04 June 2007

Sweet Gulf

I took US 90 back from New Orleans today. Last time I traveled that route was December after "the storm" with some labor activists from CA. To that time, without access to a motor vehicle, my exposure to Katrina, Rita and Flood Havoc had been limited mostly to New Orleans and adjacent areas within the parish.

I had come to appreciate the distinction often drawn by locals at the time--survivors had suffered either "wind" or "water." If you'd "had wind" then you were missing a roof and whatever hadn't been tied down in your yard was no longer in the yard. Probably, since the roof was gone, a bunch of stuff in your house was ruined by the rains that followed the "wind." This was the story for my friends on the West Bank.

But if you had "water," you were living in New Orleans when the levees broke. You suffered loss and damage from the wind, but nothing compared to the extent of the wreckage incurred by 3, 5, 8 feet or more of water filling your house and staying that way for some time. Or just washing your house right off its foundations and floating it down the street.

I leaped at the chance to ride along in December because I wanted to see how far east the damaged extended.

What I saw blew my mind. It was worse than New Orleans. I hadn't seen acres of ruined forest in New Orleans. Or boats in trees. Or an entire bridge gone. Or billboards twisted and mangled. It went on for miles and miles. Just past Waveland, the road ended. The bridge was gone.

Not like tornados--which I knew a little bit from growing up in the Midwest. Tornado devastation looks like something big walked through and left footprints. With a hurricane, it looks like something big and mad threw a tantrum--kicking and picking up things and throwing them around and pounding it's fists on the ground.

I was stunned. Humbled. Heartbroken. Awestruck.

That December, we'd had to circle back and go north to I-10 to travel further east. In a strange foreshadowing, the exit we chose as a place to attempt to reconnect to the Gulf Coast road was one of the state roads that lead to Gulport. We actually stopped the car and got out and walked around in Gulfport-- as it turns out, I wandered within half a mile of the site where I live now. And I saw pelicans that day.

Anyway, I wanted to see how things were coming along. So I drove 90 East for the first time since then today. OZ was playing good cajun zydeco stuff that really fit the personality of the terrain. I had all the windows down and the car was filled with the hot, steamy, green-ness of the bayous. It was a beautiful, if heartbreaking drive.

I am coming to love this watery land more and more. But even as my heart celebrated the lush, green recovery of the land in evidence everywhere, I mourned for mile after mile of pillars with no houses perched atop. Trailers parked next to cement slabs where houses used to stand. Devastated, abandoned buildings.

The bridge has been rebuilt. (I'll try to remember to take some pictures next weekend.) The casinos, over in Biloxi (where we ended our drive back in December 2005) have been rebuilt. There was still a lot of ghost-town feeling for me today. The human recovery seems to be going slower than the ecological/botanical recovery.

Maybe there's some validity to the argument that this land is uninhabitable; that any attempt at full-throttle modernization and civilization is doomed here. When I'm in New Orleans, I believe it's absolutely worth every last drop of blood and sweat to try to live here. Out in the wild wetlands of Plaquemines Parish or south Mississippi, I'm not so sure. Driving through the bayou beauty today, I wondered what it would take to learn the ways of this land well enough to live in harmony with it rather than trying to tame or transform it.

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