POLITICS MARCH 19, 2007
To a New Orleans boy in the early '70s, the only acts of God that offered anything like the pleasure of a hurricane were the big rains that filled up the city like a bathtub and made it possible to paddle down the streets in a cone, waving at grown-ups trapped inside their floating cars and buses. Compared with the hurricanes, however, these rains were second-rate thrills—the Ferris wheel next to the giant roller coaster. They didn't close schools, knock down trees, rip roofs off houses, or even cut the lights. The only reason they deserved to be spoken in the same breath as hurricanes is that the hurricanes never fulfilled their promise. If you asked me, when I was eight years old, to define "hurricane," I'd have said it was a giant storm built to hit New Orleans that, through some flaw in design, wound up destroying Bay St. Louis, Mississippi.
Still, the total destruction of Bay St. Louis had some value. Since the early 1900s, when my great-grandfather on my mother's side first staked his claim, our family has owned large tracts of Waveland, a town a few miles west of Bay St. Louis. Persuading city folk that they might escape the heat and mosquitoes of New Orleans by driving 50 miles into the heat and mosquitoes of Mississippi must count as one of the real estate marketing triumphs of the twentieth century. The main thing about Waveland was that it had no waves. Its sea was a placid lake the color of a Starbucks venti latte, with foam. The land wasn't any more appealing: The grass in front of our house had prickers, and the pine forest out back had water moccasins. Even as a child, I sort of wondered what we were doing spending our vacation in Waveland, Mississippi. Maddeningly, when Hurricane Camille flattened the place in the summer of 1969 and it was of momentary interest, that was the only time we children were not allowed in. "There are too many snakes around," my father told me, to explain why he was leaving me behind. The stories he brought home—of beds in trees, boats in houses, and packs of pet dogs roaming wild—left me determined, the next time a hurricane destroyed our house in Waveland, to be old enough to enjoy the wreckage. A year later, the house was rebuilt, and I began my wait for the next storm.
Thirty-six years later, it finally came, though it took another 18 months before my father caved and agreed to drive me from New Orleans to Waveland to see what Hurricane Katrina had done. It wasn't, for him, a sentimental journey. "I've loathed it from the moment I married your mother," he said, as we crossed Lake Pontchartrain and entered Mississippi. His interest, like mine, has been confined to the moments after the place has been blown to bits. After Hurricane Camille, he now tells me, he had rushed over and found, somewhat thrillingly, nothing of our house but the slab. Oddly enough, he recalled, the front lawn never looked better; it was as pristine as a golf course; the out-rushing sea water had swept it clean. The only sign of life was the caretaker, who had survived Camille in a local shelter. When my father pulled up, he had found her on the ground beside a faucet that drew its water from an artesian well. She had collected a stack of forks and knives and spoons—all that remained of the house and chattels—and was washing them, one by one. "God is punishing us, Mr. Lewis," she had told him. "God is punishing us."
Now, as we roll into town, he looks around and says, "This is much worse than Camille." Eighteen months after Katrina hit, and the place is still desolate. Town isn't town, but a couple of Quonset huts. We get to the beach road, turn left, and look for our place. We can't find it; every landmark has vanished without a trace. The house is not only gone; it's as if the place from which it disappeared is gone, too. Then I spot the stub end of a wooden pole: the old barbed-wire fence.
By the time I was born, a line had been drawn down the middle of the original 20-acre lot purchased nearly a century ago by my mother's grandfather. He had died and left the property to his two children, who promptly began to feud. Tow house had been built, one by my grandfather, the other by his brother's widow, and, just in case there was any doubt who owned what, or where he should be, they had run the barbed-wire fence between them. On either side of it, they had built houses indistinguishable from each other. Here, for 50 years, they had vacationed, on identical lots, inside identical green wooden houses, separated by their barbed-wire fence. The only thing to argue about was the pier. It said something about the beach in Waveland that the biggest status symbol on it was a device to get off of it. Our pier was easily the longest in the area, and inherently indivisible. It wasn't our pier, it wasn't their pier, it was a pier held jointly, and the atmosphere around it was, to put it mildly, touchy. In the late '80s, I was visiting Japan when I ruptured a disk in my spine. Drugged and confined by doctors to a hotel bed, I spent two days watching CNN—which was that moment covering, to the exclusion of all else, a terrifying hurricane that had formed in the Gulf of Mexico. Up and down the Coast raced CNN's intrepid reporter, until, at last, he stood on our pier, which I myself had not set foot on in more than a decade. Ha! I thought, I might be in traction in Tokyo, but our pier is on TV. Then the camera panned to a family member from the enemy's side if the barbed-wire fence. "We're standing on your pier?" asked the reporter. "We're standing on my pier," confirmed the husband of my first cousin once removed, and I shot up out of traction and hollered at the Japanese television, "THAT"S NOT YOUR PIER! THAT'S OUR PIER!"
Having established the position of the barbed-wire fence, we now can see that the few wooden slats jutting into the water are what remain of our pier. We can see, also, that the acres of dead pine trees are all that remains of our old pine forest, and the mud puddle behind the concrete slab is what remains of the frog pond. Now we find the tennis court: Here, at the age of 13, I jumped and pranced and bragged and hollered after I took a game off my father—prompting him, in a rare burst of anger, to mutter "you little mother" and hit his first real serve. We walk around some more, but, apart from a few oak trees clinging to life, there's nothing else to see. Heading back to his car to drive home, I spot, erect in the first, a silver spoon. Once the World Trade Center collapsed, all that remained of the offices was the paper—supposedly because there was so much of it to begin with. Once a hurricane destroys the Gulf Coast, all that remains of the beach houses is the cutlery.
I pick it up, thinking that this is probably the last time I'll come here, and a silver spoon would be a fitting souvenir. Then I remember: It's not mine. My father is a man of many doubts and few convictions, but he'll go to his grave certain that no one should ever bequeath property to be shared by his heirs. Three years ago, after my grandfather died, he immediately persuaded my mother's side of the family to sell the house in Waveland—to another New Orleanian who mistook the place for a beach resort. The 30-foot storm surge, along with the eye of Hurricane Katrina, had trespassed on someone else's property.
Michael Lewis is a former senior editor of the New Republic. His latest book is The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine (W.W. Nortion & Company).