Struggling To Survive After Katrina

A hard year for the Big Easy

(Page 3 of 5)

Why so slow?

A better question might be: Why not so slow? If, almost a year later, St. Bernard is barely showing a pulse, the surprise may be that it shows a pulse at all. The overriding fact is that Katrina's devastation was of a magnitude that defies ordinary understanding. Michael Brown, who was the director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency when Katrina hit, and who was fired soon after (either in disgrace or as a scapegoat, depending on your point of view), says, "I put St. Bernard almost on the magnitude of what I saw in South Asia"—after the great tsunami of December 2004—"where it is just utter destruction."

The parish's industrial base, led by its nationally significant oil and gas facilities, provided some economic continuity, and many residents' deep roots and limited means drew them back. Still, there is no guidebook or preparedness drill for a cataclysm that ruins every structure. "The initial reaction," recalls Craig Taffaro Jr., a parish council member, "was, we boated around the community and no one could imagine the level of destruction. I think that paralyzed us initially. In the midst of that, the state and federal governments were equally overwhelmed and in their own shock. That set the stage for several months of confusion."

Parish council members earn $600 a month for what is supposed to be a part-time job, though, post-Katrina, it has been more like double time. "We're all in over our heads," says Mark Madary, another council member.

Though the mud has been shoveled out and the lights are on, residents have been slow to return and rebuild. Many are gone for good. Many are absent and undecided, waiting out this year's hurricane season to see if the repaired levees hold. (The Army Corps of Engineers says that the levees will provide the degree of protection that they should have provided in Katrina.)

Many people are waiting for definitive word on how high they will need to rebuild their homes to qualify for federal flood insurance. (The government has issued only preliminary standards, until detailed hydrological surveys can be finished.) Many are fighting with their insurance companies and preserving their wrecked homes as evidence.

And many residents are waiting for other residents. No one wants to live on an empty block, with rubble, weeds, and rats for neighbors. "There's nobody here; there isn't much to do," says Steve Kissee, an accountant who is moving away. "There was a tremendous sense of community here," he says, standing in front of his house, which is for sale. And now? "This isn't the kind of thing I'd come back to."

A further obstacle comes in for particularly frequent and angry blame: bureaucracy. Everyone, it seems, has war stories.

The parish is short of trailers equipped for people with disabilities. Bryan Bertucci has an extra one sitting in his front yard. FEMA brought it in January, but it was too small for Bertucci's family, so he never used it. He has been trying to have it moved, he says, for five months. "I had handicapped people in the clinic begging for it." They're out of luck: Whenever the trailer is finally taken away, he says, FEMA will send it to Arkansas for cleaning—never mind that no one has set foot in it since it was delivered. Bertucci never even collected the key.

Since October, the doctor has been trying to get a Small Business Administration loan to rebuild his medical office. He was rejected in January, reapplied in May, was rejected again but told to formally dissolve his business partnership and reapply once more. Setting up the parish's temporary medical clinic cost $5 million and was delayed by FEMA's refusal to pay for any of three proposed architects. After several months, Bertucci says, the government finally agreed to pay the architect whom it had first rejected. Until recently, federal rules against re-equipping private hospitals (St. Bernard had no public one) stranded the parish without an X-ray machine, among other necessities. "To have a community not have an X-ray machine for nine months, not have laboratory equipment for nine months, is inexcusable," he says.

"Don't think I'm mad at anyone," he continues. "I'm frustrated—and there's a difference. I understand why the rules are the way they are, but there's no common sense to them, and there's nobody in authority to appeal to. In the end, I still think common sense wins out, but it takes a hell of a long time, and it takes a lot of persistence."

Doris Voitier, the St. Bernard school superintendent, was determined to have a school open for the first child who returned after Katrina. Without a school, she believed, the community would stall. Some notion of what lay ahead dawned on her in September, when she met with FEMA and found herself confronting 27 people: an education team, an engineering team, an environmental team, an insurance team, an archeological and historic-preservation team, a Section 404 mitigation team, a Section 406 mitigation team, and more.

When the Corps of Engineers said it couldn't build a school until March, school officials resolved to do the job themselves. "This was a time of emergency," she says. "So I just did it. And we began to fight with FEMA about 'What procedures did you follow?' It was a constant fight for reimbursement. You've got to understand that when you go into this, you don't know the process." The school system had lost all but six of its 70 buses; when officials set out to buy new ones, they were told they first had to show that used buses of the same vintage were unobtainable.

Voitier says, "I'm trying to open a school. I needed buses right then and there, not two months from now, after this formal bid process." She and Wayne Warner, the principal, vividly remember standing around a ruined air-conditioning chiller with a contractor and a FEMA representative who told them that because it was a 1994 unit, they would need to replace it with another 1994 chiller.

Ultimately, Voitier says, they got a new chiller, but the matter took weeks to resolve; and, she says, virtually everything has been a fight. When the school came up two classroom trailers short, FEMA obliged, but the agency delivered double-wides. Unable to fit both on school grounds, and aware that school personnel living in a trailer park across the street had nowhere to wash their clothes, Voitier asked a FEMA official for permission to convert one unit into a Laundromat. "He was fine with that," she says, "but he rotated out two or three weeks later." FEMA subsequently notified her that she was under investigation for misappropriating federal property. (The investigation seems to have fizzled out, she says, though she has received no formal notification.)

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