Monday, August 21, 2006

More about the gulf coast trip

One night, at dinner, there was a (humorously, sort of) tense moment when one of the researchers in our party asked our waiter for split checks. He told the waiter it was because we were billing our meals to a government spending accounts, and the waiter said, "you're not with FEMA, are you?" He was nicer to us when we explained we weren't, and then he told us his story about being fucked over and frustrated by FEMA. We've heard a lot of those, actually.

We interviewed over 100 people (mainly white men between the ages of 40 and 60, though a fair number of women in the same demographic range) who live and work along the gulf coast. I expected some of the men we spoke with to start crying (a few of them did). Their lives are totally, completely destroyed. On a previous trip, an interview subject told one of our researchers that, following an industrial accident a few years ago, they went home to escape work, and since Katrina they come to work to escape home. The people we talked with have expressed some of the same sentiment, except that their work is also totally depressing to them, because all their coworkers' lives have been thrown into upheaval. One guy pointed out that when you have stress in either your professional or personal life, you have the other to provide relief; when you have turmoil in both there is no respite. He said he's physically and mentally drained, and he never gets tired of his friends confiding in him; he just gets tired of hearing about Katrina.

Some of the people lost their homes, and various reasons, have not been reimbursed by FEMA or their insurance companies. One man we spoke to had storm insurance, but his insurance company said that, technically, his house was destroyed by flooding (his house flooded after being ripped in half by winds). We also talked to a guy whose house was completely leveled, and FEMA told him he didn't sustain enough damage to qualify for financial relief. The damage, and the need to rebuild or repair, is so widespread that it takes months to get supplies from your local hardware store. A year later, there is no end in sight for many of the people living in FEMA trailers. These trailers are small, too. Smaller than high-end campers, but very few of them only have one or two people in them. They're housing entire families, sometimes multiple generations, even.

A lot of the people we interviewed are skilled laborers, and many of them are repairing their homes (or their kids' homes, or their parents' home) themselves. A problem, though, is that home-repair is a full-time job by itself. Even people hiring contractors to work on their homes are having a hard time making their work and home-repair responsibilities work; there are so many damaged homes and so few contractors that, again, it takes weeks or months to make minute progress. These people are a year out from the hurricane, and they have no long-term prospects for being back in their homes (or even out of a trailer).

Some of them were supposed to be retired by now. They made it to their 50s and 60s, raised their kids, built their homes, saved up for years. Then the hurricane happened. Their house is gone, their kids' houses may also be gone, and their using their retirement savings to rebuild or rent a new place. Now they can't retire.

The stress of all this has ruined families and caused divorce. We also heard a lot of stories about post-traumatic stress; about suicides; about people being stuck in their attics, having to smash through their roof to escape the water; and of people having breakdowns down when the first tropical storm was named this season; the stress of not having a home (or of living in a rental unit that is for sale); and of the effects of all this on kids. One man's kids asks him each morning if it's going to rain today. He sobbed when he told us that.

We heard really nice stories, too. A lot of people had nice things to say about their employer, or the government agency their employer contracts with. We heard near-universal appreciation for the church groups and college students that still come down and stay for weeks or months, helping to clean up, rebuild, or distribute food and clothes. Unpaid volunteers have been more helpful than any level of government. We also heard stories about coworkers banding together to gut their flooded houses and cut fallen trees from roofs, or just coming to sit and drink and commiserate with each other in their ruined house. "We cleaned each other's lives up," one of them said.

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