Saturday, March 01, 2008

We skirted along the Gulf coast yesterday, leaving Panama City Beach far behind and stopped for quick sandwiches made on the trunk of our car at a roadside rest just after the bridge into Pensacola. We're starting to see storm damage from Katrina and Wilma everywhere. We whizzed through Alabama, all 60 miles of its toe close to the Gulf of Mexico.

Now we're seeing trees everywhere, their trunks just snapped off about 2/3rd's up, and as we drove south of Biloxi, the effects of Katrina's storm surge are apparent everywhere. Concrete pads for houses stand empty. People are friendly, gas prices are lower than I've seen elsewhere ($3.05 a gallon), and there's a sense of energy. But I'm seeing storm-damaged housing everywhere right next to rebuilding efforts, roofs ripped off, top floors rebuilt and being lived in, lower floors empty, windows gaping or boarded up. "For Sale" signs pepper high-end beach frontage, and road crews vie with resort building crews wielding massive cranes along this barely restored Highway 90.

Finally, we came to a small resort hotel, just west of Biloxi, Mississippi. Armed with our discount coupon book, we settled into the night and then made our first room change (broken micro-fridge, leaky faucet). Our second room change came when a rock shattered the window of our room at 11 pm. Here, the staff works as hard on rehabbing as on hospitality, with a full-time crew still repairing storm damage, two years after Katrina.

We're more than a half-mile from the ocean, yet damage from flooding can be seen everywhere. The Veterans Hospital near Gulfport, once a large complex of buildings (1930s architecture) overlooking the sea, is completely boarded up. We knew that the entire region, that is the northern coast of the Gulf (Florida, Mississippi, and Alabama), was hard hit, but we did not anticipate beaches swept clean of housing and rebuilding efforts so extensive. Now, we don't know what to expect in New Orleans, but tomorrow night begins our month-long stay there.

The New York Times highlights a useful study of mental health effects for those who lived through Katrina. I'm wondering how a city and a region can be rebuilt and if our government (state and federal) has failed in meeting the people's needs. The headlines have moved on, but the people who survived Katrina are still struggling to rebuild their communities. The extent of the damage makes normalcy seem a luxury.

Friends who recently visited New Orleans and worked with Ginger on the Project Resurrection--Furniture Bank report even greater needs and that homelessness is increasing right now as FEMA trailers are being re-possessed. Nearly 12,000 people are living on the streets and under bridges in New Orleans (source: Miami Herald Feb 2008). Where does any one begin to work on this massive recovery effort?

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