September 06, 2005

The Economics of Hope & Love

Dear RP,

After having worked several very long days at Catholic Charities staffing phones, I felt almost like I did shortly after 9-11, a bit sad but mostly numb. I needed to be numb in order to do the work I was doing. Working with others to arrange for the relocation of almost 750 evacuees from N. O. and Biloxi to private homes, parishes and apartments through out the city.

For the first time in days I was able to go online and try and unwind and connect back to myself when I came across your post. You ask some incredibly poignant questions. My reactions began to germinate when I started reading my blog sis’ post, Bou of Boudicca’s Voice, who had thoughts leaning in your direction in a post she wrote last week. However, as I read your post it provoked a knee jerk reaction and I began to talk to you via the screen, which really doesn’t work that well in driving my point across. So, I decided to respond to you directly via my own post (my response became too long for your comment section).

First, I felt the overwhelming need to remind you that this country has endured other devastating tragedies and financial challenges and our economy has still managed to endure, survive and thrive. This country has gone through several economic depressions dating back to our civil war; it dealt with a nationwide gasoline crisis in the 1970's; 2 real estate bubbles;'s going belly up; Enron, MCI, Tyco & others corporate giants stealing from investors and employees, eventually closing; Hurricane Camille, Hugo, and Andrew, and let’s not forget that it was only 4 short years ago that we suffered a great economic downturn as a result of a terrorist attack.

After 9/11 lower Manhattan, like New Orleans, became a ghost town. In the ensuing months there was a mass exodus of corporations going across the river (to NJ) and upper and middle class families left the NYC in droves, buying homes and finding employment elsewhere. Their search was motivated by stability, consistency and a place where they could raise their children in a safe environment.

The economic devastation struck home for me, as my firm’s stock plummeted dramatically (75%). My firm was a banking and investment mgt firm who had over 5,000 employees in Tower 1 and several thousands more in Tower 2. After 9/11 it found itself needing to begin again from scratch, relocating immediately over 4,000 employees in 10 days and most of the remainder in 3 weeks. All that while still trying to maintain our core business. A mammoth task that many feared would not keep the firm afloat. Yes, in the year that followed they began to lay off small amounts of personnel. Still, others continued to leave during the subsequent Anthrax scare. While all this was going on my firm focused on conducting business while we all worked very hard. For the first 2 years employees decided to forego salary increases or bonuses, and opted to reduce benefits just so that we could ensure that the firm could turn a marginal profit and keep as many employees as possible on the payroll.

NYC also took a financial beating. It barely made it’s Muni interest payments and loan obligations, but through financial juggling, new loans, refinancing of old ones and assistance from the federal government (including corporate tax waivers and additional deductions from the IRS for businesses and individuals) we managed to stay afloat. Yes, many talented individuals and profitable corporations moved elsewhere. However, for many individuals, such as myself, and companies like my firm (who lost a great deal) there was never a thought of leaving. When confronted with that option we simply made a commitment and moved forward. The reason I remained in NYC and will continue to live here is because this is an incredible place to live. It’s the reason it continues to draw incredibly talented people and new businesses every day.

As we come upon the 4th anniversary of 9-11, I can truly say, that we stared at the edge of the economic abyss for a few days following 9/11, much like you are doing now. It’s a normal reaction after any disaster. Well, I need to say that I had many choices and relatives all around the world that tried to persuade me to go and live with them, where I could have just as easily thrived, but I chose to stay. It is my love for this city and the feeling of home that this place gives me that makes me want to stay. It is the intellectual, spiritual and creative life I have here that challenges me, draws me and keeps me here. It is this city’s vibrancy, freedom and opportunity which has made me return to live here time and again.

I cannot predict what will happen economically to the cities of New Orleans and Biloxi, nor to the thousands of small towns which I will never know the name of. What I am sure is that many will return and those that remain, will somehow forge a future for themselves and their communities. It will be their love of community and home that will compel them to start over. It will be the empathy, love and support of those who have endured just as much that will help them endure until they can rebuild their communities and their lives again.

How do I know? Ask any Floridian, why, in spite of being in a guaranteed path of hurricanes do THEY stay? I bet they’ll say the same thing I did when my relatives called and begged me to leave. I bet it will be the same reason many in Biloxi and N. O will return to rebuild their homes, lives and communities… it’s home. It's been home for many of them for generations in their family. It's the only world they've known and loved. Once they return and make a committment to the area, businesses will follow and recommit themselves too. In the end, it is the residents roots, the ties to the generations who lived on the same land and survived just as much, that will inspire and spur them on; but ultimately, it will be their love and dedication to their home, which will bring hope to their communities and inspire others to return and live there too. For in the end, it's the people that make a community, not their homes nor their land.

Posted by Michele at September 6, 2005 11:10 PM | TrackBack

That was a beautiful letter, Michele. Thank you for writing it and thank you for your work with the Catholic Charities. You humble me.

So, while I agree with a lot of what you write, I don't agree that the comparison to NYC is totally on point. The scale of the devestation experienced on the Gulf Coast appears to be far greater and the consequences, potentially far more reaching. For instance, while the Towers came down, the stock market re-opened shortly thereafter. Now, the Mississippi River, the main conduit for grain shipments out of the US has been cut by falling bridges, reconfigured, and had the channel markers destroyed. When and if the grain barges can make it down, they may not have a port to ship out of. These are consequences that will reach into many states far from the Coast.

Maybe I'm just too much of a pessimist. I hope that's it. Its just that, right now, I really think that there are economic consequences for the country as a whole that are broad, deep, and likely to be substantially different from the economic disslocation felt after 9/11.

Also, just so you know, I too was in NYC for 9/11 and had friends and family in the Towers. I really think it was different.

In any event, thanks again for such a thoughtful and eloquent response. In large part, I think I agree with you. Hope is a powerful thing. Its what keeps me going to the gym, which I really have to go do now!

Posted by: RP at September 7, 2005 05:42 AM

Beautifully spoken.

Biloxi, New Orleans, Mobile and all the rest will recover with time.

I remember an article that came out after the last big California earthquake, talking about how people pitched in together to make sure that *everyone* was ok. There was a line that went: "Earthquakes are the price you pay for living in paradise." Most everyone would, deep down, define their home as paradise.

Posted by: Ted at September 7, 2005 12:03 PM

I don't know what will happen to New Orleans. I have my opinions on what SHOULD happen, but keep those to myself. I will tell you what will happen in Biloxi, Gulfport, Pascgoula, Mobile, Point Clear, Slidell, and many many towns nobody has heard of except for those of us from the region... they will rebuild. They will rebuild and they will be close knit. It will not be what it was... you cannot replace what it is lost, but they were a community before and they will grow into a tighter community after... although they never thought it possible.

And those that receive, give in return. During Frances and Jeanne, my children's school was destroyed. Small Catholic schools as far away as Michigan and New Jersey heard about our plight and had bake sales and what not... sending us money and prayer.

We are paying it forward as we look to adopt a school in Louisiana or Mississippi... a Catholic School we know is trying to keep it together although it may have been destroyed. We have a lead and I know that we will pour our hearts out to that school as someone did for us.

Posted by: Bou at September 7, 2005 07:03 PM
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