Brother Jim and Elisabeth and I returned to where Jim &
I grew up -- to the extent that we did - for March 13-24, 2006:
back to good ol' Fairhope AL. I felt the old ease that comes
from returning to places known all my life. Fairhope is pretty
and getting pricey as the wintering "snowbirds" come
down permanently after retirement. The town was a utopian community
based on the tax ideas of Henry George, and still retains some
of that quality.
Hurricane damage was common--wrecked piers,
houses blown out down at Gulf Shores, groves of pines snapped
off halfway up. But the big show was New Orleans, where Elisabeth
& I spent two nights. The wreckage is vast, many square miles
of homes flooded or roofs blown through. Signs on walls: LOOTERS
SHOT; on a roof: HELP; a plaintive WE'RE HERE; an amusing FOR
SALE: SOME WATER DAMAGE on a condo completely gutted. Canal Street
businesses were pillaged and most are still closed. Trucks filled
with scrap rumble along the roads. Red-shirted crews wheelbarrow
dark debris out of good brick homes. Blue tarp covers breached
roofs. Water line marks of scummy yellow remain at head height.
We took a bus tour of the destruction and
saw many square miles totally lost--and we couldn't go into the
9th Ward, the poorest, at all; still searching for the missing
400 bodies with scenting dogs before bulldozing whole blocks
at a time. The guide told us that after the Feds and National
Guard took over from the police, around 2000 looters and gangs
were killed and dumped without ceremony into the river. He told
of a nurse he knows at Tulane Hospital who left work in her car
and found at an intersection a man standing beside the car, pointing
a pistol at her head. An instant later he went down, hit at a
range of over a hundred meters by a sniper. With low buildings
common, a trained shooter can command a wide area. So a Fed force
cleared the city. The surge of illegal Mexicans into the Gulf
Coast, which we heard a lot about, has brought a migration of
the some tough gangs from California. They use the illegal worker
infrastructure as shelter, and are in the last few months occupying
the drug niches left open by the Fed clearing. Killings in NOLA
dropped from an average of 3 or 4 a day before Katrina to zero,
until mid-March, when they began again--apparently turf wars
and immigrant heist artists of the type who prey on small stores.
Meanwhile, a chicken-&-egg problem
besets the legitimate reconstruction. We saw trailers occupying
the parking lots of factories, put there not by FEMA (whose name
is now a common curse word, along with ACE, the Army Corps of
Engineers) but by the factory owners. Their employees live there
to keep the companies running.
But employees with school children are
reluctant to return unless they can get their children slots
in the decent schools, i.e., the private and largely Catholic
ones. Catholic schools are 85% back to enrollment, whereas the
NOLA public system, rated the lowest big city system in the USA,
is only 15% back. Along with water, power, stores, phones (none
of the central NOLA system is back, though our cell phones worked
fine), these are the essentials that must go into place nearly
simultaneously to lure many back. And some are gone for good.
NOW HIRING signs abound everywhere and restaurants are understaffed.
Even Galatoire's and NOLA, my favorites, were undermanned and
not full but still wonderful. The town is starving for business--go!
Political leadership is confused. Height
minima for rebuilding were not issued until April 13: 3 feet
between floor and soil. The spotty reclaiming work is nearly
all private. Those clearing houses wear red shirts: volunteers,
mostly from churches around the country. Mold has run up the
walls of flooded homes and covers the ceilings with musty brown.
A new election year promises high rhetoric and low achievements.
Axes grind as the bulldozers grunt. Illegals do a lot of the
The utterly foreseeable failures of aid
mechanisms, from city to Federal level, have disabused many who
expected the promised, flowering restoration. Louisiana Senator,
Mary Landrieu (D), is asking Congress for $250 billion to
rebuild New Orleans! If you are one of the former 484,674 residents
of New Orleans (every man, woman, child!), you each get $516,
528. If you have one of the 188,251 homes in New Orleans, your
home gets $1,329,787. A family of four? - you get $2,066,012.
The New Federal Rich. Never happen
I believe the region will come back, but
another heavy hurricane season would drive many away for good.
I believe the best use for the flooded areas of NOLA, and the
wrecked downs along the coast, may lie in not repopulating them
very much. Turn the low areas into golf courses or other recreation.
Let people live further inland. Pump the economy with tourists
and vacationers and revitalize New Orleans.
Think of it as a city like Las Vegas, not
like Houston--fun and sun. Real estate in Fairhope has climbed
as buyers come in from the other Gulf Coast states. Our parents'
home, now owned by Jim, is worth about twice what it was a year
ago. Our father built well and back from Mobile Bay; still, holding
on risks loss in another hurricane.
Some businesses in Fairhope have closed
because they thrived on tourists, who aren't coming. Though "snowbirds"
seek to move to the warmer clime, and save on heating bills,
there may come to be a different bill to pay, one that will threaten
every late summer. The whole coast seems to be holding its breath,
and holding on.
Dr. Gregory Benford is the Nebula-winning author of The
Sunborn and Timescape,
and a frequent contributor to Challenger.