What Gulf Coast Congressman Gene Taylor wanted the Easter Bunny to bring him.
South Mississippi Living 4/07

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Rebuilding Time is no Mardi Gras

Rebuilding Time is no Mardi Gras

Two days ago, the Gulf Coast Bay Bridge reopened with tremendous fanfare. The lively affair aptly named Bridge Fest reminded me of big celebrations in New Orleans and beat out anything I had seen in San Francisco, Silicon Valley, or the Washington DC areas. Hancock County Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Tish Haas Williams organized Bridge Fest, was overwhelmingly successful. Williams and her staff clearly outdid themselves, and the thousands celebrating—myself included—were grateful.

Two stages hosted live bands playing fabulous dance music. It’s so nice to be back home where people dance in the streets when good music plays. My brother Michael, his girlfriend and I danced through the very last song. What joy! What bliss! They had ridden in one of the 150 antique cars procession that had driven across the bridge to christen its reopening.

Everywhere folks were talking about what the bridge’s opening will do for family, home life, the community, and business. With the elimination of the additional hour in commute time, life can take a giant step to returning to its pre-Katrina norm.

Choosing to participate in and contribute to the energy of bridging communities, families and business, I suspended temporarily my angst over the post-Katrina reconstruction obstacles.

For over twenty months, the cities of Lakeshore, Claremont Harbor, Waveland, and Bay St Louis—my hometown—have felt isolated from our Gulf Coast neighbors to the west of us. Katrina had demolished the bridge disappearing the two miles of concrete somewhere in the Gulf of Mexico which the Mississippi Coastline borders. [See Bridging Worlds.]

After the music ended at Bridge Fest some eight plus hours after the celebration had begun, family and friends pied into a vehicle, and we drove across the bridge in the darkness of the night. Literally. Street lights are not yet on the bridge.

We entered Pass Christian (pronounced chris-chee-anne) at the other end of the bridge and turned right at the first street.

When I had driven on the coastline when I first returned home in March, road blocks prevented me from coming into this part of the Pass. Yes, that’s what we locals call it. “The Pass” There’s a pattern here. “The Bay” for Bay St Louis. “The Pass” for Pass Christian. And then there is “The Kill” for Kiln—spelled K-i-l-n, where Green Bay Packer quarterback Bret Farve is from.

Back to our first night across the bridge. A ghost town. That’s what it looked like. A ghost town that had been through hell before being abandoned. The lack of adequate street lighting on Highway 90 and the side streets cast an eerie ambiance throughout the area.

We stopped at the Marina where boats are dry docked. All rammed into each other and not a one salvageable, seventeen boats remained. The darkness may have prevented me from counting all the boats, but I counted 17 of them.

As I looked at these abandoned dilapidated boats, I remembered Katrina area residents telling me that they’ve heard rebuilding the Gulf Coast and New Orleans will take anywhere from 5-10 years.

I thought to myself, “five to ten YEARS?!” That is incredulous. After all, this is the United States of America. How could this be?! We’re Americans. We exude the ‘can-do’ spirit. As a nation, we delight in overcoming long odds against adversity. It’s one of those fabulous aspects of our American culture, our can-do optimistic spirit.

Even with all the hardships residents in the Katrina region endure daily, their ‘can-do’ spirit and determination remains strong.

The reality here, however, is that insurance companies took premiums and failed to pay out as they should have. Without money to rebuild, where are families going to live? How are businesses going to reopen? Insurance companies are doubling and tripling their premiums. How many Americans can afford their insurance rates going up like that?! To add insult to injury, insurance companies are also choosing not to write policies in the area.

The other reality is that the White House continues to betray the good people inside the Katrina-ravaged area.

In an interview with Diane Sawyer just after Katrina hit, Bush went on ABC’s Good Morning America and said, "I hope people don't play politics at this time of a natural disaster the likes of which this country has never seen."

Two weeks ago, Bush vetoed the bill that would have provided money to the Katrina ravaged area. In its Iraq Accountability legislation, Congress provided more money for Bush’s unprovoked, unnecessary war of choice in Iraq. As is usual in the legislative process, the bill also contained provisions for other items. In this case, the bill contained provisions for Katrina funding. Bush vetoed the bill referring to the Katrina spending as “excessive” and “extravagant.” With his veto, Bush turned his back on alleviating the matching provision which would assist towns and cities struggling to stay afloat financially. Playing politics with the lives of Americans is Bush’s modus operandi.

Two days ago, the music and celebration at the resoundingly successful Bridge Fest ended. We’re coming up on Hurricane Katrina’s two year anniversary.

So much heavy lifting left to do. How much? Friends and family tell me five to ten years to rebuild the area. When they say those words, I see in their eyes a weariness born from going it alone, born from a disbelief in the audacity of betrayal from a White House that fails to care, born from insurance companies they thought they could trust. It’s so unfair.

The words of Bay St. Louis Mayor Eddie Favre continue to resonate with reality here on the ground.

Six months after Katrina in his interview with CNN’s Kathleen Koch,* Favre said, "Our concern is that we're being forgotten. Katrina's no longer the topic of conversation, and it needs to be.” Koch’s two phenomenal documentaries on Bay St Louis aired on CNN. Koch grew up in Bay St. Louis. [Full disclosure. I went to high school and college with Kathleen. I am so enormously proud of her success!]

Residents here should have long ago been able to hang their own Mission Accomplished banners in each town and city Katrina hit, in the windows of every business and home. And those thoughts get me to thinking.

If the Bush Administration had worked as diligently and aggressively in taking care of the problems from Katrina as they had in betraying our trust to take us into an unprovoked war with Iraq or conjuring up political reasons to fire U.S. attorneys, this extraordinary burden on every Gulf Coast and New Orleanian family and business would have long ago been alleviated. That would have been worthy of a Mission Accomplished banner and throwing one hell of bash complete with crawfish and shrimp to eat, good bands to dance to, and festivities to rival Mardi Gras!

No comments: