IN HOLLY BEACH, THE FUTURE WILL BE CLEANER, QUIETER, AND STORM PROOF

IN HOLLY BEACH, THE FUTURE WILL BE CLEANER, QUIETER, AND STORM PROOF

A razor-sharp sliver moon of hung in a black sky. We had arrived at Holly Beach near midnight on the eve of Fourth of July. The beach was quiet and deserted except a few pick-up trucks and a handful of camper trailers. We rode up and down the beach illuminating the brown sand with the headlights of a rented car, occasionally passing pickup trucks, the beds full of young people out for a late-night cruise .

A little further inland, between the shore and the highway, RVs crouched in little clusters, and a few newly-built beach houses stood in the air like birdhouses on 17 foot pilings. Some were simple pre-fab houses, a few were more grandiose two story affairs with wrap around decks and weather vanes atop their steeply-pitched rooves. The scene, at first glance, was unremarkable: just a little group of vacationers, here to enjoy an annual tradition on this muddy beach in South Louisiana—a tradition that, like the small resort community that once stood here, all but disappeared in the wake Hurricane Rita. When the storm made landfall four years earlier on this isolated Cajun beach-town in southwest Louisiana, there were some five hundred little houses, a couple of stores, three bars, a church. After September 21, 2005, it was all gone. The only thing left standing, they say, was a telephone pole.

This was ground zero for the hurricane that will forever live in the shadow of her big sister, Katrina. Or was Rita the big sister? Rita was a category 3 when she made landfall, stronger than Katrina when she roared through St Bernard Parish into New Orleans a few weeks earlier. Unlike with Katrina, one could not point to the incompetence of the Army Corps of Engineers or the greed of Big Oil or the corruption of government. You could not blame shipping channels or erosion or faulty levee systems. The devastation was certainly comparable, but here it was only attributable to nature’s pure wrath.  Nature alone swept this place away. Given what went on here every year, Jerry Falwell might have seen justice in it.

For generations Holly Beach was a major gathering place for summer holidays, particularly the Fourth of July, when families and young people from all around Louisiana and the vicinity of nearby Houston, Texas, would descend every year by the thousands. Many came to small camps, vacation homes passed down through the generations. For those whose families who did not own a camp, there were ones for rent on the cheap. Some came down towing RVs that they set up right along the water’s edge.  The little resort, referred to as the Cajun Riviera, had been washed away before, in 1957, by Hurricane Audrey. Back then, almost fifty years hence, the families had returned and repopulated the beach with little cabins, built by the owners the same way the previous ones had been. Like the small stretch of grimy beach on which they stood, they were rustic and humble, but it was what they had, and it was theirs.

By day they swam in the dirty brown water, barbecued, and harvested fish, crabs, and shrimp from the plentiful Gulf. By night the party turned wild. Zydeco bands played all night in rough bars where brawls spilled out onto sand. Trucks cruised up and down the beach blaring Zydeco or Rock or Hip Hop. In the beds of the trucks drunk girls in bikinis screamed and bared their breasts while the older folk shook their heads remembering their own wilder days. Along with the revelers there was a constant presence of police and ambulances flashing blue and red lights up and down the beach in an effort to control the chaos.

On this night sparse campers set off a few fireworks, distant whistles and pops seeming to answer each other. Finding little to see, my friend and I, a photojournalist, returned to our hotel in Sulphur.

On Independence Day I tagged along with the photographer friend and a reporter for The New York Times. They were interviewing people for a feature story on Holly Beach. As we moved along the beach speaking to different families, it didn’t take long for a bitter political debate to reveal itself –a classic case of the haves verses the have-nots. The latter category just wants the chance to come back and rebuild the way they did before–at their own risk–and the former wants to see the area, including their now-more-valuable property, protected from another scene of destruction like that in 2005.

In the weeks following Hurricane Rita, FEMA stepped in and assisted in clearing the mountains of debris that had been this poor man’s resort town. After the cleanup, new building restrictions were put in place under Louisiana’s Comprehensive Master Plan. The new rules, which, according to the Parish, were intended to ensure the safety of the people and their property, include a requirement that all houses be raised to 17 feet to withstand the storm surge from future hurricanes. They also stipulate that a mechanical sewer system—a required element, since there is no city sewer line here–can only be built for a single-family house occupying a minimum of 4 of the original 25’ x 50’ lots. For some, that has meant annexing neighbors’ lots and paying a contractor to build their new “bird houses” to code. For others, the new restrictions are prohibitive, and it means not coming back at all. For still others there is a middle option: pulling up RVs where their beach houses once stood and making the best of it.

We met our first of two Broussard families sitting outside the used RV they had bought after the storm. Two young girls, their neighbors, painted white Styrofoam floats scavenged from the beach in red, white, and blue designs for the fourth of July. The Broussards, like others, had been permitted to build a small storage shed on the ground and were allowed to keep the RV parked there so long as it was always road-ready in case of need for evacuation. The girls did their work on an old rusty riding lawn mower, which the Broussards used to keep their lawn manicured. Flower beds were planted with perennials. A faux straw beach umbrella shaded a bistro table. This was their sitting room and their entertaining room, and here the Broussards spoke to us of how the new rules made it impossible for them and so many others like them to rebuild their vacation homes. They spoke bitterly of the rumored redevelopment plans, which included multi-story condos and a truck stop with a Casino – hard to imagine plopped in the middle of this sparsely populated marshland.

Gazing down the beach from the Broussards’ yard we could see a new two-story yellow house, perched high in the sky over an SUV with Texas plates, of another Broussard family of no relation – not, at least, for many, many generations – to the RV dwellers. The second Broussard family, who worked in the oil industry in Houston, showed us around their new beach home, which was near completion. We admired the tasteful granite countertops, the legacy stove, the custom tile work. Before Rita, the Broussards were planning to retire to their property here–inherited from parents–and had been trying to find a way to expand the camp confined by its small lot. Because of the hurricane, they were able to buy their neighbors’ lots and build the two-story, five-bedroom retirement home in which we stood looking out toward the oil platforms in the distance.

Asked about the new building restrictions, these Broussards argued that the rules had a purpose: to protect people and their property, particularly people with property like theirs that would be in greater danger from another storm should their neighbors’ homes become dislodged and beat against theirs in the howling winds and gushing storm surge. They were, for that reason, concerned about the presence of the RVs. Their own RV, which they had occupied while waiting for their new house to become habitable, still stood outside. They hoped to get some businesses back again and admitted that the height requirement made that difficult. They offered no solution to the problem other than getting some kind of “zone” that would allow them to have different rules than other beaches down the road.

The political implications of the reporter’s questions were not lost on Mr. Broussard. “People can come back if they want to. If they want to come back and rebuild they can come back,” he assured us. It does seem difficult, however, for a working class family that lost a $30,000 camp to come back and build a house that would cost at least $150,000 to meet the new codes.

It’s not only a matter of economics, but a fact of simple math, that makes it impossible for all the families to return. You have to have a sewage system, and to put in a mechanical sewage system for a single-family dwelling, according to the new rules, you have to build on four lots. That fact alone will logically reduce the number of families that can rebuild.

For those who do purchase their neighbors’ lots the price has increased considerably, from $1,000 before the storm to somewhere between $5,000 and $10,000. The values are unstable and have been inflated by speculators. There are those who look at this empty stretch of ugly, dirty brown beach and see dollar signs. There is money to be made here, or so they hope. At least one local resident, a man named Lee Stelly, who owned thirteen rental cabins before the storm, is certain that plans to build condos and apartments on this land simply won’t work.

From Mr. Stelly’s seventeen-foot-high porch we could see all the way down the beach in either direction. American flags flew from the new quarter-of-a million-dollar vacation homes.  They also flew from the tiny campers with blue-tarped porches. Mr. Stelly went inside and brought back a postcard. It was an aerial photograph of the beach taken maybe twenty years ago. I looked back and forth, from the photograph of so many little rooftops, to the nearly empty beach stretching along the Gulf of Mexico. And what if Holly Beach, as it had been, never comes back? Should it, even? This collection of dirty fishing camps where poor people came to drink and fight and litter wasn’t sanitary, after all, and it wasn’t safe. Sooner or later, it had to go.

It bothered me, though, that it had to go now not because it wasn’t a safe place to live, or because the young people just weren’t interested in it anymore, or because people didn’t have the money to rebuild their homes. It just had to change into something else, something that would no longer belong to the poor and reckless set but to people of means and responsibility, the people who lived by rules and plan wisely for the future. This would become one more place where the unruly spirit of people who had so little to lose would no longer reign, deposed by the great deity of monetary wealth, whose creation and preservation trump everything in the end, and which cannot easily be argued against.

 

PAGE 1

 

 

 

 

 

 

IN HOLLY BEACH, THE FUTURE WILL BE CLEANER, QUIETER, AND STORM PROOF

 

A razor- sharp sliver moon of hung in a black sky. We had arrived at Holly Beach near midnight on the eve of Fourth of July. The beach was quiet and deserted except a few pick-up trucks and a handful of camper trailers. We rode up and down the beach illuminating the brown sand with the headlights of a rented car, occasionally passing pickup trucks, the beds full of young people out for a late-night cruise .

A little further inland, between the shore and the highway, RVs crouched in little clusters, and a few newly-built beach houses stood in the air like birdhouses on 17 foot pilings. Some were simple pre-fab houses, a few were more grandiose two story affairs with wrap around decks and weather vanes atop their steeply-pitched rooves. The scene, at first glance, was unremarkable: just a little group of vacationers, here to enjoy an annual tradition on this muddy beach in South Louisiana—a tradition that, like the small resort community that once stood here, all but disappeared in the wake Hurricane Rita. When the storm made landfall four years earlier on this isolated Cajun beach-town in southwest Louisiana, there were some five hundred little houses, a couple of stores, three bars, a church. After September 21, 2005, it was all gone. The only thing left standing, they say, was a telephone pole.

This was ground zero for the hurricane that will forever live in the shadow of her big sister, Katrina. Or was Rita the big sister? Rita was a category 3 when she made landfall, stronger than Katrina when she roared through St Bernard Parish into New Orleans a few weeks earlier. Unlike with Katrina, one could not point to the incompetence of the Army Corps of Engineers or the greed of Big Oil or the corruption of government. You could not blame shipping channels or erosion or faulty levee systems. The devastation was certainly comparable, but here it was only attributable to nature’s pure wrath.  Nature alone swept this place away. Given what went on here every year, Jerry Falwell might have seen justice in it.

For generations Holly Beach was a major gathering place for summer holidays, particularly the Fourth of July, when families and young people from all around Louisiana and the vicinity of nearby Houston, Texas, would descend every year by the thousands. Many came to small camps, vacation homes passed down through the generations. For those whose families who did not own a camp, there were ones for rent on the cheap. Some came down towing RVs that they set up right along the water’s edge.  The little resort, referred to as the Cajun Riviera, had been washed away before, in 1957, by Hurricane Audrey. Back then, almost fifty years hence, the families had returned and repopulated the beach with little cabins, built by the owners the same way the previous ones had been. Like the small stretch of grimy beach on which they stood, they were rustic and humble, but it was what they had, and it was theirs.

By day they swam in the dirty brown water, barbecued, and harvested fish, crabs, and shrimp from the plentiful Gulf. By night the party turned wild. Zydeco bands played all night in rough bars where brawls spilled out onto sand. Trucks cruised up and down the beach blaring Zydeco or Rock or Hip Hop. In the beds of the trucks drunk girls in bikinis screamed and bared their breasts while the older folk shook their heads remembering their own wilder days. Along with the revelers there was a constant presence of police and ambulances flashing blue and red lights up and down the beach in an effort to control the chaos.

On this night sparse campers set off a few fireworks, distant whistles and pops seeming to answer each other. Finding little to see, my friend and I, a photojournalist, returned to our hotel in Sulphur.

On Independence Day I tagged along with the photographer friend and a reporter for The New York Times. They were interviewing people for a feature story on Holly Beach. As we moved along the beach speaking to different families, it didn’t take long for a bitter political debate to reveal itself –a classic case of the haves verses the have-nots. The latter category just wants the chance to come back and rebuild the way they did before–at their own risk–and the former wants to see the area, including their now-more-valuable property, protected from another scene of destruction like that in 2005.

In the weeks following Hurricane Rita, FEMA stepped in and assisted in clearing the mountains of debris that had been this poor man’s resort town. After the cleanup, new building restrictions were put in place under Louisiana’s Comprehensive Master Plan. The new rules, which, according to the Parish, were intended to ensure the safety of the people and their property, include a requirement that all houses be raised to 17 feet to withstand the storm surge from future hurricanes. They also stipulate that a mechanical sewer system—a required element, since there is no city sewer line here–can only be built for a single-family house occupying a minimum of 4 of the original 25’ x 50’ lots. For some, that has meant annexing neighbors’ lots and paying a contractor to build their new “bird houses” to code. For others, the new restrictions are prohibitive, and it means not coming back at all. For still others there is a middle option: pulling up RVs where their beach houses once stood and making the best of it.

We met our first of two Broussard families sitting outside the used RV they had bought after the storm. Two young girls, their neighbors, painted white Styrofoam floats scavenged from the beach in red, white, and blue designs for the fourth of July. The Broussards, like others, had been permitted to build a small storage shed on the ground and were allowed to keep the RV parked there so long as it was always road-ready in case of need for evacuation. The girls did their work on an old rusty riding lawn mower, which the Broussards used to keep their lawn manicured. Flower beds were planted with perennials. A faux straw beach umbrella shaded a bistro table. This was their sitting room and their entertaining room, and here the Broussards spoke to us of how the new rules made it impossible for them and so many others like them to rebuild their vacation homes. They spoke bitterly of the rumored redevelopment plans, which included multi-story condos and a truck stop with a Casino – hard to imagine plopped in the middle of this sparsely populated marshland.

Gazing down the beach from the Broussards’ yard we could see a new two-story yellow house, perched high in the sky over an SUV with Texas plates, of another Broussard family of no relation – not, at least, for many, many generations – to the RV dwellers. The second Broussard family, who worked in the oil industry in Houston, showed us around their new beach home, which was near completion. We admired the tasteful granite countertops, the legacy stove, the custom tile work. Before Rita, the Broussards were planning to retire to their property here–inherited from parents–and had been trying to find a way to expand the camp confined by its small lot. Because of the hurricane, they were able to buy their neighbors’ lots and build the two-story, five-bedroom retirement home in which we stood looking out toward the oil platforms in the distance.

Asked about the new building restrictions, these Broussards argued that the rules had a purpose: to protect people and their property, particularly people with property like theirs that would be in greater danger from another storm should their neighbors’ homes become dislodged and beat against theirs in the howling winds and gushing storm surge. They were, for that reason, concerned about the presence of the RVs. Their own RV, which they had occupied while waiting for their new house to become habitable, still stood outside. They hoped to get some businesses back again and admitted that the height requirement made that difficult. They offered no solution to the problem other than getting some kind of “zone” that would allow them to have different rules than other beaches down the road.

The political implications of the reporter’s questions were not lost on Mr. Broussard. “People can come back if they want to. If they want to come back and rebuild they can come back,” he assured us. It does seem difficult, however, for a working class family that lost a $30,000 camp to come back and build a house that would cost at least $150,000 to meet the new codes.

It’s not only a matter of economics, but a fact of simple math, that makes it impossible for all the families to return. You have to have a sewage system, and to put in a mechanical sewage system for a single-family dwelling, according to the new rules, you have to build on four lots. That fact alone will logically reduce the number of families that can rebuild.

For those who do purchase their neighbors’ lots the price has increased considerably, from $1,000 before the storm to somewhere between $5,000 and $10,000. The values are unstable and have been inflated by speculators. There are those who look at this empty stretch of ugly, dirty brown beach and see dollar signs. There is money to be made here, or so they hope. At least one local resident, a man named Lee Stelly, who owned thirteen rental cabins before the storm, is certain that plans to build condos and apartments on this land simply won’t work.

From Mr. Stelly’s seventeen-foot-high porch we could see all the way down the beach in either direction. American flags flew from the new quarter-of-a million-dollar vacation homes.  They also flew from the tiny campers with blue-tarped porches. Mr. Stelly went inside and brought back a postcard. It was an aerial photograph of the beach taken maybe twenty years ago. I looked back and forth, from the photograph of so many little rooftops, to the nearly empty beach stretching along the Gulf of Mexico. And what if Holly Beach, as it had been, never comes back? Should it, even? This collection of dirty fishing camps where poor people came to drink and fight and litter wasn’t sanitary, after all, and it wasn’t safe. Sooner or later, it had to go.

It bothered me, though, that it had to go now not because it wasn’t a safe place to live, or because the young people just weren’t interested in it anymore, or because people didn’t have the money to rebuild their homes. It just had to change into something else, something that would no longer belong to the poor and reckless set but to people of means and responsibility, the people who lived by rules and plan wisely for the future. This would become one more place where the unruly spirit of people who had so little to lose would no longer reign, deposed by the great deity of monetary wealth, whose creation and preservation trump everything in the end, and which cannot easily be argued against.

 

PAGE 1