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Colorado CollegeBulletin | March 2006

The Gulf Coast Lull

To illustrate just what the Gulf Coast is up against after Hurricane Katrina, consider one particular house on the Mississippi coast. It flooded during the hurricane; the water remained during an intense post-storm heat wave. Then the house sat untended for a while, until Iain Hyde ’06 and his group of 27 volunteer CC students showed up, armed to the teeth with crowbars.

“I can’t really describe it,” Hyde says. “It is the worst smell that I’ve ever come across. Equating it to rotten eggs just wouldn’t do it justice.”

The Sheetrock® is covered with a blackish, greenish mold. Where standing water got a chance to soak in, soggy couches continue to stink things up. Other houses are littered with debris, Hyde says. He found shingles, tree limbs, trash — one house was littered with what appeared to be the remains of hundreds of boxes of frozen shrimp. In these working conditions, facemasks are essential, because of lung and eye irritation.

And then there’s the washing machine.

“I almost vomited when I smelled it,” Hyde says. “Nothing can prepare you for what you see when you get down there.”

The volunteer group, a co-production of CC’s Center for Service and Learning and Hyde’s Sigma Chi fraternity, helped gut those flood-damaged houses. All the debris and ruined furniture came out. Ditto for the carpets and the wallboard.

Gutting a house generally takes a group of 10 almost a week, according to Rebecca Rich ’05, who volunteered on the Gulf Coast through the nonprofit Hands On USA. At the end of that long and smelly process, the house is stripped down to the joists — not close to habitable, but ready to begin another long process: rebuilding.

Now multiply that one house by an entire coastline.

“The scale of work that needs to be done is absolutely astronomical,” Rich says. “It’s hard to look very far in the future.”

In a devastated region where many people are living in trailers, feeling that their futures are in the hands of insurance companies and the federal government, life is lived one day at a time. Transition to the post-storm world is slow — very slow.

“Our single biggest problem is lack of transition,” said Jack Jelenko ’74, who owns a New Orleans-based wine marketing and distribution firm called Partners Wine Marketing Group. He managed to move back into his house Jan. 16, after repairing wind and flood damage. “People are frozen right now,” he says.

Jelenko knows that from experience. He started the Crescent City Restaurant Rebirth Project, which gives grants to area restaurants to help them reopen. Some just need a few new tables and chairs; others need a refrigerator. But insurance companies, he says, aren’t working quickly. They pick fights over the definition of “flood,” and whether water driven by the wind — as opposed to, say, a swollen river — counts as a flood.

“We have to fight and pull teeth,” Jelenko says. “It would be laughable if it weren’t so tragic.”

But the here-and-now attitude goes further.

“My tolerance for meetings that are anything but concrete has gone down to nil,” says Walter Baer P’06 P’08, the priest and rector at Grace Episcopal Church in New Orleans, which took on four feet of water during the storm.

Local politics, Baer adds, has become something of an obsession. The public radio station is broadcasting more local content, more people read the newspaper, and the recent local elections were a hot topic.

“I’ve never seen anything like it,” he says. “The work of the clerk of the court is all of a sudden very interesting.”

The intensity of now even catches up with volunteer workers.

On the Gulf Coast, “You just kind of forget to think longer term,” says Rich, who recently returned to her Massachusetts hometown, where she experienced a bit of culture shock: “You get home, and people are planning.”

For others, the focus on now is part of the appeal.

“It was so obviously purposeful to be there,” says Tess Wilkes ’05, a native of New Mexico who spent most of February volunteering at a soup kitchen outside of New Orleans. “I’d wake up to someone bellowing that they needed servers. People need to eat, and we were feeding people.”

Christopher Dunn ’87 moved into a residence hall at Tulane University in New Orleans with his family on Aug. 27, 2005. He teaches Spanish and Portuguese at the school, and was all set to become the first professor in residence — part of a program meant to encourage more faculty/student interaction.

A few days later, as the freshmen class moved in, the evacuation orders came.

“We packed a couple of suitcases and hit the road,” Dunn says. The family headed east on Interstate 10, driving first to Pensacola, Fla., and then to Tallahassee, where they watched the destruction unfold on a friend’s television. He ended up moving to Ithaca, N.Y., from which he telecommuted, putting together a spring schedule and doing other administrative tasks by phone and e-mail.

Now that he has returned to New Orleans, he and his colleagues face an entirely different challenge: saving the university. The school needs to attract tuition-paying students, an uncertain task given the high-profile hurricane damage. Professors are essential too, but some have left for other jobs, Dunn says. Trying to make lemonade out of the situation, the school is branding itself as a good place to get an education and watch a city renew itself at the same time.

“They have to put that word out,” Dunn says. “Whether they’re going to be able to pull it off is another question. Everybody’s very concerned about the next six months.”

In a sense, Tulane is a microcosm of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast region. Tourism is a big business, but like a college, it depends on people actually coming to town with money. And despite the well-publicized 2006 Mardi Gras celebration, Jelenko says, thousands of houses look today pretty much like they looked the week after the hurricane.

“We have to have people coming back — visitors,” he says.

Complicating the situation further, a labor shortage is leading some businesses to extreme measures. “Two thousand dollar signing bonuses and $12 per hour. Guess where: McDonald’s,” he says. 

Then there’s the identity crisis. As the city starts to pick up the pieces, Jelenko says, it will have to work at preserving the old, gritty flavor that added to its tourist appeal in the first place. “This is not white-bread land,” he says.

The Southwest Boom

The town of Benson, Ariz., issued one building permit in 2003. In 2006, it has 30,000 homes slated for development. The numbers provide a dramatic example of the Western real estate boom, as a growing population led by retiring baby boomers seeks out the next great place to live. It’s big change on a big scale, and it may shed some light on the challenges faced by the Gulf Coast.

Meet David Parsons ’92, the co-founder of Conservation Properties, a company developing a 198-home eco-friendly sub-division in Patagonia, Ariz. All but 5 percent of the land is dedicated to open space, and Parsons promises to manage storm water effectively, clear out nonnative species, and reseed native plants. In short, he wants to leave the place better than he found it, environmentally speaking. He’s even helped create a community stewardship organization, La Semilla, to watch over the land and educate the people who live there about it.

And while developers often join politicians and lawyers as recipients of public wrath, Parsons says that with his project, things have been different: “For the most part, we’ve had a very positive reception.”

One of the key drivers in making the development happen, Parsons says, is the thoughtful purchasing habits of the baby-boom generation. He sees green housing developments as something of a natural extension to fair-trade coffee, organic produce, and the Toyota Prius.

“The trends (boomers) pick up, they’re going to influence in a major way,” Parsons says.

That’s the economic push, but community acceptance is another matter. Change is never easy, Parsons says, but so few people live in rural Arizona (at least so far) that it makes the process easier. “The scale of our community is such that it leads to open discussion and collaboration,” he says.

When it comes to affecting change in an older, larger city like New Orleans, there’s much more built-in difficulty, to say nothing of the post-disaster emotional pitch. “The opportunity is there, but there are lots of stakeholders in New Orleans,” Parsons says. “The West doesn’t have that. It’s much younger.”

The Northwest Slide

It may be hard for the Gulf Coast to recover, but the job is far from impossible, according to Jane Volinn Preuss ’66, who specializes in disaster mitigation planning for Seattle-based PlanWest Partners. The rule of thumb, she says, is that communities that were headed downhill before a disaster will continue to head downhill. Communities that had something going for them end up doing OK.

“Existing trends are accentuated by the disaster,” she says.

When a 1996 landslide destroyed 140 homes in Kelso, Wash., Preuss says, “The economy never really recovered,” probably because “Kelso already had been losing businesses before the landslide.” Contrast that with Anchorage after the 1964 earthquake, a tremor so powerful that it created a tsunami that killed people in northern California. Anchorage had oil exploration and an optimistic construction boom going for it, so it recovered.

And what does New Orleans have going for it? For one thing, jazz, Preuss says. For another, spirit. “There are resources that people who live there will bring to bear — even if it’s not money,” she says. “It’ll come back, although the neighborhoods might look different when it’s all over.”

Still, it’s a long-term project, and it will take individual action from many individuals — people like Jean-Marc Duplantier ’96, who, despite all the havoc wreaked on New Orleans, is planning to move there soon with his wife and new baby. The couple currently lives in Covington, on the north shore of Lake Pontchartrain.

“I think we’re fairly optimistic,” Duplantier says, even though it might be hard to find a place to live: “Prices for dry houses have really gone up.”

About the top image: Sarah Rodriguez ’09 ponders hurricane damage in Pass Christian, Miss., wondering where to start to help. Photo by Maria Barsallo ’07.