Struggling To Survive After Katrina

A hard year for the Big Easy

(Page 2 of 5)

Slowly, as foot-deep mud was scraped from the streets, people began to return, finding their homes in ruins or vanished altogether. They all say that they will never forget the stench. Mercifully, that is gone.

Showing a visitor around her district, parish council member Judy Hoffmeister pauses at her uncle's house, now only a month or two from move-in condition. It is the exception. Her own house, where she lived since 1965 ("This is where I brought my babies home"), is gutted. She has no neighbors. "No one's coming back in this neighborhood," she says. Of the 7,200 people in her district, she guesses that fewer than 500 now live there, mostly in trailers. "There's no life, no nothing."

Before traveling to St. Bernard, visitors are warned to prepare themselves for scenes of destruction. Steeled for the worst, an outsider is ready for the caved-in walls and roofs, the upturned automobiles, the child's wagon marooned atop a house, the yards overrun with chest-high weeds, the debris. Even the shrimp boat that washed up on a residential street—left there deliberately, to help visitors understand the violence of the storm—is not altogether shocking.

As block after block goes by, however, a reality sinks in for which there is no preparing. Even knowing better, the visitor cannot help expecting to turn a corner and come upon the OK part of the parish. As the hours pass and scenes of wreckage accumulate, a feeling between despair and anxiety surfaces, as it sinks in that there is no OK part. Every turned corner reveals more of the same.

Hoffmeister swings north on Volpe Drive. She came here a few weeks after the storm to check on her cousin's house. "I'm riding along, riding along, looking around," she recalls, "and I realize—Oh, my God, the house is gone."

The car slows. "This is the roof," she says. It landed on an adjacent property. As for the house, it is concrete slab, empty except for—well, except for nothing. There is no trace of a house.

"I couldn't even speak to her," says Hoffmeister, whose cousin was waiting on the cellphone when the empty slab came into view. "I just said, 'I can't hear you, I can't hear you.' I couldn't tell her. I just couldn't." She chokes up. "I called her sister and said, 'You call her and tell her.' " Regaining her composure, she drives on. "People are just in despair," she says. "Eleven months and it's still not livable."

Before Katrina, the parish's population was 67,000. Today, parish officials estimate that 20,000 people are present during the day, and 8,000 to 10,000 by night, though many locals say those numbers seem high. The school system, showing heroic pluck, managed to open a school only two and a half months after the storm; enrollment looks to be about 3,000 in the fall, down from 8,800 before the storm but a strong showing. Kids are bringing their parents back. If not for the school, and the haven of normalcy it provided, St. Bernard would not have had a chance.

No one is sure exactly how many businesses are back; Charles Ponstein, a former parish president who heads the local business-redevelopment effort, says about 300 of 1,400 or so enterprises have reopened. A post office is open; banks and cash machines operate out of trailers. Mail delivery resumed only recently, and one of the five McDonald's restaurants is rebuilding. Strip malls are windswept and empty, but a handful of big stores—Home Depot, two auto-parts suppliers, a Walgreens drugstore, a shoe store—are operating, and people are excited to relate that two full-fledged grocery stores will open soon. (Residents currently trek across New Orleans for groceries.) You can now even get your hair cut in St. Bernard.

The parish has had utilities since early this year. The sewage system, which was inundated with marsh sludge, is still not fully functional, and so the parish manually pumps sewage into tankers and hauls it to working sanitation systems. Parish revenues have shrunk by 40 percent or so but have not collapsed, thanks to sales taxes from car purchases and to the continued presence of heavy industry. The parish government has laid off about a third of its employees and cut its operating budget by more than 60 percent, to $22 million.

The courthouse, an imposing New Deal-era edifice, is open. All five local judges and a small host of other refugees rode out the hurricane there; 15 people lived for three days in the courtroom of Kirk Vaughn, the senior district judge, who now resides in a nearby trailer. Greeting a visitor in his chambers, he wears a donated knit shirt—though he puts on a suit and tie when presiding, to maintain a sense of decorum. Piles of donated clothes share the courthouse basement with the parish's legal records, most of which survived. Providentially, Lena Torres, the 85-year-old parish clerk, digitized the parish real estate records a few months before the storm. "I think the good Lord led me to do that," she says.

What you will not find at the courthouse is a trial. "We're missing jurors and we're missing witnesses," says Vaughn, holding up batches of jury questionnaires that came back stamped "Undeliverable." Since Katrina, the court has tried two cases, both non-jury civil proceedings. Other criminal and civil cases are plea-bargaining or settling, and many cases are being repeatedly continued, even as defendants wait in custody. "You can't just keep doing that, because of speedy-trial issues," Vaughn says. The crime rate, fortunately, is low.

Asked if the community can reassemble itself, Vaughn says, "The longer it goes, the more I would have to say it's shattered. It's just taking too long." Others offer much the same assessment. "It's going so slow it's unbelievable," says Larry Ingargiola, the director of the parish's office of homeland security and emergency preparedness. "I'd like to see 20,000 units right now," he says, referring to permanent buildings with running electricity meters. "We're not close to that. I'd like to see more permanent structures going up. I just don't see it."

How long will it take to recover to something like normalcy and a population of perhaps 40 to 50 percent of the pre-Katrina parish? "We're talking seven years," Ingargiola responds. Others say five, 10, or 15.

In Walgreens, a cashier greets a customer with the question that is the St. Bernard equivalent of "How's the weather?": "You in yet?" The man replies that the kids' room still lacks Sheetrock, but at least they're in. And his mother? Gone, not coming back. The cashier says her family is still waiting on electrical work. She has seven kids, she mentions. The man says he has four. He takes his change and goes on his way.

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