Hurricane Ike, a Category 2 storm, hit the Gulf Coast of Texas and Louisiana on Sept 13, 2008. The storm’s surge flooded the coast and caused billions of dollars worth of damage. According to residents of Crystal Beach on Bolivar Peninsula, just east of Galveston, where Ike hit the hardest, there is no official death count. Crystal Beach wasn’t under an order for mandatory evacuation. No one is sure how many stayed behind or how many were lost. Entire houses disappeared with no trace. Much of the peninsula is still uninhabited. Jean Peshenella showed a friend from New York the slab where his cabin used to be. He sold it six months before the storm and feels very lucky. A few more miles east in Gilchrest, Joan Vogel was shocked to find her home relatively damage free. It was one row of houses in from the coast. Only a handful of homes remain there. The pylons holding the house up were cracked, but her windows didn’t break, so her house didn’t flood. She now has beachfront property. Her insurance company covered the repair, but nothing makes up for her missing neighbors.
As I write, Angela Street in Arabi (just outside of New Orleans) is underwater. A heavy downpour is causing some minor flooding, a reminder of the area’s vulnerability. Waiting for approaching storms when you are a property owner is no fun. Coastal erosion has added to the mix of already dangerous conditions for those who inhabit coastal areas
and low lying one’s like New Orleans, a reality one must deal with every hurricane season. Whether one acknowledges the connection between global warming and unstable weather conditions or not, hurricanes are a force to be reckoned with.
Watching people rebuild with the Gulf in their backyard and the ruins of damaged structures dotting the landscape left me scratching my head. Yes, it is nice to live next to the sea, even a polluted one. The Gulf Coast from Galveston to Cameron is polluted with all manner of contaminates. A sign on the beach at the Sabine Pass, where Texas and Louisiana meet, warned not to go into the water due to high levels of unfriendly bacteria. But a few miles further east I found people swimming and catching fish; pollution doesn’t lower peoples’ desire to enjoy the sea. Why do people go back after a storm and rebuild? There’s no single answer, but the concept of “home” is a common denominator. Sony Meaux of Holly Beach, LA is sixty-five and though he lost his home to Hurricane Rita and then a trailer home to Ike, he and his wife Loretta moved into a new trailer home on his lot. He reopened his seafood shop in a giant freezer and sells crabs and shrimp. He doesn’t know anything else and isn’t planning to ever live anywhere else.
The people I spoke to on Bolivar Peninsula and in Holly Beach are frustrated by new government regulations. Many cannot afford to comply with revised building codes. The new codes call for construction at costs much higher than their homes were worth. The Meaux’s were sent a certified letter saying their power will be cut since their trailer home is now an illegal dwelling. The local government is trying to force them out. Coastal communities that were made up of working and middle class people will now be accessible only to the rich. The rich aren’t any more protected in the event of a storm surge than the poor; though some of the hurricane-proof homes did make it through Ike, most did not. A mobile home can be moved before a storm, so it isn’t in danger. But economic factors dictate what’s acceptable these days. If a residence has a license plate on it, the owner doesn’t pay property tax. The Meaux’s aren’t asking FEMA (Sonny says he has yet to meet anyone from FEMA) for money; they have spent their own. If the government would stop trying to regulate them, the rebuilding process would happen much faster. He is convinced the new rules are about economics, not safety.
Ike hit as a Category 2 storm. Nothing is in place to stop nature from whipping up a Category 3, 4 or 5. The big one is still an ominous possibility.