Where Things Used to Be

I’ve been driving around southern Louisiana this week. It’s my first visit in three years, since I was here in the weeks after Hurricane Katrina. Life has changed here. I’m not sure if Louisianans live in the future while the rest of us live in the present or if they live in the present while we live in the past, but one way or another, I feel as if I pass through a metaphysical barrier when I come here.

Around New Orleans, some places (tourist areas) are remarkably patched up. Other places (where the working poor lived) are remarkably not patched up. But it’s not just about New Orleans and it’s not just about Katrina.

Hurricanes are the unofficial calendars of Louisiana. “I haven’t seen Jim since… it must have been right before Gustav,” someone will say, or “We got that fridge after Ike, because the water got into the motor of the old one.”

In southwest Louisiana, the swamps are thinning out. Folks there pointed out to me where cypress trees have been brought down by storms, making the swamps more vulnerable to future storms. Wildlife is moving north out of the wetlands, I was told. They seek shelter as the water gets deeper and the brush thins out to the south. Foxes are coming out of the swamps and kill cats in suburban neighborhoods.

We drove out to Holly Beach on the Gulf of Mexico, where this year’s crop of storms destroyed homes along the beach. A crab pot hung from the top of a telephone pole, where the storm surge had carried it. Debris lay scattered across the wetlands. A few houses survived and some residents had brought in trailers, which were huddled together in one spot, a few ragged flags snapping in the wind.

There are odd gaps in southern Louisiana. Driving one afternoon, I found myself stupidly staring as what seemed to be an elevated parking lot. Ramps led up to a flat concrete surface, three feet above the ground, perhaps as big as a football field. Why would someone build a parking lot three feet above the surrounding ground and then put a ground-level parking lot between that and the road? Then it was pointed out to me that I was not looking at an “elevated parking lot,” but at the footprint where a factory once stood. A storm must have destroyed the building and whoever owned it decided not to rebuild. No one else wanted to build there either, so it bakes in the sun, a monument to global warming.

People rebuild, at least some of them. They cut out drywall that was soaked in the last surge and put up new, take photos of ruined books and put the furniture out in the sun to dry. Some of it can’t be saved, so family and friends donate a spare chair or sofa. There’s an informal circuit in used furniture.

I spoke with one man whose flood insurance was cancelled two weeks before Hurricane Ike. The house disappeared in the storm and now he’s fighting with the insurance company as to whether the wind destroyed the house (he still had wind insurance) before the storm surge washed it away. There were no witnesses to the sequence of events, so it will come to a court fight and some sort of partial settlement.

In and around New Orleans, there are neighborhoods that are dark at night; three years later, most residents have not returned and the houses are unrepaired. Locals pass around the term “de-obligation,” which authorities use for backing away from promises made.

There’s a good chance New Orleans will take another heavy hit in the next four years. If it does, Barack Obama will want a speedy and thorough relief effort, if for no other reason than to distinguish his administration from the half-hearted efforts of George W. Bush and his FEMA. But New Orleans sits below sea level and the coastal wetlands that protect it are washing away at an unprecedented rate. So many residents never came back after Katrina. With each passing storm, fewer and fewer people will return and the oldest European culture in North America will wither away.

Among the executive orders President-elect Obama may undo is the opening of some 360,000 acres of federal land to oil drilling. A New Orleans weekly paper reports that Democratic Congressman Charlie Melancon is assuring citizens that Mr. Obama is likely to allow new drilling in the gulf and outer continental shelf. That’s supposed to be comforting, because Louisiana gets much of its revenue from oil and gas royalties, even if the drilling – and burning – of those fossil fuels hastens the day when southern Louisiana is no more.

© Mark Floegel, 2008

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