Social Studies August 2006

Struggling to Survive

A year after Katrina, as a visitor drives block by block through St. Bernard Parish, 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 an undamaged part of the parish. But every turn reveals more of the same—more destruction, more debris, more rebuilding still undone.
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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. n 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.

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Jonathan Rauch is a contributing editor of The Atlantic and National Journal and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

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