Monday, December 12, 2005

Post-Katrina Update (Kind of Long and Possibly Boring)

Thursday was the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, a day of holy obligation for Catholics, and I got a pleasant surprise when I went to church: we had mass in the church building. Since Hurricane Katrina we've had to have mass in the parish hall, because the storm ripped our roof off and before it could be fixed mold got in the building and people had to come in and dry it out (if you've never seen this, picture a massive dryer vent tube hooked up to a machine and going in the front door) before it could be properly cleaned and repainted. (We're lucky; some churches in the diocese were destroyed.) The mass is the mass whether it's celebrated in a grand cathedral or secretly in a jail cell in communist China, but I don't mind admitting I prefer our pretty sanctuary and padded kneelers to folding chairs and no visible tabernacle in the parish hall.

This was another step toward everything being back to normal for people who go to my church, but, however much better things are--and they are vastly better--things still aren't completely normal in south Mississippi. I came across this page of readers' post-Katrina updates at Amy Wellborn's excellent site (I haven't had time to look at any blog other than The Corner in about a month and a half, but I saw this when I followed a Corner link; she also had an interesting Pullman review ) and I thought an update about people who aren't directly on the Coast might be of interest to some. I can't offer official statistics or anything, only give an idea of what an average person sees.

I live in south Mississippi, about thirty miles inland. Our town was lucky. We never lost water, there was no flooding, we got power and community services back relatively quickly, and hardly any businesses had to close, although some took a while to reopen. All the massive piles of debris (mostly parts of trees) that had been in front of every house and, in some places, piled in the medians are now long gone, but here and there around town there are still a few downed trees in people's yards that haven't been taken care of; more common are damaged trees--for example, leaning badly but not fallen--that haven't been taken care of. Many yards still have holes or big bare dirt areas where trees were pulled out. I've seen roofers working just about every Sunday, not to mention weekdays, but there are still "blue roofs" (a kind of tarp-like thing that FEMA gives out) on houses all over town. There's a lot of trailers and RVs in town, some of them sitting in people's fronts yards; I haven't seen any tents lately, though. Thanksgiving Day there seemed to be an abnormally large number of people at Wal-Mart or eating out; my guess is people living in FEMA trailers found staying at their temporary homes on a holiday depressing. There are a few buildings with severe damage that haven't been--or can't be--fixed and aren't yet torn down. Last I noticed the banks of free phones that the phone company put up in several places around town were still up and the public library still had a sign up saying computer use was now limited to help with Katrina-related issues.

The biggest change in southern Mississippi is the change in population. People have moved off the MS Coast or out of southern Louisiana into more northerly parts of southern MS and LA. The town I live in not only has new residents but is close enough to the coast and to still-damaged parts of Louisiana that we have people from there coming here to shop. So there's a lot more traffic in town. The parking lot of the local Wal-Mart looked like it was Christmas shopping season back in October; now that it is Christmas, it's insane--full parking lot and lines at every register at 9AM on a Tuesday morning. It's a Supercenter, but, not having enough personnel to cope with the increased volume, they still haven't been able to go back to the normal 24-hour a day schedule. Wal-Mart is the busiest, but the story is much the same all over town, especially at the dollar stores. Business has increased so much it's often hard for the store employees to keep everything organized and provide their usual level of customer service. They've mostly adjusted to the increased volume, but for a long while there the stores had trouble keeping shelves stocked--especially cleaning supplies.

On a sociological note, there's suddenly Hispanic people in town, where before this was a white-&-black-with-a-handful-of-Asians town. It's mostly Mexican men, who I assume are here for work; a lot of the new residents aren't displaced people, but workers who've come in for the various clean-up and rebuilding jobs.

The only other town I know much about is Hattiesburg, which is about seventy miles inland. I've been told it has an additional twenty thousand people in town since Katrina--this is on roads that were called thirty years out of date for the level of population ten years ago. I know someone who had a sudden need for housing there in November and couldn't find a hotel room anywhere in town, and discovered that, even though Hattiesburg has apartment buildings everywhere you turn, available apartments were scarcer than hen's teeth. So Hattiesburg has had to cope with a lot of new people in town--with its attendant demands on schools, police, sewers, etc.--in addition to their own hurricane damage, which wasn't inconsiderable; a few weeks after the hurricane I happened to ride by the place where they were stacking trees that had been removed from roads and such, and it was amazing--aisles of piles of trees as far back as I could see.

(To return to the Hispanic note, Hattiesburg does have an Hispanic population, and I heard they were badly hit by the storm. Few speak much English, so it was hard for them to get information afterward, not being able to understand the radio or read newspapers or flyers. Most don't work the kind of jobs that are likely to give pay for any of the days of work missed because of the storm. And some were probably reluctant to go for help to anywhere that might be government-related because, let's be honest, a lot of them aren't legal. The local Catholic churches provided a lot of help though, and I don't doubt other groups did as well; I know a relative of mine was picking up free lunches at a Baptist church--a lot of churches gave out food after the storm--and driving them to a badly affected Mexican family who lived down the road.)

So far I haven't heard of any conflict of the sort one might expect when a town has a sudden influx of people from outside. The closest to that kind of thing I know about was a bit of bathroom graffitti I saw that went, "[name of town] sucks!" and the response "[something insulting] go home!" I guess there isn't conflict because these towns around here that have displaced people are close enough by that the displaced people don't stand out--they're basically the same culturally and may in fact have relatives in their new town. I wonder if it's the same in the towns in other parts of the country that took in a lot of displaced New Orleans residents?

My husband and I visit Lousiana fairly often, Slidell mostly. (Slidell is a town north of New Orleans; the Onion's list of top ten things under New Orleans' flood waters included Slidell.) The traffic situation is the same in LA as in southern MS. Slidell is crazy though. There was flooding and things are less normal there than in MS-- non-Coast MS, anyway. Everywhere you go in Slidell--every single store, every single restaurant--has "Help Wanted" signs up and have for over two months. Some of the fast food places are offering signing bonuses. There's lots of people on the roads and patronising the businesses, but not enough people to work. So you'll see odd stuff like a Taco Bell that closes at five in the afternoon because there aren't enough workers to keep it open. I really don't know what's going on there. Also some places still haven't reopened because of flood damage, but you can see signs of work going on, so I guess it's only a matter of time.

We still haven't visited the MS Coast since Katrina. People who have say it's still really messed up and there's still some roads that are closed.

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