Second Trip to the Hurricane-Torn Gulf
by Jeff Wright, November 16, 2005 (posted November 23)
Jeff Wright of El Paso County led a small hurricane-relief effort in September. Recently he returned from a second trip. Following are his notes...
Our second trip to the Gulf went pretty smoothly. There were no real vehicle or travel problems. Fuel was not a problem (other than price!) as most areas have fairly steady fuel supplies now. We visited towns along the Gulf Coast, in Covington, Smith, and Jones counties and areas around Laurel, traveling the rural back roads seeking out those that needed assistance. We found many.
Down on the coast, we distributed supplies in several areas in what's left of the town of Waveland and up and down the coast. Because of better packing this time we managed to be very efficient in distribution of a couple tons of direct supplies. We distributed much more cash and more Wal*Mart cards this time in lieu of direct supplies, as most folks had access to transportation and the roads, at least, are cleared. We also revisited some folks from the first time around and provided some additional cash assistance and Wal*Mart cards for those particularly hard hit and where we found good work being done from the previous purchases.
Down on the coast we had mixed feelings about some of the assistance. First of all, it is worthwhile to discuss the conditions and what is happening there. It was a little easier this time to focus on the broader view and the bigger picture as we had a distribution system down pat and were familiar with the area. Frankly, it is still flat-out chaos. The devastation is so vast and complete along the coast as to strain the mind when traveling about. Essentially, in a five-plus-mile wide corridor along the Gulf, between I-10 and the Gulf shore, from Pascagoula, Mississippi, well past New Orleans and into eastern Texas, there is not much left. In some places to the west of New Orleans, Hurricane Rita moved the coast ten to twenty miles inland from where it was previously.
Between Katrina and Rita, the storms pretty much returned the coast to zero. Other than along major routes, electricity has yet to be restored. Of what has been restored, much of it was patchwork. The effects of this were seen down in Florida, with Wilma passing through. Most of the system was just patched together by the work of the emergency crews last year after Charley and the others, most of the infrastructure went back down again. The figures passed out by the officials are misleading. In areas where there is no possibility of near-term recovery they just restore power along the main roads and say that "power is fully restored." It will take years to actually restore the power infrastructure in much of the Gulf area from Florida to Texas. The same is true for water and sewer systems. Along most of the coast there are no functioning water and sewer systems anymore. They are totally destroyed. Many county roads, town streets, railroad beds and bridges are completely destroyed in so many sections that even if these areas had the money, they won't be fixed for years.
And money is just one problem. Talking with town officials in Waveland we learned that the same is true along much of the coast. Many towns and counties are taking out loans to try to meet interim needs. In Waveland and surrounding areas there are basically no buildings left standing, including government buildings. The city and county are now operating out of a small cluster of six modular building hastily assembled together on a cleared section of land down the road from where the old buildings downtown used to stand.
Along most of the Gulf in that five-mile swath between the coast and 1-10 there are NO operating business, so there is no revenue. No revenue to pay expenses, salaries, or taxes to government. Most all the tax base for government is from sales tax and some property tax. There has been no revenue at all since the beginning of September. The assistance provided by the state and federal entities is available in a very slow, bureaucratic process. Most all of business is finished and the owners have simply abandoned the area. We drove past so many shopping centers and strip malls that are just "see-throughs" with no activity, two months after the storm. In many places only about ten percent or less of the pre-Katrina population remains. The other 90 percent will not be returning. That means there'll be no reason for large chain stores to return. There are few operating schools. There is now one restaurant in the whole of Harrison county.
Nor is the population likely to return. No one is rebuilding and we saw few if any signs of clean-up going on. It looks to be that the streets were cleared initially and then it stopped. The main reason for this is that no one has yet figured out what to do with the hundreds of millions of cubic yards of debris. Where it has been stacked up in huge piles in cleared areas, there is no other place to take it. In Southern Mississippi it can't be buried anywhere due to the water table being just below the surface. Garbage disposal was a problem before the hurricanes, now it's a gigantic obstacle to cleaning up.
Also, there are no building permits being issued, until the government figures out if there will be new building standards and in what areas they will be implemented for any building at all. But there is no time to even deal with such things as a planning process right now. Survival is a daily struggle for the remaining people. All these towns look to be some version of a science fiction movie after Armageddon. Piles and piles of clothes lie in parking lots of abandoned strip malls and shopping centers, everywhere one goes. Homes upside down that were washed off their foundation maybe half a mile from where they now rest. Cars, trailers, refrigerators, trash, clothes, splintered wood, toys -- everything imaginable -- stuck in the mud, hanging in stripped trees, in piles along the roads next to the abandoned shopping centers and strewn in the mud and sand and covered with it. Many of the clothes are the leftovers of all the donations sent down by well-meaning people, but ultimately useless goods for these folks. The picture of the clothes burying the Subway store is typical. All the dense tree stands along the coast are dead or dying from the saltwater intrusion far inland.
I asked a scruffy-looking man at a storage lot for directions, as there are no street signs anywhere, so finding things can be an adventure. He said he was trying to figure out what to do as many of his customers simply left their goods, stored vehicles and trailers behind, most of which were destroyed anyway. Two months after the event one could see this man was still in a daze. Many have that same "thousand mile stare." He stared blankly and spoke in a slow monotone as he tried to give directions and then kept changing his description between what it was and what it is now, in order to direct us to where we were going.
So many of them just sit and complain, or drink and bitch and moan on what remains of their swept-away property. Many people have taken a FEMA trailer and now camp out on their property or in one of the converted state parks where the debris was cleared. Many others took the cash, not realizing that disqualified them for a FEMA trailer, so now they sit and complain in a makeshift shelter or tent. I'm fairly sure that most won't last too many months, except for the most hardy. Everything is jury-rigged and temporary as if it were a series of trailer-based "Hoovervilles" (FEMAvilles?) all along the coast. In one we found 180 families that share FOUR Washer and Dryer sets, jury-rigged in a Quonset hut donated by some company in Alaska, of all places. The graywater runs out the back into a sand pit. The power is provided by wires in plastic sprinkler pipe run on ground from a power-pole they tapped into. We restocked their make-shift "store" with all we could, and gave them many boxes of school supplies and toys for the kids in the pre-school they had running. And winter coats. That is one article of clothing they really wanted as it turned chilly for the first time last week. It is pretty typical of what is happening all over. There were no coats in all the piles of clothes dumped on the ground all along the coast.
There were few if any happy words about the government from any quarter. Virtually all of the contracting work through government contracts and FEMA was an enormous mess. There were so many private contract scams and unscrupulous work associated with the clean-up and recovery contracts that no one seemed to trust anything that was going on. Everyplace we went we got a story of FEMA and government stupidity. How much of it was true and how much was piling on, there's no way to tell. I'm sure in the final accounting, though, the likelihood is high that there will be a horrendous story of waste and fraud.
Private frauds and scams were rampant as well. In Covington, Smith, and Jones counties we found several elderly people who had had work done that was obvious rip-offs, even given the conditions. Only once in a while did we find people who did honest work for an honest price given the conditions and demand. Those who were taking advantage of the elderly and disabled should spend some time in prison for their frauds. But it won't happen. The perps just move down the road aways with no one the wiser. It is so sad. We helped them all we could and went on. It is always amazing to me what some people will do to their fellow man. It seems it gets worse with the passage of time.
There is a weary, but growing tension among the people in these areas. With all the other troubles, many communities seem to have separated already into the have and have-nots almost immediately, even though most have little or nothing. But now their "wealth" is determined by their former standing plus who is getting most of the aid. The wealthy have a camper or trailer to live in. The rest, shanties and tents. We could feel this happening in several of the communities visited.
So, sometimes, in the midst of all this, it is hard to tell where help is being provided and where they may be enabled to make more poor decisions. We did the best we could in those few situations. Mostly, it was clear where we could help people. We tried not to be judgmental and simply listen and come to agreement that the assistance was not going to be misused. However, as this situation wears on, it may become harder and harder.
When we have time we'll likely assemble a web site and put up all of our pictures for folks to look at. Until then, if anyone has any questions they would like answered, please feel free to ask away. I know there are several things we saw and did that I forgot to include or may be of interest.