Saturday, March 31, 2007

My Trip to the Mississippi Gulf Coast

S.S. Camile, still there.

About a week ago, I went over the Mississippi Gulf Coast. I wanted to visit some of my relatives who spent Katrina up a tree watching a home that had been in their family for generations and make it through Camile disintegrate under the fury of the waves.

I, like many New Orleanians, spent many vacations on the Coast when I was growing up. I was especially eager to visit because I had seen the Mississippi Gulf Coast less than 2 weeks before Katrina hit. I was doing a survey for an engineering firm I worked at over the summer before my senior year. We were doing some work for the port of Gulfport and I remember thinking, "Gee, all those empty lots from Camile have finally been filled in. It looks so good."

Well, about two weeks later Katrina hit and you know the rest.

Steps, all that remain of many homes.

Another reason I wanted to go to the Coast was to see how true (or should I say, how false) the, "well, Mississippi is recovered, why is New Orleans still asking for money" thought process is.

I toured the ENTIRE coast over the course of a day. From Waveland to Ocean Springs and everything in between. We had to navigate around the missing bridges in Bay St. Louis and Biloxi. Spent a lot of the afternoon in Ocean Springs, too.

I brought my good ole Canon AE-1, one of the greatest cameras ever made. It was my grandfather's and it's still going strong. Load it up with black and white film and you'll be amazed at the photos it produces.

I was amazed at the devastation. I sort of assumed that Bay St. Louis and Waveland took the brunt of Katrina and the areas closer to Alabama were largely spared. Boy, was I wrong. It's also hard to see exactly how much was lost, unless you knew what it looked like before Katrina.

Here are some of my observations

Differences between Gulf Coast and NOLA:
* No abandonments- In New Orleans, some people just evacuated and never returned. That just hasn't happened over there.
* Excellent government (but has remarkably little bearing on the recovery). Their politicians aren't stuffing money into freezers. Not that it's helped that much. A lot of those places have EXCELLENT schools. In Ocean Springs, all the schools are "5 out of 5" (MS rating system).
* Crime. They've had some problems in their FEMA trailer parks, but they got a handle on things early before crime ever got a toehold. The same can't be said of the Big Bloody.
* Better connection between recovered zones/struggling zones. In New Orleans, there's the "Isle of Denial" and there's the "Magical Misery Land." There's a lot less interaction than there should be. In Mississippi, there's a much better connection.
* Small biz's doing slightly better in NOLA. In Louisiana, there are more tourists, so small businesses at least have enough to break even. In MS, they're still struggling (except for the big casinos).
* FEMA flood plain. FEMA didn't wuss out over there. The BFE (Base Flood Elevations) are extremely high (as they should be). We're talking about 15-20' above grade. Some places even higher. What is getting rebuilt is getting built high.

* Ancestral homes, don't have $ to rebuild. So many of the homes were inherited from one generation to another.
* Inflated construction costs.
* Stuck (no $). Their version of the Road Home is better, but still not great. Also, their is the simple fact that, especially factoring in inflated construction costs and high BFE's, it simply isn't enough money to rebuild.
* Islands of recovery, islands of despair.
* Big business recovers well. In Louisiana, the oil companies got their infrastructure repaired in short order, despite massive damage.
* The "New Normal."
* Dilapidated, abandoned buildings.
* They have a Lower 9, Claiborne Ave, Lakeview (& Magazine Street). Their Lower 9 is a neighborhood of Vietnamese and Polish fishermen just Northeast of the Port of Gulfport. The homes were handed down from generation to generation. Many were little more than shacks, but they were all owned. The main business road in Gulfport looks like Claiborne Ave. (lots of shuttered and abandoned businesses). They have a Lakeview (bedroom community of brick buildings that are still intact, but deserted). Main Street in Ocean Springs, which is way up on a hill, is filled with boutique stores, art galleries, bars, and great restaurants. Reminds me of Magazine Street.
* Still have lots of legal battles (but different targets). We're suing the Corps. They're suing their insurance companies. Insurance over there was far worse than in Louisiana, at least in my opinion. State Farm was, under the circumstances, fair with us. My relatives also had State Farm and they were treated like criminals. I was shocked at that they were describing the same company.
* Good food. I had a late lunch/early dinner at the Beau Rivage. Excellent! I stuffed myself. I'd recommend to anyone. A lot of the chefs had New Orleans roots. You could tell by the very flavorful (but not overly hot) food.

The beach, just as beautiful as ever.

I really enjoyed my trip. I learned a lot, I ate great food, and I got to see my relatives. If things get to hairy in New Orleans, I'd definitely think of moving to Ocean Springs. It's a nice little town.

If someone tells you why can't Louisiana be like Mississippi, you tell them that we pretty much are like Mississippi.

I've got a bunch more photos that I want to post. Blogger's software is acting up on me and it's taking a hell of a long time to upload these high quality photos. I still need to get another roll finished off. That roll has the best photos. I'll get them up eventually.


Leigh C. said...

Yep, the food's good over at Grand Casino, too, but the area around it looks awful. One of the more heartbreaking things is seeing the walkway that used to head out to the casino just sticking out there into empty space, hanging over the beach.

Ocean Springs IS lovely. I'd like to check out the Walter Anderson museum again. I heard they've sustained damage to many of his prints, paintings, and the like. There's another good cause to volunteer for - preservation of the works of a Gulf Coast artist on a par with the greats of all of art history.

Clay said...

The Walter Anderson Museum was undamaged. It's up on the hill.

Sheerwater was destroyed. My relatives had Sheewater pottery in their yard after Katrina.

Part of Sheerwater just reopened.