An awful lot of sheetrock is going to be permanently ruined over the next few days down along the coast of Dixieland. Following the spectacle of hurricane reportage on TV reveals very little while the event is in progress. The cheapo building materials of the stereotypical strip malls flap around in the gale and the valiant cable news storm-chasers lean into the horizontal deluge in the empty parking lots, but their reportage doesn’t tell much of the real story, which only emerges when the roaring blob of weather moves on and the sun finally comes out.
More than a decade of punishing storms along the US coastline must be wrecking the insurance industry as much as the stuff on the landscape. They’ve been pummeled from another direction for ten years by the supernaturally low interest rates that make it so hard to refurbish their coffers after whole regions like the Houston metro area and the entire island of Puerto Rico get blasted and they have to pay out billions in claims.
This time around, all those vinyl and chip-board McHouses along the Atlantic beaches will not be replaced. But farther inland, far from the roaring surf, along all the overflowing estuaries that drain the coastal plain, the damage will be widespread and epic. It may create a whole new social class of de-housed, displaced Sunbelters who will never again have a decent place of their own to live in. Since many are retirees, the event may even lead to a stealth die-off of people who are just too far along to start over.
The lamentation for the northern part of “flyover” America is an old story now. Nobody is surprised anymore by the desolation of de-industrialized places like Youngstown, Ohio, or Gary, Indiana, where American wealth was once minted the hard way by men toiling around blast furnaces. But the southeast states enjoyed a strange interlude of artificial dynamism since the 1950s, which is about three generations, and there is little cultural memory for what the region was like before: an agricultural backwater with few cities of consequence and widespread Third Worldish poverty, barefoot children with hookworm, and scrawny field laborers in ragged straw hats leaning on their hoes in the stifling heat.
The demographic shifts of recent decades turned a lot of it into an endless theme park of All-You-Can-Eat buffets, drive-in beer emporia, hamburger palaces, gated retirement subdivisions, evangelical churches built like giant muffler shops, vast wastelands of free parking, and all the other trappings of the greatest misallocation of resources in the history of the world. Like many of history’s prankish proceedings, it seemed like a good idea at the time. As survivors slosh around in the plastic debris in the weeks ahead, and the news media spins out its heartwarming vignettes of rescue and heroism, will there be any awareness of what has actually happened: the very sudden end of a whole regional economy that was a tragic blunder from the get-go?
It is probably hard to imagine Dixieland struggling into whatever its next economy might be. In some places, it’s not even possible to return to a prior economy based on agriculture. A lot of the landscape was farmed so ruinously for two hundred years that the soil has turned into a kind of natural cement, called hardpan or caliche. The climate prospects for the region are not favorable either, not to mention the certain cessation of universal air-conditioning and “happy motoring” that made the unwise mega-developments of recent decades possible.
The one salutary effect of Hurricane Florence may be that news of the after-effects will supersede the incoherent manufactured political blather welling up around the coming midterm elections — especially if the financial damage is powerful enough to disturb the debt-fueled occult economic “boom” attributed to the magic powers of our deal-wielding POTUS.