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

Thursday, August 09, 2007

Normalcy Long Overdue in Katrina-Ravaged Region

by Ana Maria

Two days ago, Mississippi voters in the Democratic Primary ousted Insurance Commissioner George Dale, whose cozy relationship with Big Insurance became his electoral albatross. Surely less than a year ago, Dale anticipated his re-election bid to retain the normalcy he had experienced over the last three decades of running for office.

The campaigns for newly-elected Democratic nominee Gary Anderson and his Republican opponent will recuperate from the primary, then redirect their efforts for the usual hustle and bustle of a general election, which will be held this November. Even inside the chaotic nature of every election campaign, there is a sense of normalcy to that chaos—at least for those of us who’ve been in a few.

Here inside the Katrina-ravaged region, we’re still struggling to return to a sense of normalcy. At Katrina’s ground zero, we still have Wal-Mart as our only grocery store for at least a 30 minute ride in any direction. Insurance companies continue to low ball, delay, and fight tooth and nail to break their legal contracts to pay on legitimate wind damage claims. Reliable, solid, and reasonably priced contractors to repair homes are still miraculous to find. FEMA continues to jerk around municipalities.

Jobs are scarce. More scarce are employees. More scarce still? Housing.

Even hotels are difficult to find. On reflection, that makes sense. When Big Insurance decided not to pay wind damage claims for its wind policy customers, it did screwed over all customers—including the hotels.

What is easy to find are the stories of how folks survived in those first few weeks after Katrina hit.

Turning Family Homes into Hotels and Restaurants

Yesterday, I spoke with a young woman who was going into her senior in high school two years ago when Katrina hit. She works as a concierge at one of the local casino resort hotels that re-opened recently. She is working at the hotel as she goes to the local university.

When I encouraged her to stay in school, she looked me squarely in my eyes and said, “Don’t worry. I was valedictorian of my class. I have every intention of getting my degree.” Good. I asked how her family made out in the storm.

She said that her family lives in Guatier (go-sheyah), Miss., near a river, but the family home only had a few shingles fly off their roof. No other damage. Fortunately, her dad owns a local roofing business so repairing was a breeze. Given the family’s relative fortune in coming out of the worst natural disaster, I asked how many people ended up staying at their place.

Notice, I didn’t ask whether they opened their home. I didn’t ask if anyone had asked to come stay with them. Given the innumerable stories that I’ve heard since returning home in March for my, uh, short surprise visit that has since extended past the few weeks I had intended, I knew that it wasn’t a matter of whether, but how many stayed with them.

The young college student told me that after Katrina, her family helped everyone clear out yards and streets. For at least a month, and maybe six weeks, after the storm, though, they didn’t have any electricity. She said that sometimes they were cooking for 50 people—breakfast, lunch, and dinner. They didn’t know how many or who would show up much less when. It was like running a hotel.


My cousin Eric was living in Slidell at the time Katrina hit. Slidell is 30 minutes east of New Orleans and 30 minutes west of Bay St. Louis, Miss.,--one of the three tiny beach towns that comprise Katrina’s ground zero. When the New Orleans levees broke, parts of Slidell flooded. Eric and his immediate family did ok. His older brother, Chip, who lives in Diamondhead, Miss., just a bit up the road from the western part of the Gulf Coast, lost everything. Recently, Eric shared with me part of his post-Katrina story.

One Big Garage Sale—With a Twist
Like the young woman’s family in Gautier, Eric and his wife Lisa had opened their home to Katrina survivors never knowing how many would be eating with them at breakfast, lunch, or dinner. Fortunately, Lisa is a great cook and loves cooking. Eric said it was like running a restaurant because they had to cook big batches of everything.

Every room in his home housed survivors—including a woman in the last month or two of her pregnancy. He felt badly because the better beds were upstairs which she had to climb for the more comfortable sleeping quarters.

Eric holds a leadership position in an international Catholic prayer circle dedicated to Medjugorje. He put out a call to those members who live on the west bank of New Orleans, because they didn’t get hit by either Katrina or the levee breaks. With creative flare, he asked for everyone to clear out their garages. If it isn’t being used, donate it to those who lost so much in Katrina.

Calls poured in. On his lunch hour, after work and on the weekends, Eric would go pick up furniture, baby clothes, appliances, or whatever people had and networked to give it to those who in need.

He said that he had learned of a very elderly African American lady—around 90 years old, if I recall correctly—who had 15 family members in her home, but she had no stove to cook the meals. A call came in about a brand new stove sitting in someone’s garage waiting to be installed in the house. The family decided that the old stove was fine, and they could donate the stove to the effort.

Eric had one lady tell him that she needed a bed. But the catch was that her husband was a BIG man requiring a king sized bed. Oooo. That’s gonna be a tough one. He told her to pray for it. He had not even reached his home when a call came in—someone had a king-sized bed. Did he know who could use it?

Eric regaled me with story after story similar to that one. In one instance, a mother told Eric that just before the storm, she had just finished decorating her young daughter’s room with everything Shortcake and how devastating losing it had been on her daughter. Now the woman was clearly just sharing with my beloved cousin part of her family’s Katrina story.

Yet, before he knew it, he got a call from a woman who told him that her daughter had outgrown her bedroom, which had been decorated in everything Shortcake. Did he know of anyone that could use it?
Around Christmas time, Eric’s boss approached him asking what he is doing on his lunch hour. He had been watching Eric—a longtime, valued employee—dart in an out for a few weeks. So Eric told him of the garage-emptying project he started. The boss was impressed, of course. What did he do? Noting that Christmas was coming up, he asked how he could best help provide for those families. Eric said “gift cards.”

If I recall correctly, the boss put out an email to all the employees. The company ended up donating piles of $25 gift cards, which Eric and his merry band of friends personally delivered to various families so that the parents could shop for their kids. One woman, whom I’m sure represented the reaction from many recipient, simply cried when Eric handed her the package of gift cards tied neatly with a pretty ribbon. She said that she had no idea how to provide some normalcy in her children’s lives. She thanked him profusely.

Another lady opened her door when Eric knocked. She listened as he said what he was there to drop off. He handed her the gift cards wrapped in pretty ribbon, and without a word, she closed the door. Months later, she got word to him that she was so stunned, so in shock, that she couldn’t say a word. She, too, was grateful for the sense of normalcy the gift cards would bring to her children at Christmas.

Normalcy? What normalcy?
We’re just shy of the two-year anniversary from any sense of normalcy here in the Katrina-ravaged region.

Those who live in New Orleans are suffering because of the levee break and the breakdown in our federal government, which has utterly failed to live up to its obligation to the American people.

Those who live outside of New Orleans, but inside Louisiana—such as those in Slidell, and those of us who live anywhere along the 50 miles of the Mississippi Gulf Coast and into Alabama, also yearn for normalcy.

A sense of normalcy. That is what everyone here yearns for. Anytime some small effort is put forth, all one has to do is take a drive down beach boulevard in Bay St. Louis and Waveland, Miss., then cross the bridge and continue down highway 90 from Pass Christian through Long Beach, Gulfport, Biloxi, and Ocean Springs. The stairs leading to no where represent homes that have not been able to be rebuilt. Same with the slabs that are cleared of debris but overgrown with weeds. And the steel beams standing erect waiting for the walls to be returned to their pre-Katrina place.

For all of us here, a sense of pre-Katrina normalcy is long overdue.

As I hear of all these wonderful, arms wide-open stories of folks making do and doing more than good enough to get through this ongoing crisis, I keep thinking why in the living heck George Bush and the vast resources at his fingertips didn’t and still doesn’t bother to lift much of a finger to restore a sense of normalcy.

Oh, I see.

I forgot to look carefully at which finger he and his administration were collectively lifting.

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