It’s been 26 days since Katrina blew through the Gulf Coast and the patterns of life here have changed. Physically; the difference can be seen in the ever-present mountains of debris, shattered buildings, Military vehicles and service people everywhere one looks. But there is also a different feel in the air from the way people move and talk; the things that we consider important now and the things that demand our time.
The shipyard where I work was completely flooded and is still rebuilding, although production has returned on a limited scale. It took three weeks before I was called back to work, and then on new hours that allow “timesharing” desk and computer space with other people. The building I used to work in was inundated with 6 feet of sea water, sewage and God knows what else during the height of the storm – it has been condemned.
Many large chain retail stores have reopened; locally-owned businesses are still struggling to make repairs and replace ruined inventory. But the businesses that have reopened are all on reduced operating hours with skeleton crews – so many people lost their homes and have yet to return here. One local Wal-Mart store lost 176 employees, about half their staff.
Some people lost their former jobs when their place of employment was destroyed, but “Help Wanted” signs are everywhere. The large chain retail stores, once the choicest employment available here, now must compete for replacement workers.
Anyone who is able to push a broom, swing a hammer, or use a chain saw can find work restoring storm-damaged properties. My neighbor’s 17 year-old son has earned more than $2000 over the past two weeks working 12+ hour days around our neighborhood, pulling out waterlogged sheetrock and insulation. He’s actually offered to pay me to help him.
Almost everybody I’ve met has suffered major property losses; some saw their home reduced to nothing more than a bare foundation; others had flooding damage, serious wind damage, damage from falling trees or a combination of all. Those people who actually have an intact home are busy trying to help out as they can. One friend’s home was untouched and now she shares it with her 76 year-old mother and 21 year old son, as their home and apartment were destroyed.
Other people are living in tents or campers on their front lawns. There are tent cities filling many church properties. Every large parking lot has at least a few RVs and camper trailers parked for apparent long-term living.
Besides the lost homes were lost vehicles; modern cars simply do not do well immersed in salt water. Local dealers are busy advertising how they want to help out hurricane victims by replacing ruined cars at “Low, low, prices.” Nothing is being said about “super year-end discounts” to make room for the next year models.
And it’s not just cars that are in short supply. Electrical appliances fare just as badly sitting in salt water. Local appliance stores are swamped with orders for replacement appliances including refrigerators, washers, dryers, TVs, computers, and even electric alarm clocks. I was able to get a replacement A/C system installed right away thanks to the help of my one neighbor. She had done business with the same appliance store for 25 years, in fact was their very first major customer. With a referral and follow-up good word from her, a tech came out the same day I called and within two days had working A/C. The shop I had done A/C business with for six years wouldn’t even return my calls.
I also ordered a replacement `fridge from this shop, but even my neighbor’s good word can’t help me get it delivered anytime soon. I’m on their delivery list, but at the time of my order the shop had 168 deliveries (homes), and one delivery truck. They’re trying to get a second truck and driver, but are too busy working to conduct interviews. So meanwhile my wife and I use coolers to keep our food and beer cold.
Ice is in short supply as almost everyone else is also using coolers. The other night I picked up what may very well have been the last bag of ice in my town. After stopping at every other ice-capable store I tried a small convenience store. The Asian owners packed ice cubes from their back room freezer into a 5 pound ice bag for me, and still only charged me one dollar.
Between my time-shared job and trying to find ice my wife and I are busy repairing our home. To repair the damage caused by three feet of brackish water that sat inside our home for less than 6 hours we need to; replace all sheetrock and insulation four feet up from the floor, treat all the wood framing to prevent future mold growth, replace all the interior doors, all carpeting and flooring, all electrical appliances, all electrical outlets, and most of the windows. This is all in addition to discarding almost all our furniture, books, and memorabilia after salvaging the things we still want to keep, even if it is water-damaged.
I can’t imagine what our house would be like if we had had five feet of water made toxic with oil, chemicals, and decomposing bodies sitting inside for several days or longer. Or imagine how I would feel if there was nothing left of my home but a bare slab. Or even worse, God forbid, how I would feel if I was family to one of the 220+ Mississippi casualties of this storm – bodies are still being pulled out of the Gulf or found under wreckage.
Everyone I have spoken with these past weeks all speak a common phrase. Everyone, no matter how much they lost, says about themselves and their family “It could have been worse. We were lucky.”
I think we all say “We were lucky” because we are the ones still alive.
Editor’s Note: This article was originally posted on Daily Kos as Life after Katrina… Day 26 on Saturday, September 24, 2005. I am attempting to describe my impressions and feelings in this post about the first month of recovery and reconstruction after hurricane Katrina. I have reposted it here as originally written.
Katrina Two Years After : Looking back two years after hurricane Katrina made landfall on the Mississippi Gulf Coast.
The Death of Compassion : An unpleasant observation on my fellow humans.
The April Nor’easter : Writing about another storm I’ve experienced.