[StBernard] St. Bernard rebirth built to last

Westley Annis westley at da-parish.com
Wed Aug 27 08:54:57 EDT 2008

St. Bernard rebirth built to last
by Paul Rioux, The Times-Picayune
Tuesday August 26, 2008, 10:20 PM
Nearly four decades after he built one of the first homes in Chalmette's
Buccaneer Villa North subdivision, Richard Schackai is among the first to
start rebuilding in the flood-ravaged neighborhood.

"It's the same thing all over again, " said Schackai, 69, a retired vo-tech
teacher. "Only this time my house is 9 feet off the ground and surrounded by
ugly concrete slabs instead of grass."

He said he would have rebuilt sooner if not for delays in receiving his Road
Home grant and indecision by public officials, who considered buying the
low-lying area and turning it into green space.

"They said they were going to build golf courses and lagoons here, " said
Schackai, taking a break from framing his new driveway with scrap lumber in
preparation for the cement truck. "But in the end, they said, 'Nah, just do
whatever you want.' "

The lukewarm encouragement was all Schackai needed to return to an area
swamped by more than 10 feet of water during Hurricane Katrina. He plans to
move in to his new house by the end of September, just four months after
construction began.

"Once I got through all the red tape, things moved forward pretty quickly, "
he said.

In many ways Schackai's post-Katrina experience mirrors that of the parish
as a whole. After a series of stuttering starts, St. Bernard's recovery
seems to be shifting into high gear as Katrina's third anniversary

Parish buildings rebuilt

The parish government complex in Chalmette, which sat gutted for more than
two years, is under renovation and is expected to be completed in a few
months. The Parish Council recently moved from a cramped triple-wide trailer
into spacious renovated chambers.

The vacuum trucks that sucked raw waste from the parish's broken sewer
system are gone, and plans are moving forward for a project to consolidate
the parish's seven sewage-treatment plants.

The first of St. Bernard's 10 fire stations reopened this week, and the
school district has broken ground on a $55 million expansion at Chalmette
High School. The ambitious project includes a 25-classroom addition, an
athletic fieldhouse, a pool and a cultural arts center featuring a 400-seat
auditorium complete with orchestra pit.

"All of that talk after the storm about rebuilding bigger and better was not
just a cliche, " schools Superintendent Doris Voitier said. "It's becoming a

Still, in a parish where all but a handful of the 27,000 homes flooded
during Katrina, St. Bernard faces plenty of challenges.

About 2,500 homes still need to be demolished. Then begins the monumental
task of removing all of those unsightly slabs.

Hospital needed

But many residents say the biggest roadblock to the parish's recovery has
been the lack of a hospital.

The parish's lone hospital before Katrina, the privately owned Chalmette
Medical Center, flooded and has been bulldozed.

Parish officials are trying to line up $70 million for a 40-bed publicly
owned hospital. But the bottom line is that three years after Katrina, a
hospital is still three years away.

"We've got to keep improving our infrastructure to put people's minds at
ease, " Parish President Craig Taffaro said. "I hear people say all the
time, 'I miss St. Bernard, but am I going to come back to the St. Bernard
that I miss?' "

Taffaro estimates St. Bernard's population at about 36,000, more than half
the pre-Katrina benchmark of 67,200. The U.S. Census Bureau has pegged the
population much lower, at just under 26,000, but parish officials dismiss
this as a low-ball figure.

David Peralta, Taffaro's chief administrative officer, noted that the
parish's garbage contractor has 16,900 residential customers. He said that
with a conservative estimate of two people per household, this translates to
a population of 33,800.

But Peralta acknowledged that St. Bernard's population growth is starting to
level off.

"A lot of people who moved away right after the storm can't afford to come
back because of the mortgage crisis and housing slump, " he said. "We will
continue to grow, but it will be more gradual from here on out."

Josie Shell, 70, who moved from Chalmette to Braithwaite in Plaquemines
Parish after Katrina, is among those still hoping to return. She was
encouraged by what she saw during a recent visit to Chalmette with her
husband to cut the grass at two rental properties they own.

"Everything is looking so new and fresh and revitalized, " she said, "It's
almost like a miracle when you think how bad it was after the storm."

Businesses back

Traveling down Judge Perez Drive, St. Bernard's main east-west thoroughfare,
it appears that about two-thirds of the businesses have returned, many in
gleaming new buildings.

The retail mix has a decidedly post-Katrina flavor: tile stores and kitchen
cabinet dealers have popped up in seemingly every strip mall. There has also
been a proliferation of discount "dollar" stores, with eight now open and a
ninth under construction.

Many residents say they appreciate the convenience of the dollar stores, but
they yearn for a big-box retailer. Taffaro said Wal-Mart plans to reopen its
store in the spring on Judge Perez Drive in Chalmette, though it will be
downsized from 200,000 square feet to 140,000.

Schools rebound

Meanwhile, the St. Bernard Parish school district has continued to grow. The
district opened two completely rebuilt elementary schools this fall and
plans to begin working on two more for the 2010-11 school year, Voitier

The school district has 4,574 students, up 400 from last fall and more than
half the pre-Katrina enrollment of 8,800.

"We're expecting steady and continued growth, " Voitier said. "But we don't
anticipate any more big spikes."

Fishing villages walloped

Rebuilding has gone much slower outside the levees in the parish's eastern
fishing villages of Yscloskey, Shell Beach, Hopedale and Delacroix.
Katrina's 25-foot storm surge washed away all but a handful of camps,
leaving behind pilings supporting nothing and porch steps leading eerily to

The debris has long been cleared but relatively few camps have been rebuilt,
and most of those are owned by recreational fishers, not the commercial
fishers who have made a living on the water for generations.

Jessie Alfonso, 69, started fishing when he was 14, earning 2 cents a pound
for crabs.

He fixed his boat after a tree fell on it during Katrina and got a FEMA
trailer to replace his destroyed camp in Delacroix, but he has no plans to

"I'm too old. Besides, it would probably just blow away in the next storm, "
said Alfonso, who fishes most days with his brother, Vernon, 74. "I can't
afford to retire. You've just got to keep going and don't look back. What's
lost is lost."

One thing the storm didn't destroy is St. Bernard's claim to some of the
best saltwater fishing in the country. The parish recently hosted the Oh
Boy! Oberto Redfish Cup fishing tournament, which drew 100 professional
anglers and the ESPN-2 television network.

Schackai said the proximity to world-class fishing was one of the reasons he
was eager to return to St. Bernard.

"How else am I going to spend my retirement?" he said.

The parish will observe Katrina's anniversary Friday with a series of
events, including a memorial Mass, a Day of Reflection breakfast and the
rededication of a monument for more than 160 St. Bernard residents who died
during the storm and its aftermath. But Schackai said he will mark the
occasion by simply working on his house.

"No sense dwelling on the past, " he said. "Most people my age are gone.
They're scattered from Timbuktu to God knows where, but I never had to think
twice about coming back. This is my home."

. . . . . . .

Paul Rioux can be reached at prioux at timespicayune.com.

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