On Recovery, Or, A Tale Of Two Louisianas

There have been many stories told, and there will be many stories to tell, of how New Orleans and the communities to the southeast struggle to recover from the hurricanes of 2005.

Before I began researching this story, I assumed that pattern would be the same across the entire Louisiana Gulf Coast.

But I was wrong.

Have you ever heard of Houma, Louisiana? Houma is the largest city in Terrebonne Parish. (For those not familiar, a parish is the equivalent of a county.)

To set the stage, here’s some background information about the Parish:

--In an uncommon move, the City and Parish governments were combined some time back.

--When you think of Cajun culture, think Terrebonne Parish. The southern Parish is bayou country, and there are lots of hunting and fishing “camps” in the area. So many bayous, in fact, that the “Swamp Thing” comics are set here.

--The city of Houma officially sits 13 feet above sea level. Portions of the southern Parish are, literally, sea bottom. More about that later.

Hurricanes Katrina and Rita did affect the Parish, but not in ways you might expect. And the biggest change in the Parish might turn out to be more or less unrelated to the hurricanes.

Jean Bomvillain, the Parish’s tax assessor, told me in a March 1st telephone interview that there’s been a continuous period of growth following the storms which continues today. He also told me that since the storms:

--The tax base has gone up-assessed value in the Parish is up $40 million, in fact.

--Sales tax revenues for 2006 were $9 million higher than 2005.

--There are an additional 3000 new housing units that did not exist before the storm. Despite this, he reports a housing shortage.

--About half of the 20,000 residents of New Orleans and the other southeast Parishes that temporarily came to the Houma area have remained to become permanent residents. As a result, Terrebonne Parish’s population is about 110,000, he estimates. FedStats estimated about 107,000 in 2005.

--He does not see an enormous impact from the problems surrounding the “Road Home” program in the Parish. That’s not a unanimous opinion, however.

The reason for the difference between Terrebonne Parish and Orleans Parish (or Jefferson, or Plaquemines, for that matter) is that the hurricanes really did very little damage here. The nearby Vermilion Parish school district site has images that will give you an idea of what the local flooding looked like afterward.

There have been some permanent problems. Real estate has been affected in the southern Parish quite profoundly. Here’s what Mr. Bomvillain, the tax assessor, told me:

--There was an 8 foot storm surge, and as a result, to obtain insurance, houses in the affected area must be raised 9 feet. Let’s not just gloss over that-try to imagine raising your house and sitting it on a 9 foot tall platform sometime. Now consider what that will do to your property value.

--The coastline is sinking. Mr. Bomvillain reminded me that Louisiana loses “the entire State of New Jersey every year” to this phenomenon. I asked the assessor if this land had to be removed from the parish tax rolls.

It does not. It becomes the sea bottom portion of the Parish. The value of the land is appropriately reduced, I was told; but because the parish collects oil drilling royalties from offshore activities, they can’t just “lose” (my quotes, not his) the properties that become submerged.

As a result of all this, the character of the parish will change. Already something close to 90% of local construction activity is occurring around Houma, and it’s not likely the southern portions of the Parish will return to previous levels of hunting, fishing, shrimping, or its other businesses anytime soon, if ever.

On the other hand, if you talk to someone in Houma in a retail or service business, things are pretty good.

Particularly if you talk to Mary Strickland, over at “A Stitch In Time”. She told me that Katrina really wasn’t a big deal in Houma, and that Rita was the one that affected them. Even at that, she reported to me that she was only closed for 5 days, while Houma waited for power to be restored from other parts of the State. “50 miles makes a difference” was how she explained what happened.

How about her business? She told me that immediately after Katrina she did a substantial business in dry cleaning and restoring evacuee’s clothing and belongings. But she also told me the new residents have had a positive impact on her bottom line. There are new businesses opening in Houma that relocated from New Orleans.

She told me about other changes to the city: she mentioned that she perceives an increase in crime, especially robbery and burglary. She also noted that apartment rents have increased “phenomenally”. On the other hand, she told me her shop’s rent had not changed, remaining “$1 a square foot”.

She made two other comments that I found most interesting.

She said Louisiana “needs to do the Dutch thing” to stop coastal erosion.
In the very next sentence she said: ”if Louisiana would get 50% of our oil revenue (referring to royalties from offshore drilling) we wouldn’t have to ask the government for help” paying for shoreline improvements.

As I said at the top of the story, the recovery issues in New Orleans will, for obvious reasons, hold our attention for some time to come.

But below the surface there is a second Louisiana recovery-a Louisiana who, at the moment, has mostly escaped one disaster, and feels optimism about the future; but worries about another disaster that they know will eventually come if they can’t stop it.