There are Plenty of Challenges
It has been said there are those who make things happen and those instead who wait for things to happen to them. Most Cameronites live in the second camp, but not by choice. Most can’t make things happen on their own because those “things” are too big, too mired in red tape, and too expensive for the ordinary working man to fix. All of Cameron seems anxious, impermanent, waiting for the next…thing to affect us all. Add to this the weary feeling of not being home. The storms caused the diaspora of families away from their coastal homes and lives, and according to our research, nearly 80% want to return.
Our country’s past is filled with stories of towns lying dead or dying because the railroad or Interstate built elsewhere, or the steel or textile mills closed, or small farmers couldn’t make it in a new economy. Yet, there are few contemporary examples like Cameron: vibrant one week, destroyed by hurricane the next. (New Orleans, of course, still has its pockets of devastated, low-income inner-city neighborhoods, yet with hope and plan for recovery.) Still, consider Gulf Shores, Alabama and Biloxi, Mississippi. Like Cameron, suffering direct hits from hurricanes, and with similar devastation. But these two cities are well on their way to recovery because: 1) basic services were quickly restored by thousands of utilities workers, whereas (because there were fewer customers, therefore less demand) it took much longer in Cameron; and, 2) enough available housing and commerce remained to sustain the populace of local families. These cities were up and running more quickly. Schools, hospitals, food services, gasoline came back on line so that the communities of residents returned almost immediately to rebuild and pick up lives and lifestyles where they left them.
We believe many observers, for whatever reasons, are wrongly predisposed to think that coastal inhabitants recklessly cling to their homes, gambling with Mother Nature at their own peril. It’s better—wiser they say—to move inland or elsewhere, away from areas that storm surges destroy. With this mindset, it is easier to justify prohibitive building codes which have the effect of dissuading everyone from building or rehabilitating. However, it occurs to us that similar restrictions are less discouraging in places like Gulf Shores or Fort Lauderdale or the Jersey Shore, all just as susceptible to damage from wind, water and flooding. The difference is, these places are too big to abandon, too vibrant to ignore, too full of voters and contributors to be marginalized by lawmakers and recovery groups.
Cameron, on the other hand, continues to suffer slower recovery, and we submit there are several reasons unique to Cameron Parish, its location and history:
Out of sight, out of mind— As those eighth-graders learn, Cameron Parish is all agriculture and alligators, oil and gas and duck hunting. Thirty per cent of it is water. Cameron is unlike most of the rest of Louisiana’s pine forests and gentle hills. Our two lone state highways enable access but not convenience; it’s not a place anyone passes through on the way to their destination. For most Louisianans, Cameron is little more than a frontier outpost at the edge of the state—a million miles from where they live. So why give us a second thought unless we make today’s weather news
Politically marginalized— Comparatively speaking, there are no voters here, and of course, politicians and agencies respond to the greatest concentrations of voters. Whenever government money and attention is at stake, those areas with the loudest voices benefit more than has Cameron, despite the exhausting efforts of our elected legislators.
New housing standards— First, this is unique because Louisiana has very few communities or residents living along the length of its meandering coastline, and certainly none storm-ravaged as was Cameron. In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, and other agencies began to make changes in flood plain maps and building codes, which meant new qualifiers, requirements and coverage limits from insurance companies hard-hit with claims. As the result, for homeowners and buyers who wish to live in coastal parishes/counties—as 55% to 60% of Americans do, (page 9) according to a 1999 NOAA research study—these reforms and restrictions have made housing too expensive for lower-to-middle-income Cameronites to return to re-build. Instead, we’ve seen more trailers and campers appear as primary residences, with their accompanying sanitation and safety issues. In fact, some residents are living in sub-standard housing precisely because they intend to live “under the radar”, with no insurance coverage, because they know they will not qualify, and are counting on a laissez faire lack of enforcement.
Risk and Reward— Putting a commerce-building economic stake in the ground in Cameron “doesn’t pencil” for at least three reasons. First, statistical measurements by retailers’ rulers show a population base neither dense enough nor well-heeled enough for bricks-and-mortar, inventory and personnel investments to make sense (this presumes an expansion-minded economy has them looking to new markets). Second, there’s that threat of future storms (“if you build it, will it flood or blow away again?”) even though the odds for a storm’s landfall precisely over Cameron are identical to any other specific spot in Florida, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi or Louisiana. And third, the remnants of still-visible devastation makes investing here seem akin to a third-world country, and recovery seem so very far away, even though many millions have been spent cleaning away debris and restoring infrastructure.
So Why Bother?
Is Cameron worth the huge effort required to change its status quo? There has already been significant investment in state recovery dollars, at least $100,000,000 in infrastructure, and $80,000,000 more in Community Development Block Grants, a new school, a small hospital. Why should anyone work any harder to bring prosperity to the region? Have taxpayers and for-profit businesses already made enough investment in Cameron to make it whole? Does Cameron deserve anything more than whatever it had before the storms? Should we just stop and be satisfied with our repaired roadways and restored services?
We propose to answer these questions in this way—ANY American community or region deserves more than whatever it is left with, IF it has suffered extraordinary hardship. Americans always offer help, and there are plenty of contemporary examples to illustrate this. And, as we all know, American business also sees opportunity when present circumstance, in this case, a region ripe for development, favors growth. This is Cameron.
Cameron Parish is finally past that survival stage where lives were in danger, having received so much emergency help. What remains now is to take initiative in a rebuilt Cameron and enable new development to occur. Now, the Town of Cameron and the rest of its dependent communities in the parish are poised to reclaim their hometowns, despite the bureaucratic challenges hindering their ability to return and rebuild. However, the larger challenge to growth is the availability of jobs. We must create new jobs by developing new businesses that need hard working employees.