The Rip

All last week the media were doing their year-after-Katrina stories. Whose fault was everything? What have we learned? I'm reading this stuff, and it occurs to me I'm not really interested in group lessons. What have I learned? What do I do, here in Dallas, Texas, next time this rolls around?

By this, I mean Katrina, but I also mean Rita--remember, the one we thought might hit here but all we got were Houston evacuees--along with September 11, the millennium and all the other doomsday scenarios that have passed through in the last half-decade.

I'm talking about two things. Yes, it's the big picture--government response, preparedness and all that. But it's the me picture too: What do I do at my house?

That's where things get bipolar. Of course some of these issues can only be addressed by government, but I'm sure as hell not going to wait around for the government to do it.

I talked to Steve Torres, who's retired from the Dallas Police Department and does a lot of private security. He went into Katrina-land a couple days after the storm to do various kinds of work for clients. I asked him what people should have done differently there.

He said that, speaking as ex-law enforcement, he would have to say they should have listened to the authorities. "Obviously they should have listened to their political leaders saying, 'Y'all need to get out of here,' and everybody should have moved and forget about where you're living. Save your butt."

So then I asked him what he would do. What if the emergency, whatever type or flavor it might be, were aimed at his house here in Dallas? He didn't miss a beat.

"If anything, I would evacuate my family, let's say. But to protect my property and everything, I think I would be dumb enough to stay."

He told me about going into Biloxi a few days after the storm: "We were driving through some of the neighborhoods, and there was hardly anything left. But at some of the structures that still remained, people had put signs up, 'Looters will be shot.' And the bottom line was they meant it."

So with his law enforcement hat on he thinks everybody ought to get a move on when they're told. But with his pj's on, he's going to have one of those signs out front, and you better believe it.

I don't see any hypocrisy in that at all. If anything, it illuminates the very real fault line between the public and private aspects of disaster, of dealing with bad luck and getting your life together again afterward.

I talked to Kirk Prest, a guy I met in Venice, Louisiana, several years ago when I was down there fishing. Venice is a tiny community 20 miles southeast of New Orleans, way out toward the tip of the peninsula where the Mississippi pours into the Gulf of Mexico.

About 12 miles offshore the brown turbid waters of the Mississippi collide with the cobalt blue of the Gulf, forming a hard border between the two called "the rip," just as if someone had drawn a line across the ocean with a Magic Marker. Predator fish lurk in the brown water and lunge at prey passing by in the blue.

I went down there with Captain Steve Cornett to "fish the rip," dragging lures for miles along the line of demarcation. Cornett kept his boat in a tidy new metal boat storage building owned by Prest, a budding young entrepreneur in Venice.

Some of the tiny towns on that peninsula were just about scraped off the face of the earth by Katrina, and Venice didn't fare much better. Prest's business, called Fin & Feather Cabins and Boat Storage, was destroyed.

Prest puts things on two sides of a line too. On the one hand, he told me, he and his South Louisiana forebears have lamented for decades that the government has allowed the protective coastal barrier islands to erode and gradually disappear instead of using government money and muscle to promote coastal restoration.

"Where the government has failed, I think, is that they have an obligation, as we are Americans, to protect our homeland, just like we're protecting our homeland on foreign soil.

"I think the federal government has an obligation to protect our coastal land, whether it be here, in California or anywhere. That's where they have failed, and that goes back to the coastal restoration thing."

But Prest has already rebuilt 70 percent of his business, none of which was done for him by anybody from the government. He dug in with his own two hands and made it happen.

"A person needs to take it upon himself and get going again," he said. "There's plenty of jobs around here to be had. If someone right now is giving the line that they don't have a job, it's because they don't want to work.