Saturday, August 26, 2006

The Hurrican Katrina storm surge was about 30 feet high, and it took about two and a half to three hours to hit. Three hours was the difference between sitting on your ground floor, anticipating the storm, and being in your attic, or as far as you can get from the rising water. If you were lucky, your attic was above the water after three hours. Think about what you're doing right now, and try to imagine having your home destroyed, or being about to die, in three hours. Three hours doesn't seem like much time to go from total safety to mortal peril. That scares the shit out of me.

We met people who live in both southern Mississippi and New Orleans on our trip, and for the most part they work in either of two production facilities that work for a government agency. They had a lot of the same stories. A lot of people evacuated to stay with friends and family in other parts of their state, but I didn't hear from anyone who was able to get far enough away that they didn't at least lose power for a few days.


My boss, a labor economist, says the workers we interviewed are "walking anachronisms"; they represent something the American economy hasn't been since the best days of the auto industry in Detroit. They've been there for years, some of them decades, and have spent their careers in the same place (even if they haven't always worked for the same contractor). They also had pensions. They have worked closely with each other, and their Katrina stories also involve their coworkers. In both states, we heard stories about helping to gut or rebuild houses; borrowing trucks and chainsaws; cutting trees off roofs; sharing experiences with good and bad contractors and insurance companies and FEMA.

These workers felt, and feel, tremendous pride in their jobs. Their jobs are difficult, with a margin for error that is slim-to-none. More than that, though, they work for the space program, and, as one of them pointed out, for a long time working for the space program was inspiring to the national imagination. They worked for something that represented an amazing promise: that we could do the impossible, the barely imaginable, if we set our minds to it and worked together. That their lives were decimated in the last years of the space shuttle, long after space flight became rote to a lot of Americans, somehow seems especially cruel: the space shuttle will retire, probably with less fanfare than it was launched with, and they still won't have homes.


The long-term outlook is grim. A good portion of New Orleans, and a large portion of southern Mississippi, have lost property tax revenues. The labor force in the New Orleans metro area is still about 190,000 workers shy of what it was prior to Katrina (about 15,000 of those have returned in the last six months). Every key industry is operating well below what it was a year ago. For months after the storm, there were almost no open restaurants. We heard stories from our interviews about looking for hours for places to eat out, then having to wait in line for over an hour and a half once finding one, and then sitting down to see that the menu was three items on one sheet of paper. Six months after the hurricane, 27% of the city's restaurants had reopend. A year later, 33% of them are operating again.

Incidently, we ate incredibly well there. Each restaurant we went to was packed, and each server was incredibly friendly (so consistantly friendly and helpful that one of our researchers speculated that there was a city-wide customer-service training to support revitalization efforts). Also, all but one of them was living in a FEMA trailer. Only one place even mentioned vegetarian options on their menu, but every other one was happy to make something up. I swear, the food in New Orleans was fucking amazing.


Food aside, the local economy is still going to hurt for a while. The hosuing market has changed dramatically. The average price of homes in Orleans and St. Bernard Parishes has dropped substantially, as has the number of homes sold. In nearby West Jefferson and East St. Tammany Parishes, though, the price and sale of homes has risen hugely. The average rent for a home in Orleans has risen almost $300 a month.

The workers we met used to be on the higher end of the local pay scale. Now, though, their wages are not keeping up with the local cost of living. They've seen a lot of attrition in the last year, and there are difficulties bring new people to the area. The money that can be made working as a contractor on home repairs also exceeds what a someone could make working at the facilities we visited. One man pointed out that, now that fast food restaurants are paying in the double digits and offering retention bonuses, it's hard to feel like your wage goes as far as it once did.

Another man described the economic situation like this:

Business doesn’t want to come in unless you have a customer base and also a worker base. But you can’t bring people into the area unless you have business for to support them.

There's a bright spot for Mississippi, though: casinos.

Down on the coast, it will be the casinos that are the bootstrap… the casinos bring the jobs for the people, and tourists. They have very deep pockets. They’re working very hard to get up and operational. They’ve come a long way since they had barges on the main road.

The casinos, we were told, have been the biggest single factor in saving the Mississippi coast. Some of them, we were told, have even built communities of homes for their workers.

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