Struggling To Survive After Katrina
A hard year for the Big Easy
Chalmette, LA.—By the time water encroached on the Chalmette Medical Center parking lot, the worst of Hurricane Katrina was over. Upstairs on the second floor, Dr. Bryan Bertucci had spent a sleepless night admitting emergency cases, taking medical histories, conducting physicals. That job done, he caught an hour's nap. At about 9:30 a.m., he noticed the flooding in the parking lot. It was Monday, August 29, 2005, in St. Bernard Parish, La.—just east of New Orleans. Bertucci ran down to the first floor to grab his belongings. By the time he got there, the water had already risen to knee level inside the hospital. After 45 minutes it was 6 feet deep, and it kept rising, submerging the first floor but mercifully sparing the second. The electricity shut down when the generators went under; ventilators, X-rays, suction, and other medical machines died. So, before it was over, did seven patients. One choked on vomit that doctors had no way to suction out.
The hurricane gave way to a stifling heat. Bertucci, who is a family practitioner and the parish coroner, spent the next two days dispensing care as patients were gradually transferred to the jail, which was not flooded. (Prisoners had been evacuated to safety before the storm.) Then he hitched a boat ride to his house and found his first floor under water; his son's house had floated off its foundation and ended up on a neighboring street. Now homeless, Bertucci had no time to register the shock; he was summoned to the jail, where he treated hospital patients and storm victims for staph infections, heart failure, dehydration. It was Friday before helicopters got all the sick out of the parish. Over the course of five nights, he had slept 10 hours.
Today the hospital is a ruin. Bertucci works out of a temporary clinic in the Wal-Mart parking lot (the store, like the great majority of businesses in St. Bernard, is closed). The clinic sees 85 to 113 patients a day; 50 to 60 percent of them show symptoms of depression. Bertucci says, "I'll sit down and say, 'How are you doing?' They'll start crying." To understand what they feel, he suggests, imagine getting up one morning and finding that your lawnmower won't start, your car has been stolen, your house is demolished, your job is gone, and your friends have died or moved away.
And how is Bertucci doing? He gets depressed. He cries at movies, gets angry. "I tell my wife, I think the person I was died that day." He begins to cry. "You can't go through something like this and be the same."
Collecting himself, he explains that his house is gutted. He plans to sell it and buy another. With his wife and three of his five grown children, he lives in a mobile home, which makes him fortunate; most people are living in travel trailers. "Candominiums," they call them. Or "crampers." For therapy, Bertucci mows lawns in his ruined neighborhood, cleans up trash: Augean chores, but they help him grasp at normalcy.
Why does he stay? The parish needs a new hospital, and he wants to help make it happen. "And I'm a Christian person," he says, "and this is where I'm needed most."
Needed he is. A year after the storm, St. Bernard Parish is struggling to survive. The recovery has gone little better than the initial response. The deluge of water was followed by an alluvium of indecision and a blizzard of red tape.
The parish council—St. Bernard's equivalent of a city council or county commission—meets in a trailer behind the half-gutted government building. At a recent session, a resident complains that the streetlights on his block don't work. The parish's public works director explains that staff and equipment are short, electrical poles are expensive, and salt water destroyed much of the circuitry. "It's just taking too long to get the little things done," the resident replies, his voice bitter. Lynn Dean, the council chairman, retorts curtly, "I'm sorry we're not perfect. Thank you."
As the meeting drags on, the sun sets pink and charcoal. Driving along random streets near the council chamber, a visitor passes empty houses, one after another. Many streetlights work, but they are too far apart to dissipate the gathering gloom. The houses are husks, hulls, dark, their empty or boarded windows black on black. A few appear livable but unlived in; more are gutted; many are simply abandoned. Here is a caved-in roof, there a vine-covered car amid chest-high weeds in what was once a driveway. Some bear spray-painted messages. One says, "MONEY IS TIGHT AND TIMES ARE HARD IN ST. BERNARD. SORRY WE HAVE MOVED." Another simply: "WE WILL SURVIVE."
Some houses are under repair; trailers are parked in their yards. A family is barbecuing at a gas grill outside a half-renovated garage. Next to another trailer, a few people chat in a pool of light. On most blocks, however, one encounters no people, hears no human sounds. There are no dogs or cats. The odd car prowls by, picking its way amid potholes. By day, people come and work on their houses. By night, the sense of desertion is overpowering. Even a graveyard feels less desolate, because it is not meant for living.
St. Bernard is low ground surrounded by water on three sides. It shares the levee system that was designed to protect the New Orleans metropolitan area and that failed catastrophically on August 29. Although the parish is geographically contiguous with New Orleans's devastated lower 9th Ward and is an easy 20 minutes by car from the French Quarter, residents insist they are not a "New Orleans suburb."
St. Bernard is predominantly white and working-class. It has oil and sugar refineries, as well as its own port. The parish owes some of its growth to white flight from the New Orleans schools, but St. Bernard retains a deep-rooted identity of its own. Extended families tend to stay put, with three generations living in close proximity. It's not uncommon to meet people like Beryl Hargis, a school-system employee whose family—including siblings, grown children, aunt, niece, and cousins—count, between them, 11 homes in St. Bernard.
Or, rather, counted. On August 29, levees breached to the west and to the north. Water poured in from two sides and then sat for days, as it did in New Orleans. Unlike New Orleans, however, St. Bernard found itself not partly under water, but entirely under water. Floodwaters covered the entire parish in depths ranging from 2 feet in the south to 28 feet in the north. The parish awoke that day to find it had become a lake—soon a toxic lake, after a storage tank spilled a million gallons of oil into a neighborhood of thousands of homes.
"There was not a livable house in this parish," says Henry J. (Junior) Rodriguez, the 70-year-old parish president. Officials say that only 40 to 50 structures escaped serious water damage; five or six homes, out of 26,900, were inhabitable.
Everyone in St. Bernard has a story, but it is the same story: I lost my home and everything in it. Intensifying the blow, the storm wiped out St. Bernard's extended families, shattering the relational networks that people could ordinarily have relied on for aid. All 11 homes in Beryl Hargis's family were wrecked. Families scattered around the region and the country.
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.
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.)
Cleanup and repair cost the school system tens of millions of dollars, but federal payment has been slow. Reimbursement for small projects goes through five to 10 weeks of federal and state review, according to David Fernandez, the school system's financial manager. Any expenditure over $1 million is subject to another four to 12 weeks of review in Washington, he said.
This is the so-called "million-dollar queue." "Anything over a million dollars has to be reported to Congress," says Brown, the former FEMA director. "Why do you think that is? Congress wants to make an announcement." In other words, members of Congress want to be the first to boast of a federal project in their district.
"This is all political," Brown says. "It has nothing to do with good public policy."
In the parish council trailer, two engineers endeavor to explain why demolition is proceeding at a snail's pace. That day, in mid-July, more than 4,600 houses were on the demolition list [PDF]; as many as 8,000 more will be added starting in September, when the parish begins to condemn abandoned houses. After most storms, cleanup means collecting debris and then repairing houses. After Katrina in St. Bernard, however, the houses are the debris. Thousands and thousands of them are unsalvageable, eyesores at best, hazards at worst. Removing them is the prerequisite to recovery. But, as of mid-July, fewer than 1,000 had been demolished [PDF].
Logan Martin, a parish staff engineer, and Stephen Bourg of All South Consulting Engineers, a firm that oversees demolition, lay a stack of files on the table, samples of their paperwork. They explain that the parish submitted a demolition plan in December, but state and federal environmental regulators took months to agree on an asbestos-removal protocol [PDF]. That held up work until early spring.
Under the stringent protocol finally adopted, every house must be tested for asbestos, rather than just visually inspected. Visiting every house and sending samples to labs across the country takes time. The parish asked if it could speed things up by treating all properties as "hot," instead of testing each house, in developments where asbestos is known to be prevalent. The regulators said no.
FEMA's historic-preservation and archeological team had to inspect any property before local officials could clear it for demolition. This step, Martin and Bourg said, took anywhere from one to three months, even for recently built houses. One house, Martin said, had to go through historical and archeological review despite landing on its slab in the middle of an intersection. On private property, even debris—including, for example, 1,600 tree stumps—had to be reviewed for archaeological value before FEMA would pay for removal.
Before demolition, five different specialty crews visit each house (to disconnect gas, disconnect electricity, disconnect water and sewer, recover refrigerant, and remove appliances and toxic chemicals such as paint and bleach). If a house contains asbestos, a special demolition crew is called in.
Each procedure has its purpose, but with thousands and thousands of demolitions ahead of him, Martin closes a file folder and looks up with haggard eyes. "As soon as we get one hurdle cleared, there's another," he says. "Every day there's something staring you in the face and you say, 'I can't believe this. Another hoop I have to jump through.' "
Judy Hoffmeister remembers with particular anger the day FEMA took away the phones. After Katrina, cellphones and even satellite phones worked only sporadically, so FEMA brought in a mobile telephone system and connected it to a building (a refinery office) where the parish government was holed up. Then came word that Hurricane Rita was forging toward St. Bernard. FEMA's people evacuated, advising parish officials to do the same (they refused).
All of that, Hoffmeister understands. But she still recalls council members' dismay as they watched FEMA carry away the phones, leaving the parish's officials to weather Rita without communications. "I could not believe what I was witnessing," Hoffmeister says. "The feeling was, they didn't care." Told FEMA's rationale, she replies, "All I know is, we were already in distress, and it didn't help the situation any."
FEMA did have a rationale. Asked about the phone episode, Darryl Madden, a FEMA spokesman, said that the kind of vehicle-based relay system that the agency would have brought into St. Bernard—a communications trailer, basically—is not storm-hardened and requires a crew. FEMA couldn't leave its personnel in harm's way to operate the system, and the coming hurricane might have destroyed the vulnerable equipment. "If that's the only communications you have, you do normally pull back and reinsert after a storm," Madden said. "That's a call where you say, what if you leave it there and it's totally demolished?"
Asked about the parish's request to treat whole areas as asbestos-contaminated rather than inspecting every house, Barb Sturner, a FEMA public-affairs officer, said, "Asbestos debris removal is expensive. Asbestos demolition is expensive." It involves Tyvek suits, wetting procedures, and specially prepared dump trucks. To go through all of that unnecessarily would be irresponsible, she said.
In New Orleans, FEMA's cultural resources team confirmed that until July the agency conducted detailed historical and archeological reviews of every property to be demolished. House-by-house review was necessary because a parish-wide inventory of historic assets—"a long process requiring lots of manpower"—took time to complete. Now that the inventory is done, team members said, clearing most properties for demolition will take two weeks or less. "The process that's in place now is cutting-edge, streamlined compliance," said Fred Holycross, FEMA's group leader for cultural resources in the New Orleans area.
Even before the expedited process took effect, FEMA officials said, historical and archeological review was taking three to six weeks, not three months. "There is a time period needed to complete the historic-preservation review," said John Ketchum, FEMA's federal preservation officer. But, he said, "they haven't demolished anywhere near as many properties as have been reviewed for historic preservation." (True, said Bourg. But that is because historic preservation is only one of many bottlenecks—which is the whole problem.)
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.