Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Down On The Coast

My sister and niece from North Carolina were in town this weekend, first time back home in a couple of years. So yesterday I drove them, my mother, and my other two sisters down to the coast so they could see the changes since Katrina. Everyone had seen pictures - I've seen thousands, because our field people have needed to take them for our environmental permitting and remediation efforts. But pictures don't really portray the same feeling you get from going down to Biloxi and then driving west to the Bay St. Louis bridge, That's a distance of about 45 miles. Nearly eight months after the storm hit, it looks almost the same. Around Biloxi, on the east, you see homes and buildings with the first floor washed out, or worse, from the beach back about 4-5 blocks - that's the damage that's obvious from Highway 90 - but then you see further back places where 5 houses are gone and 2 are standing. As you go west towards Gulfport, and then Long Beach, and finally Pass Christian, what you see is complete damage - nothing but slabs, or a set of stairs where a house has been - and this first extends back maybe 1000 feet, but by the time you get to Pass Christian on the west, it extends back as far as you can see from the road, across a flat area that goes back at least a mile. At the back of this area, you start seeing the shells of buildings. What you don't see much of here are debris piles. All the debris is either out in the Gulf or was pushed inland by the storm. Some, obviously, got cleaned up since the storm, but inland you see lots of these. There's hasn't been much beachfront to clean up. I can understand why so many developers are absolutely psyched by this - what once were small houses, big mansions, small hotels, restaurants, little retail shops are now this long area of essentially cleared development lots.

But the thing that struck me the most was the people - the lack of people. Biloxi had a population of about 51,000; Gulfport around 71,000. Long Beach, about 18,000, Pass Christian 8,000. The Gulf Coast are had a total population approaching 400,000. When I would go to the coast, one of the things I hated most was US 49, which goes down from Hattiesburg, because the traffic getting into or out of Gulfport was always backed up, long lines of 30 cars in each lane at each traffic light. Now there's almost nothing. Take away the construction workers at the casinos, and it would almost be a string of ghost towns. As we drove along US 90, along the beach, there were times when we were the only vehicle for a stretch of 6-8 blocks. After a while, it really gets to you. You wonder how these places can ever come back. You drive north, and go through neighborhoods that seem to have houses that weren't damaged, and you realize that still there's nobody living there. The people are gone. I know it won't stay this way. There are still hundreds of people, church groups, charities, FEMA, helping people dig out and begin rebuilding. I think I just hoped there would be more by now. For instance - I didn't see any business open anywhere along US 90 - no service stations, no fast food places, nothing. And there are few street signs, so even people who've lived there for decades get lost. The landmarks are gone. I just don't want this place to become another Gulf Shores.

Written by: Harry
The Kudzu Files