We were just looking. Katrina is the American natural disaster of our time; Katrina reconstruction the government challenge of our time. Curiosity and duty compelled us to see them both with our own eyes. Katrina the movie, Katrina the documentary, Katrina as living history. Call it what you want, but everyone who can get there really should see it.
As a reporter, I have nothing much to add to the story eight months after the storm, but my traveling companion, Henry Turley, just might. As a businessman (and board member of Contemporary Media, the Flyer's parent company), he doesn't need a piece of the recovery action or the ulcers. But developers who can produce both upscale New Urbanism developments and mixed-income housing, as Turley has done at Harbor Town, South Bluffs, and Uptown, are in demand as the Gulf Coast cleans up and prepares to rebuild. No other American city the size of Memphis has built more downtown housing in the last 20 years.
In the days before and after our little road trip, the political left and right were equally indignant about the state of things. A Senate committee called for the abolition of FEMA and branded its efforts "bungling." Rolling Stone called Katrina reconstruction "one of the all-time masterpieces of institutional racism" and congressional action "another hand job for the rich." The Wall Street Journal found "the unmistakable aroma of bacon" in pork-barrel appropriations to benefit "casino operators and developers."
Well ... Turley is a developer, and our first appointment in Mississippi was scheduled with Charlie Williams, Tunica's former economic development ace and now chief of staff for Governor Haley Barbour. Our first meeting in Biloxi would be at the Isle of Capri Casino. Devil's den or engine of economic recovery, the casino happens to be one of the few places along the coast open for breakfast.
Turley had been invited to give a speech on downtown development at Millsaps College in Jackson, halfway to the coast from Memphis. As a former Jackson reporter, I knew some people there who might open doors. So we set off down Interstate 55 to see what we could see in Jackson, Biloxi, Gulfport, and New Orleans.
While I drove, Turley spent the three-hour trip talking on his cell phone or working on his speech, for which he had been alotted 15 minutes as part of a three-man panel. A good extemporaneous speaker, he nevertheless writes out his speeches to organize his thoughts. We got to Jackson in time for a quick tour of downtown, the Capitol, the Farish Street historic district which is being developed by Beale Street developer John Elkington, and the blighted art-deco King Edward Hotel next to the railroad tracks. Before reading his speech, Turley ad-libbed a line: "I would put a house on every vacant lot" and turn the one-way streets into two-way streets "so people can get to all these interesting places." It was the headline in the Jackson Clarion-Ledger's story and editorial the next morning.
Williams met us the next morning at the Woolfolk Building, a massive art-deco office building west of the Capitol. He used to live in Memphis and was familiar with Turley's work on the river bluff and happy to introduce him to people with the Governor's Commission on Recovery, Rebuilding, and Renewal on the Gulf Coast. "I'm a liberal Democrat," Turley reminded him, but diversity seems to be a plus in the recovery. "We've got 37,000 people living in trailers," Williams said. He sent us away with a handful of business cards and a pair of Mississippi baseball caps.
The drive down Highway 49 from Jackson through Hattiesburg to Gulfport takes about three hours. We met Joe Cloyd, a 25-year-old Vanderbilt graduate and former aide to Barbour at a fast-food restaurant on Interstate 10 in Gulfport. Five miles inland, the interstate is the line of demarcation between the almost normal and the still devastated. The malls and stores were open and the parking lots were jammed. The Gulfport Wal-Mart, we were told, is the busiest one in the United States. Unfolding a map, Cloyd pointed out three large potential redevelopment sites he would show us: the Veteran's Administration complex, William Carey College's Gulf Coast campus, and the University of Southern Missisissippi's Gulf Coast College.
As we drove and walked around, it was strange to not hear the sound of hammers hitting nails. From Pass Christian to East Biloxi, Katrina destroyed the most expensive homes on the coast along with the meanest, if they were within 200 yards of the beach. In 15 miles of coast along Beach Boulevard (Highway 90) we counted only three sites where there were more than a few workmen. The explanations we heard most were FEMA, the wind-or-water debate over payment of insurance claims (hurricane coverage excludes flooding), fear of rebuilding, the expense of rebuilding at an elevation of 31 feet in order to get insurance, and a labor shortage.
Life goes on at the Great Southern Golf Club in Gulfport, Mississippi's oldest course. Established in 1908, it reopened in March. Greens fees -- cart included -- are $25 for 18 holes. A foursome was teeing off, the Gulf wind at their backs and the ruins of the clubhouse on their left. The course was barren except for some battered palm trees, flanked by devastated homes and vacant lots, giving a singular meaning to "deep rough" and "unplayable lie." Par is 72, one stroke more than pre-Katrina because two greens had to be moved.
"It's going to take more than one storm to wash out some of these people," Turley said. "There's a line about 200 feet back from that seawall where you have to be pretty bold to build. But beyond that I think it will be repopulated. I think they need a big site to make a statement that says 'This is what's possible if you do it right.' You have to lay it out, establish what you mean by desirable development. The attitude in the governor's office was good. They get it. The real problem though is when you get into multiple ownerships. I just don't think they can press the government's right to assemble land. They're Republicans. They're property-rights guys."
The Isle of Capri is one of three casinos operating after Katrina. We had breakfast there the next day with Gordon Brigham, a consultant from Living Cities working with Biloxi mayor A.J. Holloway. Visitors are trickling back to the coast, and we were lucky to beat a crowd that showed up around 8 a.m. Turley doesn't know Holloway but remembered him as a football player at Ole Miss in 1960. Brigham said Holloway likes to remind people that senators Trent Lott and Thad Cochran were cheerleaders when he played.
"If you go at him right away with a proposal he will probably throw you out," Brigham said. "If you give him an idea and let him think about it, you might get somewhere." He painted the big picture. Public meetings on East Biloxi, the poor area, were starting next week. There is a perception that Biloxi has been sold to the casinos and that blacks and Hispanics are being driven out. The scale of devastation is such that a new TVA is needed. The local housing authority must be involved. Mixed-income housing is the goal. "Casino pricing" is the problem -- everyone wants to make a killing.
"What kind of commitment can you make in the next eight weeks?" Brigham asked. He suggested that Turley send Holloway something on Harbor Town and Uptown. "I never sell my work," Turley said. This Philip Marlowe-esque statement of principle seemed to satisfy Brigham. "There's work to be done here, and I need your help." Turley said he would think about it.
Brigham was a little wary when he saw me taking notes. The out-of-town press has not been kind regarding East Biloxi. I later looked up the April 20th issue of Rolling Stone and an article by Matt Taibbi titled "How to Steal a Coastline ... Bush has opened the door for the casinos and carpetbaggers." I found this:
"The Katrina reconstruction effort has been one of the all-time masterpieces of bloodless institutional racism, a resounding tribute to America's unparalleled ability to fuck the poor under pressure. ...
"It's a high-stakes hand of real-estate poker, and the casinos, the condo developers and contractors like Halliburton are the ones drawing extra cards. ...
"The Go Zone (Gulf Opportunity Zone, passed by Congress in 2005) is just another hand job for the rich, of the sort that has become a staple of the Bush administration's post-Katrina strategy. ...
"The story here will probably end with East Biloxi slowly disappearing against a steady advance of condo developments and curio shops; sometime around 2010 the last black resident, a poor grandmother who bought her home for $60K in the Fifties, will finally sell after her property-tax bill, reflecting a new assessment, shoots past her annual Social Security disbursement."
This attack was not unlike one that appeared on The Wall Street Journal editorial page on April 27th: "Just when you thought Republicans had sworn off pork spending, along comes an emergency appropriations bill that has Capitol Hill engulfed in the unmistakable aroma of bacon. President Bush has requested $92.2 billion for Iraq and hurricane relief, to which GOP Senators have added $14 billion or more in earmarks to benefit casino operators, condo developers, the shrimp and oyster industry, defense contractors, cotton and corn farmers, and other urgent priorities."
East Biloxi is in much better shape than New Orleans' Ninth Ward, which, of course, is not saying much. We drove past a mix of FEMA trailers, empty houses, and occupied homes that appear to have survived intact or been repaired. Turley pointed out several modest shotgun houses with decorative trim, a porch, potted plants, and a fresh coat of paint, saying, "There, I want to build that."
After spending a night across from the beach in a motel that survived and was open above the first floor, we drove west to Bay St. Louis. At the bay, U.S. 90 was closed because the bridge was out, and we had to go north to Interstate 10 and double back. Old Bay St. Louis, the pretty waterfront downtown, was hit hard. Most of its restaurants, homes, inns, antique shops, and even its bluff and sidewalk were washed away.
Condos and "Floridaism" will replace funky, predicted Don Blanchard, 71, a retired air-traffic controller who was out for a walk. He gave us a short lesson in geography and building codes. His house was at 14.5 feet elevation. He built it 11 feet higher, but it was destroyed anyway. To rebuild and get insurance, he would have to go up another five feet to 31 feet. After 25 years of coastal living, he and his wife have had enough. They are moving to Wiggins, Mississippi, 20 miles inland. "This should all be turned into a national park," Blanchard's wife said, sweeping her hand across the horizon.
Coming into New Orleans from the east, we passed mile after mile of abandoned malls, apartment buildings, and neighborhoods. We stopped in Gentilly to visit with Vincent and Jan Bologna, the brother and sister-in-law of Turley's partner Tony Bologna. He showed us before and after pictures of his restaurant, Teddy's Grill -- the equipment he kept spotlessly clean that was now covered with mold, the water line, the place where the tables and booths used to be, and their house, which was also flooded. He was nearly finished rewiring the restaurant building himself, proudly pointing to the labyrinth of wires between rows of studs. He hopes to rent it to someone, perhaps for storage, although the prospects for the neighborhood do not look good.
As much as anything, fixing up the building seems to fulfill a need to do something constructive. At 55, Vincent isn't sure he has the energy to start again. "For 36 years I ran this place. It's hard to walk away from it." As we toured the upstairs, a thunderstorm unleashed a cloudburst and rain poured through the open windows onto the wooden floor. We offered to help mop it up, but Jan said not to bother. "It could be worse," she said.
We had an afternoon appointment with developer Pres Kabacoff at his company, Historic Renovations Inc., or HRI. Kabacoff is the Henry Turley of New Orleans, only on a much bigger scale, Turley pointed out. He looked to be in his 50s and was wearing a blue golf shirt and white jeans. Seventy percent of HRI's employees in New Orleans lost their homes. In addition to his celebrated renovations, Kabacoff is also known for getting Wal-Mart to build a superstore in inner-city New Orleans on the site of a former public housing project, a controversial wrinkle in the New Urbanism model.
Turley is a great admirer of Kabacoff and likens his role in the rebuilding of New Orleans to that of architect Christopher Wren after the great fire which destroyed London in the 17th century. On one side of the rebuilding debate are developers like Kabacoff and the Urban Land Institute, who believe, as the New Orleans Times-Picayune, has written, "The only viable option, many experts say, is to concentrate the city's rebuilding efforts on the highest and most sustainable parts of New Orleans."
That view was savaged by, among others, writer Gary Younge, the New York correspondent for the London-based Guardian, writing this month in The Nation: "Organized money has something else in mind: the destruction of many of those communities, the permanent removal of those who lived in them, and a city that follows the gentrification patterns of racial removal and class cleansing that have played out elsewhere in America. ... Organized people are trying to move to higher ground; organized money is trying to sell the land beneath their feet."
Kabacoff said he has made six trips to Washington, D.C., to lobby unsuccessfully for more money for mixed-income housing. The vested interests, or "the poor lobby" as he calls it, refuse to allow the rules to change. From the windows of his 31st-floor office, he pointed out the red roofs of a housing project known as Iberville, which he wants to redevelop with a mix of low-income and market-rate housing. He favors incentives for market-rate residents so they will live in the inner city. A group called "Keep Your Hands Off Iberville, Kabacoff" opposes him. From Kabacoff's office window, we could see the drawbridge over the levee and, on the other side, the Lower Ninth Ward, our next stop.
Nothing prepares you, several people told us. The damage on the unbroken side of the levee is bad enough. On the lower side of the floodwall the destruction is, as everyone has seen on television, total. The sun had come out, the smell was gone, and a few other cars of Katrina tourists were driving around the now-cleared streets. The debris was still piled up in yards and vacant lots. Workers in orange vests and hard hats were inspecting the levee, mile by mile. We drove up and down blocks of abandoned homes, many with holes punched in their roofs, witnessing firsthand the scenes we had seen so many times on television. A few people were gathered in a tent behind a sign that read "tools for rent, donations accepted."
I asked Turley what he would do. He suggested a reverse auction of the whole Lower Ninth Ward but then said title searches and thousands of owners would probably make that a long, drawn-out process.
"I am not critical of the official inaction," he said after we got back to Memphis. "Having gone through the process myself here, and seeing how slow and cumbersome things are in spite of good intentions, they are so encumbered with rules and regulations and all that crap that it's hard and complex to do anything down there. It's just overwhelming. It will be a long time before they get anything together. I think the federal government should be criticized for not sending a Colin Powell or a Rudy Guliani. But if you believe in state's rights and local rights, you don't do that. You say, 'Hey guys, we'll help you, but you figure it out yourself.'"
In contrast to Gentilly and the Ninth Ward, the Garden District, Tulane University, and Audubon Park survived the storm in good shape. The disconnect between destruction and tourism was magnified by the election campaign that was coming to an end that weekend. The median in St. Charles Avenue, where the streetcar ran before it was taken out of service last year, was filled with campaign signs. We drove to the Pontchartrain Hotel, a Garden District landmark that opened in 1927 but now looks as elegant as a $100 suit.
At the hotel's Bayou Bar, piano player Armand St. Martin sang his composition "Waiting for My Trailer," sung to the tune of Fats Domino's "Walking to New Orleans":
I'm waiting for my trailer
Waiting for my trailer
Can't be so very hard
Drop it here in my yard
Waiting for my trailer
Really a dileeemma
Talked again to FEMA
They think I'm on the list
But they say I don't really exist
I'm waiting for my trailer
They think that we're insane
Living in a flood plain
We wouldn't have all this soul
If we weren't born down in this bowl
I'm waiting for my trailer.
The cab driver who drove us to the French Quarter said the convention business was terrible, and his trade was way off. But on this Saturday night the French Quarter was doing a reasonable impression of business as usual. In the bar of the Omni Hotel, jazz pianist Bobby Ellis played nonstop from a repertoire, he said, of 3,500 songs. We joined a group of campaign workers and conventioneers drinking champagne and Sazeracs mixed by a black-tied bartender named Marshall. We wound up eating dinner later at Galatoire's. There were several people waiting, but Turley spotted a vacant two-top around the corner. The hostess gave it to us after I borrowed a sport jacket from the collection hanging by the door. Waiters in tuxedos with linen napkins over their arms hurried across the black-and-white tile floor, and the scene was reflected in the mirrors on the walls. The dining room was packed with what looked like Tulane students on dates and a noisy birthday party that occupied two tables of 12. When the waiters brought out dessert, the toasts and the singing began. The patrons donned red clown noses and sang a rousing chorus of "Happy Birthday."
In the election the next day, Mayor Ray Nagin led the field but faces a runoff against Mitch Landrieu, the candidate Kabacoff was supporting. We checked out of the Pontchartrain and headed back to Memphis. Neither of us felt like disaster voyeurs. On the contrary, it seemed like something everyone should see.
"I felt much better after we got back," Turley said later. "Okay, at least I've seen it and talked to a few people there. I want to go back. Somebody asked me to go to India, but no, I want to go back down to the Gulf Coast. I feel like I might be able to contribute a little bit."