NPR logo Katrina Was Nothin' Compared to Quentin

Katrina Was Nothin' Compared to Quentin

Jeffrey K. Bounds, who grew up in Gulfport, is an electrical engineer. He became involved in the post-Katrina recovery effort when he went back home to check on his mom and his 97-year-old grandmother. hide caption

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Hardly seems like a year since Katrina hit the Mississippi Gulf Coast. You say it's been 50?

My family's lived on the coast since the 1790s. Katrina really didn't change much on the ground — not like we thought it would! Course, the buildings on the beach are all different — no choice, the Gulf just came up and ate a big chunk of the past! Again.

But in the months after the storm, it was just like after Camille. Everything's gonna be different! We're gonna build better, stronger, smarter! We'll stay out of the wetlands! The Governor's Commission was great, made all kind of promises.

Of course, it all began to unravel as soon as those promises meant somebody had to actually do something different. Didn't help that the first to say "no" to different was the state department of transportation.

And it didn't take too long for the backroom dealers who created pre-Katrina Mississippi to figure out how to finesse those federal dollars and wrestle control back from a public dumbfounded by the idea that anybody would ask them anything about rebuilding. God bless all the New Urbanist planners who came down to help out. They didn't know any better than to involve us ordinary folk.

And they didn't know what hit 'em when the Good Ole Boys got back into the drivers' seat. The Ole Boys don't like the riff raff, you see. Course, the Ole Boys been running things here forever, but they're just sure all the problems of the world are the fault of the local poor folks and ordinary Joes who can't get their trash picked up. I think they just don't know any better.

Before long, cities on the coast were refusing to accept FEMA's Advisory Flood Elevations. So folks could build right back as low as they were before. And they repudiated the new building requirements imposed by the state. Why on earth should we require a building to stand up to 130 mph winds? How likely is that?

Pretty soon, they were even winking and nodding when one of the Ole Boys came in and asked for an "exemption" from the building code. Nobody ever made the connection between what happened in Katrina and 100 years of channelizing meandering creeks and bayous into ditches so the rain water would drain out to the Gulf faster. But it took another big storm before we figured out that a surge can move upstream, into the back swamps, through a channelized stream just as easy and fast as rainwater can run downstream!

'Course, Katrina's surge went deeper into the back swamps than any before, put all those poor folks outta their houses. And sure enough, not two years later, they channelized the last few natural streams so they could build the new Wal-Mart. Well, since nobody wanted to build on the old high parts of town that Katrina's surge never touched, they had to do all the new construction in the back swamps.

No, Katrina didn't really change the way we did things down here at all. Wasn't till Hurricane Quentin, about 10 years later. After the investigation into how so much damage happened all over again, after billions of federal dollars were spent —- well, that really changed everything about the way the U.S. handled disaster recovery. Did I tell you about Hurricane Quentin?