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Archive for Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Disaster is opportunity for some

August 29, 2006

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— Editor's note: This is the third of a four-part series written by Leonard Pitts Jr. in connection with his visit to the Gulf Coast, one year after Hurricane Katrina.

Hurricane Katrina was different storms in different places. In Franklinton and Bogalusa, La., it was a freight-train wind that toppled trees and peeled away roofs. In New Orleans, it was water drowning neighborhoods, old people trapped in attics and communities accessible only by boat.

Here, it was a fist.

A watery fist that rose from the ocean 30 feet high - 40 by some informal local estimates - and smashed down on this part of the Gulf Coast, rending, bending and upending with disdainful ease.

A year ago, when I toured this neighborhood across the street from the Gulf of Mexico, there were no homes left. Only debris fields littering concrete slabs. "What town is this?" I asked a young man. "Waveland," he said. "Or it used to be."

A year later, the same exchange might apply. Oh, the debris fields are mostly gone, but they have not been replaced by homes. Here and there, one even hears hammers knocking against wood, sees wooden skeletons taking shape. But mostly one sees dead and broken trees, vacant lots being reclaimed by nature, white FEMA trailers filled with people waiting and hoping to get their lives back.

I meet Gene Duinchard, 78, standing out in front of his trailer. He is sanguine and philosophical about the loss of his home of 33 years. The day he came back, he says, "there was nothing to see. But I knew that. I mean, you have a house on the beach, you have a hurricane, you know that one of these days you might drive up and there'll be nothing there."

I ask him a few more questions about the future of the neighborhood, and his answers are similarly stoic. Then, in the middle of a comment about whether his neighbors will ever come back, he snaps to attention and points a finger.

"Quote me on this: FEMA. This is pathetic with FEMA. The red tape that I have to go through, they ought to be paying me to come back here after dealing with FEMA. Everything is an obstacle to stop me from building."

He wants the house he had. FEMA, he says, wants him to build something stronger, something higher, something hurricane proof. He scoffs at the requirement. Nothing made of wood by human hands, he says, could withstand the monster that was Katrina.

A few minutes later and down the beach a ways, Vicki Sherrouse and her mother, Mimi, show me a section of the local newspaper that is, they say, thicker than the paper ordinarily is as a whole. It is a listing of homes in the hurricane zone that are being auctioned because property taxes haven't been paid. Column after gray column of names.

People, says Vicki, who aren't here to even know their property is about to be seized.

"These people aren't back. It's like the Lower Ninth Ward."

"What we're finding, too," says Mimi, is "people buying up land for condos and casinos. This has been a completely residential city, totally residential along the beach. But the people aren't back to keep that ordinance up." Her neighbor's house is about to be auctioned, she says. "They knew nothing about it."

"Some people are very focused," says Vicki. "The ones who are focused are the ones who want to move in and take over. And they have the wherewithal to do it. They have the money, they have the mental togetherness."

"They're not the homeless ones," says Mimi.

According to her daughter, Mimi shouldn't even be here. Her lungs are bad. She has to leave the area whenever the wind kicks up the dust and debris. Her doctor doesn't want her here at all.

But here she is. Not unlike Gene Duinchard down the street. I asked if he ever thought about packing it in. "I'm fourth generation," he said.

Leaving the area, I pass an overgrown lot, upon which rests the flattened carcass of a black car. Nearby, there is a sign:

Jeanne Kilpatrick: For All Your Real Estate Needs. Specializing in waterfront properties.

- Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for the Miami Herald.

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