SLIDELL, La. — Sam Caruso, sitting on the porch of a house your tax dollars helped build in a neighborhood that's mostly under water, knows what some of you are thinking. Why do the people in southeast Louisiana, where they mark time by hurricanes, continue to rebuild in a place where floods come like clockwork? Why would the government steer relief money toward people planted in a bathtub?
"I know what people say," he said.
But Caruso's story is instructive, a lesson in a part of the country where the government has directed some $17.5 billion in relief funds in the seven years since Hurricane Katrina.
As news helicopters buzzed overhead and rescue boats floated down Bilten Avenue looking for the stranded, the 44-year-old father of three was sitting high and dry, 8 feet above the water and 11 feet above the ground.
"If everyone had done what we did, you'd be writing a story about street flooding," he said. "We didn't have any worries about whether or not this storm was going to affect this house."
After Katrina's floods ruined his 1,200-square-foot 1920s shotgun house, he used his insurance payout, a low interest federal loan, a conventional mortgage and a $16,000 federal grant to construct a beautiful two-story house on stilts — one that hurricanes won't blow down and floods won't lick. The house your money helped build sits atop 92 steel braces and some 30 concrete pillars on a slab three feet thick. Just the foundation, which used 94 yards of concrete, cost $64,000.
His home is safe. The majority of those around his, many of them rebuilt on the ground, are again in ruins. A state inspector told him: This is exactly what we had in mind with this program.
The difference between Caruso and his neighbors?
"If your home was more than 50 percent damaged, you had to build up," he said. "If you could convince them it was 49 percent damaged, you could rebuild on the ground."
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Caruso, a business development director at the nearby community hospital, is registered independent. If the power was still on, he would have watched the Republican National Convention in Tampa, and he would have heard speaker after speaker pound the We-Built-This drum, preaching the positives of smaller government, fewer handouts, fewer bailouts.
What he hopes those folks recognize, he said, is the fact that this part of the country is invaluable to the national economy.
Besides its oil (third largest producer in the country) and natural gas (second largest producer in the country) industries, the Mississippi River moves about 500 million tons of cargo on some 6,000 vessels every year through New Orleans. Its port is serviced by six railroads. The fishing industry provides a quarter of all seafood in the United States, and the state ranks third in the nation in rice production.
"Thomas Jefferson knew what he was doing when he bought this place," Caruso said. "This is a national asset. It would be like losing Washington, D.C.
"I'm an independent, and I believe in some of the Republican values," he continued. "But by nature, with a smaller federal government you'd need a stronger state and local government. But how small can you go? On projects of this magnitude, you can't ever shrink the federal government to the point where it is so small that it can't help in a situation like this."
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In his view, the government has no choice but to help. What hurts New Orleans hurts the country: Watch your gas and grocery prices rise in the coming weeks due to Hurricane Isaac.
So people have to live here.
But, Caruso said, the government should improve the way it distributes money to people in flood-prone areas so federal funds used to rebuild aren't wasted when the water rises again. He loves his neighbors, but he disagrees with how many of them spent their money.
"This is where I put my Republican hat on: I don't like the idea of people squandering the money given to them by the government," he said. "I have a great appreciation that it was your tax money that paid for a part of this house."
He also favors a plan to build hurricane protection gates on the eastern end of Lake Pontchartrain to prevent many of the flooding problems the area regularly deals with. Early cost projections were in the trillions, so the idea hasn't gained much traction.
But, Caruso wonders, what's better? To spend a lot of money at once on a measure like that, or to continue to send federal help to people who lose their homes every time it floods?
"It'll be a big nut to crack," he said, "but it'll be easier than cracking a billion smaller nuts."
It's a difficult proposition, he knows. And he's aware of the political climate. He just doesn't want people to think that all those folks you see on the evening news trudging through the water haven't thought about these things. They're here because this is home, and this region is vital to the nation.
"Could you imagine if we sat here and decided we weren't going to rebuild Miami the next time something like this happens?" he asked. "What if we didn't rebuild Tampa?"
Ben Montgomery can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8650.