Hurricane

Hell & High Water: How Hurricane Katrina transformed St. Bernard

UNDER WATER: An amphibious vehicle drives through the flooded streets of St. Bernard Parish Saturday near New Orleans in September 2005.
UNDER WATER: An amphibious vehicle drives through the flooded streets of St. Bernard Parish Saturday near New Orleans in September 2005. AP

The ugliest memories still float to the surface 10 years after Hurricane Katrina flooded my New Orleans area home: The crackled layer of swamp mud and river silt. Three-foot piles of soggy bedding, moldy clothing and broken furniture in my bedroom. The rancid smell of blood in my mom’s house after the body was removed. Coffins popping out of the ground in the cemetery where my dad is buried.

I’ve lived in Broward County nearly a decade now, but Katrina brought me here. I landed in Miramar just four days after the Aug. 29, 2005, storm when my brother, Adam Landry, and sister-in-law, Courtney, took in my family.

Every year I go back to my hometown of St. Bernard Parish (the equivalent of a county here), where Katrina flooded all but a half-dozen of its 24,000 homes and left 67,000 people homeless. It was the only parish in the state almost completely submerged. Just four miles downriver from the French Quarter, St. Bernard is surrounded by water — the Mississippi River to the west, the Gulf of Mexico to the east, with canals and lakes winding in between. Home to a thriving fishing community, a couple of oil refineries, the site of the Battle of New Orleans and birthplace of Popeye’s Chicken, St. Bernard was a tight-knit community where generations grew up and never left.

THE FLOOD

The parish was protected by a series of poorly designed levees that either failed or were topped by the storm. Violent storm surges as high as 21 feet propelled 40-foot fishing boats and barges over the levees and into neighborhoods, the force of water so strong it wiped bricks off homes. The water hurled lawn furniture onto rooftops and left cars dangling from gutters.

Warren Duvieilh, 57, a marine electrician, evacuated his family, but stayed behind to keep watch on his ranch-style house. Early in the morning on Aug. 29, he saw water rushing down the street, and waded through the knee-high deluge to his neighbor’s two-story home. From nine feet up on the second-story loft, he watched the water rise. It stopped just three inches below his feet.

The following morning, friends pulled up in a 18-foot fishing boat and Duvieilh climbed aboard. They took him to a warehouse on higher land near the Mississippi River, where the newly homeless were told to pair up, each getting a stack of plywood to sleep on. MREs were the meals of choice, plus a bottle of water. “The conditions were terrible there, but it got better after a few days,” Duvieilh said. Later that week, he was ferried across the river, where a helicopter took him to the New Orleans International Airport.

“It was so jammed-packed with people. There was very little water, very little to eat,” he said. People were herded onto airplanes. “They told us you wouldn’t know where you were going until the plane was in the air.”

By chance, Duvieilh was routed to Texas, where his family had evacuated.

THE RESCUES

Lt. Gina Holland, a detective with the St. Bernard Sheriff’s Office, reported for duty on the evening of Aug. 28, at the parish courthouse, where she and 300 other deputies bunked for the night. The next morning, a rush of water sent everyone scrambling to the second floor.

Sheriff Jack Stephens had some boats stationed at the courthouse, and Holland and her partner, Les Raybon, got to Raybon’s fishing boat and headed out on a rescue mission.

“It was scary as hell, because so many things were floating in the water, cars and household items, you couldn’t see it all,” she said. “And the water was above the street signs, so it was hard to navigate.”

They found a man in his 70s waiting on his roof. The water was above the roofline. “He had been in his attic, lying on a two-by-six (plank), just to elevate his face out of the water, so he could breathe,” said Holland, 54.

The man had used the board to break through the roof. He had no shoes, only a piece of paper with his daughter’s number on it, wet and unreadable. Holland set it out in the sun on the boat’s dashboard, hoping it would dry. They dropped him off at the parish jail, which was being used as a shelter. She doesn’t know what happened to him.

Holland lived at the courthouse close to three weeks, along with hundreds of others. There was no running water, bathrooms or electricity, and limited provisions. On their “recon” missions, deputies made rescues and picked up whatever food they could find.

“If it floated, it was good. So if we found a bag of potato chips floating in the water, it was like the find of the century,” Holland said. “You might get lucky and find a can of ravioli, then it might take two hours to find a can opener, then two hours to find a fork. You had to work for every bite of food that you got.”

THE AFTERMATH

The water stayed high for more than two weeks. A couple of weeks later, when the water had subsided, St. Bernard residents lined up at parish entrances in the required gear: protective coveralls, face masks and rubber boots. Tetanus shots were administered. Most came pulling rented trailers and empty trucks they hoped to fill. Most left empty handed, in tears.

My house took in about five feet of water. After the wooden furniture fell apart, piles of clothes, ruined toys and books swished through the house. Everything lay in rotten, musty heaps, and mold crawled up the plaster walls. While I stayed in Miramar with our two children, my husband, E.J., and my in-laws, Merle and Erwin, picked through the debris and salvaged my wedding china and jewelry.

“It was like it was raised from the Titanic,” said my mom, Adeline Landry, describing the muddy mess inside her house. Neighbors had used her two-story house as a refuge. But it was desperate times. They stole her jewelry, fought over the loot, and one of the men died there, in my brother’s bed.

After the storm, members of military units went house to house, looking for bodies. They spray painted an X on each house with the date, and a “0” for the numbers of bodies found, to show that it had been checked. We called it the Katrina tattoo.

The body in my mom’s house had been removed by the time she returned, but the smell lingered. In December 2005 four months after the storm — I went there to salvage keepsakes from my childhood home. Inside the front door, I picked up crystals that had dangled from the foyer light fixture. I went upstairs to see my old bedroom, but the odor hit me like a wall. I ran downstairs and out the front door, never to return. The house was eventually demolished.

For nearly a year, there were no grocery stores, post offices or banks. No restaurants, gas stations or retail outlets. Big-hearted volunteers from around the country descended on St. Bernard, serving hot meals, gutting houses and giving out food. People set up FEMA trailers in their front yards, and the hum of generators played a somber sound track, echoing the mood. Neighbors tore out soggy wallboard and hauled mounds of crumpled furniture, clothing and household goods out to the streets.

More than 170 St. Bernard residents died in the storm. Some survivors never went back. A year after the storm, St. Bernard’s population dropped to about 25,000, down from 67,000. More than 8,300 unsalvageable houses were eventually demolished, leaving gaps of empty lots sitting between refurbished houses, a community with holes punched in its heart.

A NEW NORMAL

Today there is a new normal. St. Bernard’s population is about 44,400, but it’s a different mix of people. Some came from neighboring New Orleans. Some came to work gutting houses and snapped up cheap housing. Many former residents initially moved out of town, missed home, and came back. The parish is now more racially diverse, with a minority population of 26 percent, up from 12 percent in 2000.

With federal funds, schools and government buildings have been rebuilt. A new $1 billion flood protection system includes 23 miles of walls and gates. Home prices are back to pre-Katrina levels of $77 per square foot. Median household income levels are $41,300, up 14 percent from 2000.

Most neighborhoods look fine, prettier even, with landscaping and refreshed facades. Some subdivisions are sprinkled with just a few houses in between stretches of empty lots. The fishing villages near the Gulf, wiped clean from Katrina’s storm surge, have come back with a cheeky vengeance. Residents stacked their modular homes and trailers on 18-foot high stilts, giving the proverbial finger to future storms.

FINDING HOME

After Katrina, my husband and our two children lived in my brother’s Miramar home for eight months. We bought a house in Cooper City, and friends lent or gave us furniture until we could get back on our feet. We go back to St. Bernard every summer to reconnect with friends and family. We are adjusting.

Warren Duvieilh and his family lived in Texas for six months. Now they are in Slidell, about 30 miles north of St. Bernard.

“I miss my friends, but the parish, it’s not the same. St. Bernard was always a family-oriented community. People were born there. They raised their kids there. It was all familiar faces, a real small town,” he said.

Gina Holland and her husband, Gerald, stayed in St. Bernard. They bought a bigger house on a nicer street.

“I felt like some of us needed to be pioneers and hold our ground, and I figured if I did, some of my family would, too,” she said. “I felt like if I left, I would be leaving a sick child. I felt like I had to stay in St. Bernard — it was in my blood.”

Reflecting over the 10 years of change, Holland said, “Things are different, but from my perspective, it’s as close as I’m ever going to get to the things that we like: going to the grocery store and running into people you went to high school with, seeing people you know everywhere.”

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