[StBernard] St. Bernard family the face of the storm

Westley Annis westley at da-parish.com
Mon Jul 30 22:06:23 EDT 2007

St. Bernard family the face of the storm
Documentary captures the hope and heartbreak of return home
Sunday, July 29, 2007
By Paul Rioux
St. Bernard bureau

Audrey May first saw the inside of her flooded St. Bernard Parish home while
watching a videotape of one of her daughters searching the mud-caked
wreckage for a coveted family portrait several months after Hurricane

Tears welled in May's eyes as her daughter spoke with pride about growing up
in the modest home on Caluda Drive in Violet.

"As little kids, if you had indoor plumbing, you knew you were something
special," her daughter Deborah Green said in the video as she stepped around
overturned furniture in the dark, mold-infested home. "We had a living room,
kitchen, three bedrooms and a bath. This is when we really knew we were

When Green found the portrait with the faces obliterated by Katrina's
floodwaters, all hope seemed to fade from May's eyes.

"I loved Violet. I was born and raised there," said May, who is 68. "But
it'll never be the same. Believe me, it won't."

May's reaction, captured by a film crew, sets a mournful tone at the outset
of "Still Waiting: Life After Katrina," an hourlong documentary about a St.
Bernard Parish family's struggle to rebuild their lives.

The cameras follow several members of May's extended family for 18 months as
they return to their ruined homes. It's a journey filled with both hope and
heartbreak as the magnitude of the catastrophe outstrips their prized
self-sufficiency and as the recovery bureaucracy proves difficult to

The documentary -- one of the few to focus extensively on St. Bernard, where
all but a handful of homes flooded -- made its big-screen debut Saturday
night in New Orleans and will be shown again tonight before moving on to a
Dallas film festival and an eventual national airing on PBS around Katrina's
second anniversary.

Directed by two-time Emmy-winner Ginny Martin, the film begins at the Dallas
home of Connie Tipado, one of May's five children who took in 48 relatives
who evacuated before Katrina destroyed their homes in St. Bernard Parish and
eastern New Orleans.

A nurse who left St. Bernard more than 20 years ago, Tipado knows first-hand
the draw of the close-knit parish, where her family rituals included cooking
large Sunday dinners and spending evenings on their front porches.

But two decades away from home changed her perspective, and she worries
about her relatives as they leave new opportunities in Dallas to live in
cramped FEMA trailers in post-Katrina St. Bernard, which she likens to a
third-world country.

"They're all glad to be back home," she said in the documentary. "I just
hope home doesn't disappoint them."

'Attachment to place'

Having celebrated their return to St. Bernard with steaming pots of gumbo,
her relatives' initial euphoria gradually gives way to frustration and
exhaustion as they confront the daily hardships of living in a disaster

Tipado's aunt and godmother, Katie Williams, 63, a retired St. Bernard
sheriff's deputy who lost a leg to diabetes and uses a wheelchair, waited
months for a ramp leading to the door to her FEMA trailer in Verret in
eastern St. Bernard.

Williams, who did not have flood insurance, sent back a $2,200 check from
her homeowners policy in disgust and is waiting for a Road Home grant to
begin rebuilding her house.

"Waiting gets on your nerves," she said in the documentary. "You've got
plenty to do, but you can't do it."

Martin said she and co-producer Kate Brown, an anthropology professor at
Colorado State University, were initially wary of titling the documentary
"Still Waiting" because it might suggest the women featured are helpless
victims dependent on others.

"We decided to keep the title because it's clear to anyone who watches the
documentary that they're not sitting around waiting to be rescued," she
said. "There's only so much they can do, and they have done all that. When
you and your entire family have lost everything, you can't recover by
yourself in a vacuum."

Martin said she started out interviewing a 9th Ward family that evacuated to
Denver, but she shifted the focus after learning about Tipado's Herculean
efforts to find temporary shelter for 155 relatives in and around Martin's
hometown of Dallas.

"I was drawn in by their incredible attachment to place, the strong family
ties and the richness of their Creole culture," she said. "It is such a
unique and vibrant way of life. But as Katrina showed, it is also extremely

Race and poverty

The documentary, which includes commentary by University of New Orleans
historians and anthropologists, was financed by a grant from the National
Science Foundation, Colorado State University and the Women in Film

Like other Katrina documentaries, Martin's film about an African-American
family from predominately white St. Bernard touches on issues of race and
poverty laid bare by the hurricane.

One relative tells of applying for a job as a clerk and being asked if she
would take a position as a janitor.

"They didn't even look at my application to see my qualifications," said
Rosalind King, a cousin of Tipado's who believes she was passed over because
she is black.

Another cousin said Katrina "was just another storm for black people."

"There's the storm of divorce. There's the storm of bankruptcy. There are
many different types of storms that come into our lives," Melanie Bienemy
said in the documentary.

After spending several months editing more than 100 hours of film down to 60
minutes, Martin called Tipado recently for an update on how her relatives
are doing.

"She said, 'Well, everyone's still waiting.' It's an ongoing story that
doesn't necessarily have a happy ending," Martin said. "We don't know. The
only thing that is certain is that it will never be the same."

Just as Audrey May said after one look at what Katrina did to her home.

. . . . . . .

"Still Waiting" will be shown today at 8 p.m. at the Zeitgeist
Multi-Disciplinary Arts Center's temporary location at the Tulane University
School of Architecture's Richardson Memorial Building, Thompson Hall, Rooms
201 and 204. Tickets are $7 for the general public, $6 for senior citizens,
$5 for Zeitgeist members and free to Tulane students and faculty with IDs.)

. . . . . . .

Paul Rioux can be reached at prioux at timespicayune.com or (504) 826-3321.

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