Monday, April 29, 2013

A Tale of Two Cities

So, it was the best of times last week as I took a week’s break from the news and the grind of ordinary life and went on a tropical vacation to central America. Specifically, I went to the Honduran Bay Island of Roatan. And I couldn’t help but take a critical eye to my surroundings.

Now, none of this should in any way, shape or form being construed as a reflection on either the people of or the government on the island. Everyone I met was very nice, hard-working, and friendly. But it was hard not to notice one glaring problem.

A little history is in order.

Honduras was originally two nations: Spanish Honduras, and British Honduras (now Belize). As you can imagine, Hondurans spoke Spanish, and Belizeans spoke English.

However, the Bay Islands were mostly populated by the Caracol people, originally black slaves from Jamaica and the Caymans who moved to the Bay Islands when Great Britain repealed slavery in the mid-1800s.

That population has moved out in large numbers over the past twenty years, primarily due to the devastation caused by 1998’s Hurricane Mitch, which devastated the island. Mainland Hondurans then moved in, as Roatan is one of the few places in Honduras where work is plentiful and easy to come by. It is a huge tourism destination, and has a deep water port that fits a cruise ship nicely.

Also, as part of the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef, the second largest in the world, the waters off the island are teeming with fish. And scuba divers.

Now, most Caribbean islands I’ve been to exhibit some signs of extremes between poverty and wealth, but Roatan is unique in this regard. At any random point along the landscape, you can see aging and decaying mansions cheek by jowl with communities of rusted tin-roof shacks that house multigenerational families that number in the dozens.

And the coastline is littered with properties “under development,” or rather being exploited by foreign interests looking to snatch cheap Caribbean real estate for profit. It looks like many of the developments were abandoned after the 2008 economic collapse, but as the global economy picks up, one would imagine these will proceed full steam.

But it’s a fragile, even tenuous, proposition: one good hurricane or earthquake (there was a small temblor on my last day there) would be enough to knock Roatan back into a Haiti-like existence for a very long time.

This is on my mind this morning as I read about my home city, one of the wealthiest in the world, and the difficulties we’re having simply rebuilding a few homes.

Tens of thousands of people remain homeless, while business, tourism and coastal protection are still major concerns with the summer vacation and hurricane seasons almost here again.

New Jersey suffered $29.5 billion in damage, and the repair job is slow going. There are just four weeks left before Memorial Day, and many homes and businesses are still in shambles.

Officials admit the $19 billion in tourism revenue generated along the Jersey shore last year won't be matched this year.

On Staten Island, the changing seasons don't represent much change on the ground. In Oakwood Beach, many neighborhoods are still ghost towns with no sign of new life.

Many shore communities hope to rebuild, but Oakwood Beach is different because it will be the test site for Governor Andrew Cuomo's new buyout program. Residents will get 100 percent of their home's pre-Sandy value, plus an additional 5 percent if they agree to then remain on Staten Island.

We took a hit on September 11, to be sure. It was eleven years before we’ve been able to patch over everything that was destroyed that day and yet we continue to try. And if Sandy, which wreaked even more havoc and across and even bigger swath of our metropolis, takes one-tenth that time, it could leave a permanent economic hole in the town.

And then, there’s Roatan.