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Engulfed in the Coast

8/28/2006 12:00:00 AM


I get annoyed at hyped-up anniversaries, dredging up the past, distorting events through the lens of a year’s perspective (or 25 or 15 or whatever number of years we decide is worth marking). On the first anniversary of September 11, I made it a point to ignore all media (while flying across the country). But this one is different for me—personal—because I just spent 10 days on the Gulf Coast, immersed in the consequences of Katrina. I’ve also added new friends to my circle who wouldn’t be here in Boulder were it not for the flood.

My new friend Veronica invited my family and me to visit New Orleans and spend a week at the beach on Dauphin Island, a barrier island off the Alabama coast. Seven days with nothing to do but soak up sun and swim in salty water (in the morning, before the jelly fish) was heavenly. But I was also struck by several oddities of life on this island, battered over the years by storms that are rapidly washing it away. Nearly every home is brand new (built with insurance money) or under construction. Perched on stilts to keep them above the regular storm surges are naked or Tyvek-wrapped balloon frames and finished homes sheathed in vinyl siding. These houses look and feel flimsy, but it doesn’t really matter all that much. Everyone’s well aware that they’re likely to be taken out when the next big one blows through.

The other oddity, for a former East Coaster who’s been watching the debate over placing wind turbines near Cape Cod with some amusement, was the city of oil rigs parked just on the horizon beyond the island. By day they could blend some, gray on gray, still a looming presence but one that could be overlooked. By night they lit up the Gulf waters and the night sky like the New York City skyline. And I seemed to be the only one down there who was bothered by that. Natives smiled indulgently at me when I asked, “But couldn’t anybody do anything to stop that from happening?” What they wanted to suggest, I think (but were too polite to say so) was that I might just want to take my naïve self on back home to Boulder.

We ended the trip with a couple of bittersweet days in New Orleans, eating exquisite food, taking in the stately architecture and wandering the French Quarter, where one shopkeeper begged me to tell people that the entire city is not devastated (as the media love to portray). And it’s true; most of the French Quarter is up and running and ready for business. But we also drove around sad former neighborhoods where red code numbers and slashes spray painted onto the shells of houses are the only signs of the lives once lived there. We walked through the home of a friend who still hasn’t been able to deal with the flood-damaged mess; her family’s furnishings and personal effects still lie piled at odd angles while black mold crawls up every wall.

I wrote last year, when the former occupants of these houses were sleeping in hotel rooms (if they were lucky) or worse, that I should remember how fortunate I was to have a home. At that point I figured that within the year, these folks would be able to return home and begin rebuilding their lives and communities. Sadly, that’s not what I saw in New Orleans. And what I saw may haunt me for the rest of my life.

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