Gulf Coast

A few months before our trip Houston was hit by hurricane Ike.  After Isabel caused such damage in Richmond and left us without water and power, were wondering about the comparisons.  As part of our journey along the gulf coast, we were also mindful that other recent storms like Gustav and Katrina had caused additional damage as well.

Let’s get the comparisons out the way now:  the damage to the gulf coast is on a scale that the east coast hasn’t seen since Hugo came ashore in South Carolina twenty years ago.  The gulf coasts of Texas, Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida are basically low-lying swamps.  The water is relatively shallow in some cases as far as 30 miles from the coast.  Houses are often just a few feet above the water level although some homes are built on mounds or stilts to protect from high water.  It is beautiful country.

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The devastation is deceiving:  you see some damaged homes and the high water marks as much as twenty feet high (well into a second story building).  At first it doesn’t appear to be that big of a deal.  Then you start to notice power meters sticking up from the dirt or concrete stairs to nowhere and then you realize that the homes and shops that used to be there are just gone.  Not demolished – just completely gone.  It some places a few pieces of concrete and tile flooring might be the reminder of the home in a particular spot.  In many cases, even the concrete slabs were completely lifted, moved, and destroyed.  We saw homes built on the man-made hills to protect them only to have the water wash away parts of the mound and literally crack the homes in two.  Stilts kept some homes from being completely underwater, but the provided little protection with large trees or even entire houses floated into them.

Near Gulf Shores, AL, we stopped to let Lilianna out.  Located maybe 150’ from the shore, the area where we parked was a concrete slab that I later found out was for a hotel.  Later I could see the outline of tiles where the registration desk had been.  A short distance down the dead-end street was a new home that would have looked normal in any high end community of the Outer Banks or Myrtle Beach.  Across from the lot were two trailers and lean-to.  It was there that I met a lady named Boo.

She was living in the trailers with her family and explained that this area had been destroyed by Katrina.  Except for the new house, most of their neighborhood was gone.  A small convenience store had just opened nearby, but the Denny’s next door and the hotel were probably gone forever.  The hotel, or hotel lot, had been foreclosed on. 

Boo was excited because next month they start rebuilding their house.  After more than three years of the trailers, she was looking forward to being back in a house.  She and her family had stayed during Katrina after a family vote.  They ended up huddled in the attic as parts of the roof blew off and water level rose even into the attic.  They had saved their cars by moving them to higher ground, but a Jeep with a crushed back end was evidence that not survival did not mean unscathed.  I asked her why they didn’t evacuate.  She said she had voted to leave, but still felt confident because the 1920s wood house had survived other hurricanes including the devastating Camille.  I laughed that they were lucky to survive and at least they would know to evacuate next time, but she solemnly shook her head and said that she didn’t know.  “We’re a stubborn family.”

Following the destruction we had seen in New Orleans and I was wondering how it was cost-effective to do piecemeal reconstruction of neighborhoods.  Boo’s house would be only the second one rebuilt in the area and surrounded by abandoned, blighted lots.  My initial thought was that, like New Orleans, as soon as you built the house you would be upside down because the surrounding areas would weigh down property values.  That turns out to not be the case for many of these areas.  The storms have wiped out most of older, smaller homes and developers viewed most of the gulf coast as an excellent opportunity to build high end beach homes.  Regulatory issues in many cases, and insurance in others, delayed much of the rebuilding according to Boo, but several developers had bought surrounding lots and tried to buy theirs as well.  She said that was common along much of the gulf coast and expected the area to be back better than before.

After understand what Boo had been through it was nice to see her optimistic and excited about the future, but as I got ready to leave she did concede that the experience had changed her.  “Before the storm I used to always keep my hair really nice and styled.  I’d go ever few weeks for my color touch-ups to the beauty salon,” she said referring to her long black hair.  “But now I’ve decided it isn’t important.  I just let the grey hairs come and focus on other things.”