Two and a half years after Hurricane Katrina laid waste to a major portion of the coastal South, the effects of this disaster still dominate the landscape. After years as exasperated bystanders, my 19-year-old son Alex and I drove cross-country in December for a week of volunteer work with Habit for Humanity in St. Bernard Parish. This parish abuts the much-publicized lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans along its southern and eastern borders.
For the most part, rebuilding is still a dream for residents of St. Bernard Parish. Their reality is much more grim.
Of course, the New Orleans Superdome has been repaired and the French Quarter is alive and jumping as it prepares for Mardi Gras. After all, the French Quarter never flooded. Not a drop of water flowed into this historic portion of New Orleans. And repairing the damaged Superdome was an obvious top priority. There is football to be played. But a short drive in nearly any direction from Bourbon Street quickly dispels any thoughts that the recovery process has more than just begun.
Katrina put all of the St. Bernard Parish under water, from five to 25 feet, depending on elevations. Whether the devastation was directly caused by Katrina and the ensuing Hurricane Rita, the result of the tidal surge off of Lake Pontchartrain or the failure of one level of government or another is irrelevant at this point—at least to the people who lived through hell on earth to tell their stories. What is relevant to them is the here and now. In this part of the country, roots run deep. The grandparents, aunts, uncles, brothers, sisters, cousins, nieces and nephews of families numbering a hundred or more hope one day to move back from distant places to the only land they’ve ever known.
Alex and I arrived at Habit for Humanity’s Camp Hope a week before Christmas. In its previous life, Camp Hope was a two-story middle school. The upper floor has been converted into a barracks-type living space for volunteers. The lunch room/gymnasium feeds three meals a day to more than 300 volunteers. We soon learned the hammers, saws and other construction tools we’d brought would spend most of the week untouched. Our backs, however, got a strenuous workout.We spent three days shoveling and wheeling piles of soaked drywall and other less identifiable detritus out of a parish health clinic, knocking down interior framing and hauling out miles of electric wiring, conduit, insulation and other materials. Two and a half years after Katrina, and this sort of work is still going on throughout the parish.
How is this possible? A drive down any main thoroughfare gives a pretty clear indication. The vast majority of the stores, businesses and other facilities are still boarded up. Most of the rest have either been left to the elements or been cleared from their foundations. Most traffic lights don’t function. Neither does the sewer system.
There is hope of repairing the infrastructure. That may begin in the spring if the money is finally allotted to the parish. Meanwhile, the aroma of raw sewage is readily apparent, even in December. Imagine what it must smell like in the heat of the summer.Residences are in much the same condition. Some have FEMA trailers in the driveways. Living in an 18-foot trailer next to what was once a home can’t be anybody’s idea of a solution. But government red tape continues to keep the money from the people. According to parish residents, doing any work on a structure—including removing moldy drywall—disqualifies the homeowner from FEMA help.
The children showed an amazing resilience. Christmas was just a few days away and their excitement was obvious, even to complete strangers. Adults were another story. Their thousand-mile stares were reminiscent of war veterans. But unlike most veterans, these people were willing and even eager to tell their stories. Storytelling in the Deep South rises to the level of an art form. We talked to people who had chopped their way through the roofs of their houses after being trapped in their attics. We heard stories of alligators swimming in the streets and of dead relatives, their bodies left for weeks in the standing water among the debris. Water flooded the entire parish in less than four hours. They were quick to say that St. Bernard is the first parish, or Louisiana county, in the history of the United States to be declared a total disaster area.
And that’s just one parish. There’s also an unfathomable amount of work to be done in New Orleans, to say nothing of the rest of the devastated area, an expanse that extends from the western Louisiana border into Alabama.
It is easy to point a finger, to blame the victims for their own lack of foresight, but a disaster of this magnitude can happen anywhere. Imagine what a 9.5 earthquake would do to any part of the West. Or the havoc a tsunami or another hurricane could wreak along the coastal United States. Rivers flood, buildings collapse from snow loads, entire communities are wiped out by an unexpected tornado or fire. Flood, famine, pestilence and death are all a part of the human experience.
But how can we turn our backs on the victims of any disaster, especially one the magnitude of Katrina?
After all, we could be next.
Pete Margolies is a retired journalist who runs a woodworking shop in Guerneville. Open Mic is now a weekly feature in the Bohemian. We welcome your contribution. To have your topical essay of 700 words considered for publication, write [email protected]