and they needed those tourists in order to sustain their payroll and overhead from their rebuilding.

The marketing did not allow for separate messages - it was one message "We are done, we are open, we are ready for business". The marketing  confused a nation as they were stating we are "done" and on the other hand soliciting funding for the seriously lagging recovery. Thousands upon thousands not rebuilt, no real affordable housing for an estimated 12,000 plus in the three Gulf Coast States of Mississippi, no funds left for rebuilding (excepting the 30 homes each in three counties for the Coming Home Collaborative), and then the economy sagged further exacerbating the hidden issues behind the hyped up marketing. The governor gave 600M to the Port stating that everyone was taken care of - then months later asked the Federal government for 5,000 vouchers for the critically needed deeply subsidized housing for those unable to afford the escalating rents while on fixed incomes. Still those vouchers are not here and we wait, and wait, and wait all the while telling the nation, in national marketing, that we are fine, just fine.

And it is the anniversary again - and the various media struggle to come up with stories to tell that back up the "We are fine, just fine" of the national marketing campaign often giving a very rosy picture of "What we have done".

But it is the protected class, out in the trenches, out behind the Hollywood props set up on 90 and the business corridor, that tell the rest of the story. They are still there in the thousands struggling to negotiate the bureaucratic red tape, out there in the back lots where few travel, out of sight of City Hall, out down the highways and byways of Mississippi impacted by wind but not water. The tornadoes tip tapped across the tree tops picking up this house, but not the next one, where the protected class harbor in housing often substandard beyond the social circles of the beach culture.  There were serious short falls for recovery models for those impacted by water - there was no recovery plan implemented for those impacted by wind alone. But if you see them at church on Sunday - they are fine, just fine.

I struggle with the invitations to attend this Anniversary Ceremony or another. So many perished with the storm. So many more have died in the aftermath of broken spirits, broken hearts, and lack of funds for appropriate medical care.  No one is going to announce their names at these memorials on the beach - it is why I could not bring myself to attend last year. This year - I am probably going to take the time to stop in and visit a couple of my more isolated clients to make sure they are not alone on Saturday. There they will tell me they are "Fine, just fine" but I personally know that is not how it is. But we will sit out under the spreading oak, the shady pine, out on the porch, in the deck chair in front of the trailer, and all will be just fine, just for a while..........

Taken from the daily blog at: http://www.reliefvolunteers.com/hancockdailyblog.html 

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