Katrina Aftermath Day 63 – Life in Chaos

NOAA Satellite Image of Hurricane Katrina making landfall on the Mississippi Gulf Coast.
NOAA Image of Hurricane Katrina

My wife and I have been busy these past few weeks trying to close in our house with insulation, drywall, and new windows before cold weather sets in. I realize for most people reading this, 60 degree weather doesn’t seem very cold, but down here on the coast it does mean winter. Warm weather is the trade-off we have for putting up with hurricanes – which until two months ago seemed like a decent trade.

After two months of living in the chaos caused by Katrina recovery, I want to share an observation that I think makes the dynamics of recovery here on the Mississippi Gulf coast completely different than that of New Orleans. My observation is that unlike New Orleans, where it was the poorer people who disproportional suffered, here the wealthy people suffered as much as or even more than poorer people.

While the storm surge and flooding extended well inland, it was the beach-front coastal areas where only foundations (or maybe not even those) were left standing. This was the more expensive properties predominantly occupied by the wealthier people in our communities – Doctors, Lawyers, Judges, Senior Corporate Executives, Town and City Mayors, Congressman Gene Taylor, Senator Trent Lott, etc. Further inland, homes were flooded (as was mine) but otherwise largely undamaged.

In other words, while every doctor in the town of Ocean Springs is currently living in a trailer, my wife and I are still living in our home, even though making repairs.

I have heard that Sen. Trent Lott has become personally involved in dealing with FEMA issues – some people had trailers delivered to their properties only to wait weeks for a contractor to hookup services (electricity, water, sewage) and then get the keys turned over. One contractor who was hired to setup trailers early on lost all the keys, leaving trailers ready for occupancy but locked tight. FEMA’s answer to people calling asking how to get in was “Get the serial number from the inside of the trailer door and we’ll send replacement keys.” Sen. Lott was able to get this issue fixed.

My wife and I are doing as much of our home repairs ourselves as we can, both to save money and because contractor services are nearly impossible to get. My wife has shown an unexpected talent for hanging drywall even though she had never worked with it before. In the part of China she grew up in all the homes are made of concrete with tile roofs. As we proceed with tearing out and replacing walls and floors, my wife frequently reminds me that if we had been flooded in a Chinese-built house all we’d need to do is wash it out and buy new furniture.

There are about 680,000 families in Mississippi all trying to repair their homes all at the same time we are, so building supplies are in big demand. Local stores are doing their best to keep up with demand, but there is only so much they can do. Just one example: Everyone who was flooded (and still has walls standing) needs drywall.

For several weeks now, the two Lowes Home Improvement Centers has been selling out entire truckloads of drywall in under six hours. I made ten trips over three weeks to purchase drywall, twice successfully but not still able to get as much as I needed. A nephew up in Tennessee finally brought down the remainder of what we needed. But we are making progress and moving up the technology ladder of living conveniences.

Refrigeration happened two weeks ago – not having to scavenge for ice every two days was wonderful. It took better than three weeks for Sears to get our ‘fridge delivered, even after I had a personal chat with the delivery manager. As frustrated as I was waiting for a ‘fridge I had already paid for (while continuing to scavenge for ice) I couldn’t help feeling sorry for the delivery manager. She explained they contracted out all appliance deliveries to a third party company, and when Hurricane Rita approached the entire company shut down and evacuated for a full week.

So now I own a small utility trailer and do the “Cash-and-carry routine to avoid waiting for deliveries. Other contractor services are equally difficult to obtain. And it is the local, well-established companies that seem most likely to not return phone calls or provide price-gouging estimates. After calling six local plumbing companies, I finally obtained service – from a plumber who came down from Tennessee. After weeks of calling contractors for window repairs, I finally received a callback from another out-of-area contractor.

Getting my A/C system replaced has been my biggest disappointment. The A/C Company I have done business with for six years only sent their rep out after my fourth call to give an estimate. The estimate this rep provided was so outrageously inflated (warning hint was when he asked if I had flood insurance – I do – before making the estimate) I found another company.

I can’t help but think that when all hurricane repairs are done, many local companies are going to get a come-uppance. I see private out-of-area contractors as the backbone of commercial recovery efforts here. My nephew from Tennessee (the one who brought us drywall) works for a roofing company that “follows the storm circuit.” He spent most of last year in Florida, was here on the coast the day after Katrina came through, and is now going back to Florida to check on Hurricane Wilma damages. He is part of a growing industry of building contractors that specialize in storm repairs and follow the storm circuits: Florida to Louisiana to Mississippi and Alabama back to Florida again.

But it’s not just home repairs that are big business now. There were tens of thousands of cars destroyed by floodwaters here on the coast, which translates into brisk cars sales from Gulf Coast Residents over a three-state area (Tennessee, Alabama, and Florida). Which also means the local DMV, which itself is operating out of temporary office space while their building is repaired, is way backlogged with new registrations. I recently waited over one hour in line to register the trailer I purchased, and then waited 10 minutes to renew the registration on my storm-surviving vehicle.

But it is the out-of-area volunteers helping out that have touched me most, and left the greatest positive impact. My neighbor has so far had two groups of out-of-area volunteers in to help her replace drywall. One group was comprised of executives from the Virginia Beach, Virginia, area who traveled here at their own expense just to help out, working through their local church. They spent three days dry walling my neighbor’s house, just one of several they worked on during the two weeks they were here.

Another friend had a group of eleven people (traveled down from Indiana via their church) come in to clean out his house. They pulled out damaged drywall and carpets, ruined furniture and appliances, yard debris which included tree limbs, bricks, lumber, and roof sections from neighboring homes, in less than one day. Multiply these two examples by 1000’s and you can get the feel for how many coast people are being helped by out-of-area volunteers who travel here at their own expense just to help us out.

And people from all over the country are continuing to send us supplies. This level of help is humbling to me. I am continually reminded of how fortunate my wife and I are as I hear horror story after horror story of how people who stayed here during the storm managed to survive. As bad as “Storm Day” was for us, so many others had it so much worse.

I do not know a single person here on the coast that has not been touched in some way by this storm. Even people whose homes were relatively untouched now have family or friends living with them who were made homeless. Every time I visit someone whose home is undamaged I have a momentary feeling of disorientation. It may sound odd, but after days of being around homes that are gutted, with the contents piled out by the curb for trash pickup, walking into an undamaged home is a brief touch of normalcy. It’s a brief moment of what life was like for me up to 64 days ago, but it feels like a lifetime.

The only way I can describe the damages here to people who have not been here is to explain: Take the worse storm damage picture you have seen, and multiply it by 60 miles.

Editor’s Note: This article was first published on Daily Kos as Katrina Aftermath Day 63: Life in Chaos on Oct 31, 2005.

Note: Edited on August 29, 2014 for format and grammatical errors.

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