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Rebuilding at Katrina’s ‘Ground Zero’

Sam Eaton Aug 29, 2007

Rebuilding at Katrina’s ‘Ground Zero’

Sam Eaton Aug 29, 2007


Bob Moon: Can you believe it’s been two years to the day since Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast? In some ways, time flies by. In more painful ways, it drags on.

The task of reconstruction has been delayed by difficult questions a€” such as the wisdom of building again in harm’s way. Many businesses have moved to higher ground around New Orleans, leaving behind the former economic heart of the region.

So where does that leave the low-lying areas? We sent Marketplace’s Sam Eaton to one of Louisiana’s most vulnerable spots to see how the recovery is going.

Mike Mariana: Any time you take a regulator to task, there’s plenty of points to be scored — frankly, because you can always find something that a regulator has done ineffectively.

Sam Eaton: Mike Mariana chairs the Plaquemines Parish Economic Development Board.

Mariana: What you see is people trying every day scraping to bring this parish back.

Mariana and the rest of the board have gathered in a local church to discuss an advertising campaign that would promote the parish. Parts of Plaquemines were completely wiped out by the storm. Mike Bush heads the Mississippi River Bank. He says the only thing left of one of his branches was the vault and the concrete slab it was bolted to.

Mike Bush: I figured I was broke and the bank was gone a€” that all of our assets and all of our customers’ assets were gone. Fortunately that was not the case.

In the two years since the storm, Bush’s community bank has grown 50 percent. Its profits have surged. He says this year alone, more than 30 new businesses have come into the parish.

Bush: There was an article Friday in the paper and it was about, you know, how the devastated communities haven’t come back as well as the rest. And you had Orleans and Saint Bernard. And they didn’t even mention Plaquemines.

Plaquemines has bounced back a€” though its geography is both a blessing and a curse. Devastating hurricanes are practically guaranteed. But the fact that it’s the closest jumping-off point for oil and gas exploration in the Gulf means the cash keeps flowing in. Bush says the fishing’s not so bad, either.

Bush: The value of what’s here is getting out, and I think that the people will smell deals. And I think that the money’s going to come here.

And for some that money has already arrived. Arnie Cobbett just reopened his custom boat shop. He also owns a salvage business that’s brought in millions of dollars, removing damaged boats and debris. Not everyone’s so lucky.

Arnie Cobbett: You know, one suffers, one profits.

Cobbett’s profits now allow him to do what he likes best.

Cobbett: We build from scratch, 22 foot boats that are high dollar.

He says with most of the heavy recovery work now complete, he can gear up for the next phase of Plaquemine’s economic revival: recreation.

Cobbett: Somebody’s going fishing sooner or later. No matter how bad it is or how much it costs, people are still going to use their boats. And they’re still going to buy them.

In northern Plaquemines, where Cobbett lives, land values and home construction surged after the storm because of its higher elevation. But in the lower parish, which was under 15 feet of water during the storm, few have returned. Those who stayed see a promising future.

Mike Butler: I think we could be a mini Key West, but just a lot lower-keyed.

Mike Butler owns the Venice Marina at southern tip of Plaquemines Parish. He says Hurricane Katrina destroyed everything man-made a€” but the fishing is better than ever.

Butler: Right after the storm in October, we were having 50 and 60 boats launch to go fishing because the fishing was so good that it kind of set the tone to say “Well, as long as the fishery is here they’ll come.” And that was kind of the premise that set forth a€” we’re gonna rebuild.

Butler dug into his personal savings to that, and insurance costs are digging into his profits. But the risks are worth it, he says. He was born here, and he doesn’t plan on leaving a€” even if that means losing everything all over again.

In Plaquemines Parish, Louisiana, I’m Sam Eaton for Marketplace.

PHOTO GALLERY: Rebuilding in Plaquemines Parish

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