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Yes, FEMA did require archeological review of debris piles and tree stumps, but those were cleared in a few days, according to officials. On one site, said Lydia Kachadoorian, the area team leader for archeology, uprooted trees exposed 300-year-old Native American pottery. "We have an issue with heavy equipment driving over really fragile resources," she said.
And FEMA employees say they cannot shrug off the requirements of federal statutes, such as the National Historic Preservation Act [PDF]. "We have a mission. We need to carry it out as quickly and efficiently as possible, but we do have these federal laws that we need to adhere to while we're doing it," Ketchum said. "If at a certain point Congress decides to waive that law, that's their prerogative, but until they do that, these laws are on the books, and we're obligated to adhere to them."
FEMA points to one other important fact: As of late July, the federal government had spent $481 million in St. Bernard Parish, a major commitment by anyone's reckoning—with much more to come. Moreover, the federal government waived the usual matching requirements, paying a generous 100 percent of eligible costs.
"We're dealing with enormous amounts of money, and there have to be some kinds of controls," Madden said. "Bureaucracy is cumbersome, but its nature is to ensure accountability, so that we know at the end of the day where the money went."
Back in St. Bernard many people, presented with such arguments, will concede that every rule has its reasons. When a fire marshal told Voitier, the school superintendent, that she could not use an urgently needed mobile classroom because the doors were too close together, he was following a rule that may well make sense in normal times.
The trouble is that nothing—not anything—is normal in St. Bernard. The collective effect of all the rules and procedures has been to slow recovery in the early stages, when momentum was critical. Still more damaging, perhaps, is the psychological toll, a gooey mixture of anger and demoralization that drains energy and amplifies despair. It amounts to bureaucracy fatigue. Most welfare mothers know this feeling well, and many become used to it (or learn to game the system), but St. Bernard had always cherished its sense of independence. The parish was stunned by the hurricane, and then was stunned again to be pitched into a blizzard of pettifoggery, precisely when it felt too prostrate to cope.
"It just irritates my soul," says Joseph Di Fatta Jr., a parish council member. "There has to be a balance of the laws and the lives of the people. Right now, the emotional distress people are suffering is greater than the harm of inappropriately burying a can of spray paint."
Council member Mark Madary is standing outside his mobile home in the city government's trailer park, chatting with a visitor, when a car pulls up and a young man and woman emerge. The man is calm, but the woman, his cousin, is panicky. Between sobs, she tells Madary that someone from FEMA has shown up to take the trailer that she and her 8-year-old daughter are living in. Apparently another trailer was delivered for her grandmother, and FEMA says only one is allowed per property. "I talked to six different people and got six different answers," she says.
Madary reassures her: "They're not going to pull it with you in it." He gives her the name of a parish official. As the two go off toward another trailer, Madary is asked if there really is such a rule. No, he says, but adds, "It depends who you get on the phone."
It's not clear that St. Bernard will survive as a functioning community. Some, indeed, may wonder if it ought to survive, because it will eventually flood again. That question is academic, however, because people are coming back, struggling, rebuilding on land that in some cases is all they have. At 8412 Colonel Drive, Sandra and Bob Roberts are rebuilding. She is a receptionist at the medical clinic; he is disabled, with heart problems, prostate cancer, and a bad eye. He works on the house, but in his condition, at age 62, the going is slow.
"We don't know if it's ever going to come back," Sandra says, "but we're fighting." A neighbor across the street is living in a trailer. Another house across the street is being gutted. The neighbor next door has put up a new prefabricated home. Seven families live on the block, which has 22 homes. "My street is trying," Sandra says.
The house has drywall, electrical wiring, one working toilet, and not much else. For electricity, the Robertses plug an extension cord into the FEMA trailer in their front yard. Inviting a visitor in, Sandra points to a stack of boxes. "That's everything I have." She and her husband live in the half-finished bedroom, which is sealed off to give a window cooler a fighting chance against the summer heat. The bedroom is furnished with a $19.95 plastic dresser, a television, and, by way of a TV stand, the cardboard box that the toilet came in.
"We've been blessed," Bob says—incongruously, one might think, but he says they will emerge stronger in affection for each other and their friends. "We're not a suburb of New Orleans," he emphasizes. "No. We're St. Bernard. St. Bernard is not a parish; it's a family."
Daily life, Sandra allows, is a struggle. "It never ends. There's no light at the end of the tunnel. It's just another battle with the insurance company, with FEMA, whoever. Yesterday while I was getting dressed for work, I thought I heard the doorbell. I burst out crying. 'What am I thinking? We don't have a doorbell. That was the TV.' My husband said, 'Baby, we don't even have a door.'"
True: There is no door. But they intend to build one. Sandra's brother and sister, who lived on this block before the storm came, are not coming back, but she and Bob are staying. "That's one thing we won't do, is stop fighting," Bob says. He expects to have the house finished in a year and a half.
© Copyright 2006 National Journal
Jonathan Rauch is a senior writer and columnist for National Journal and a frequent contributor to Reason. The article was originally published by National Journal.