[StBernard] Hurricane Gustav Information

Westley Annis Westley at da-parish.com
Tue Sep 16 21:56:31 EDT 2008

Is this the phenomena that so many are facing on a constant basis? It's
regularity is almost certain in 2008 and a concern the past few years since
Katrina. How many more times must Louisianans and St. Bernardians "recover".
Does "Disaster Fatigue" simply refer to as the victims who must experience
it with every hurricane disaster or is the term coined for those who are
tired of hearing we're hurting, sweating and attempting to get our act back
together with each time a storm kills our community?

"Bush: Don't let 'disaster fatigue' slow Ike giving"


Old Fears, New Worries

Would you come back?

This is the question that dogs me every morning as I drive through the str
eets of New Orleans . Past the rebuilt homes and ramshackle shells, past the
fresh trim jobs and spray-painted search crosses, past the cleared concrete
slabs and the piles of debris that still litter every block, I travel and
interrogate my own strength.

I had never visited this area before Hurricane Katrina devastated it three
years ago, so I am spared the firsthand comparisons of before and after that
can make life here untenable for longtime residents who try to return. While
I love the lessened, wounded city I currently call home, I often doubt that
I could live here with the memory of what it used to be. And so every
morning on my way to work, I ask myself this question, to remind myself of
the strength of the people I meet, and to remind myself of the strength of
the students I teach-children who had no choice in their destiny.

My morning ritual took on more urgency about 10 days ago, when it became
apparent that another hurricane, Gustav, was taking aim at south Louisiana .
Suddenly, everyone worried that we would get hit again. The grocery stores
ran out of gallons of water. The gas pump lines were three cars deep.
Nowhere was the stress more apparent than among my students.

"Ms. Walters, where will we have class if the school floods again?" one of
them asked me as I was taking roll.

"I don't want it to flood. If it floods again, we are not coming back,"
another wrote in his class journal.
A land destroyed
The kids had especial cause for worry. I teach ninth grade in St. Bernard
Parish, which lies due east of New Orleans , between the Mississippi River
and an inlet of the Gulf of Mexico ; my school is about eight miles from the
French Quarter. Although it attracted only a fraction of the news coverage
given to the city, the parish-a suburban and rural parcel of land comparable
to a county-bears the dubious distinction of being the only parish where
Katrina's waters covered 100 percent of the land. Every single structure was
damaged or destroyed.

I know that most of my students did not ride out Katrina at their homes,
because if they had, they might be dead. The flood came as a wall of water,
inundating structures within seconds. In some areas, it reached depths of
more than 15 feet.

"My house didn't have a water line on it," one administrator told me when I
was hired. "The water went up over the top of the roof."

The floodwaters lay in some neighborhoods for weeks, shining sickly with the
evidence of a secondary disaster, a spill of mixed crude at the Murphy Oil
refinery that coated everything it touched. Every s chool building was
rendered uninha bitable, including two that were used as shelters of last
resort. After stranded residents were rescued from their attics and
rooftops, many of the pets they had been forced to leave were left to
languish, dying slowly and alone. In St. Rita's Nursing Home in the rural,
eastern end of the parish, the bodies of 34 patients who drowned in their
beds awaited proper burial.

Coming back

St. Bernard Parish has come a long way in the past three years. My school
district's administrators managed to reopen a school in trailers in November
2005; since then, the district has grown to eight schools. Because the local
hospital and doctor's offices closed after the storm, my school hosts a full
medical clinic. It also offers a counseling program for children who were
particularly affected by Katrina.

Still, signs of the storm remain everywhere. Population estimates for the
parish vary, but most set the current number at a third to half of the
pre-storm population. Most of the stores are gone, as are the roller rink
and the movie theater. The civic center has boards on the windows. Some
families are still living in FEMA20campers in the driveways of their ruined
houses. At night, it is possible to drive through a subdivision and see
blocks with only one or two houses lit up.

Most of my students are glad to be back.20St. Bernard Parish is a largely
working-class oil and fishing community, the type of place where families
can trace their roots back more than a century. In their journals, the kids
have written of their love for their home, as well as what they learned from
having to relocate-what it's like to be the new kid in school, what it's
like to play in snow. But they have also recorded the upheaval of their
lives after Katrina, and they have no desire to repeat those experiences.

"I lost my dog and everything that I had," one student wrote the day after
Gustav set everyone on alert.

"My parents will be sad because they will have to find new jobs," another

"I hope the hurricane doesn't come this way," another wrote. "It's hard t o
leave your friends, and you might never see them again."

New worries

By the time I was driving to work on the morning of Aug. 29, the business
owners of St. Bernard Parish were outside hammering plywood over their

In her first period class, the teacher next door to me had 14 absentees.
After the announcements and the Pledge of Allegiance, one of my students
said, "Ms. Walters, where are you evacuating?"

It was the exact third anniversary20of Hurricane Katrina.

The worry built over the course of the day, as did the number of absentees
as parents finished packing their cars picked up their children on the way
out of town. In my classroom, my students helped me pull bookcases away from
the windows, elevate materials on high tables and unplug computers.

After lunch, we filed into the gym for the Day of Remembrance ceremony, a
ceremony to memorialize Hurricane Katrina. Mercifully, the theme of the
event looked forward and focused on values such as giving back to the
community, rather than the storm's devastation.

I planned to leave as soon as school was over and drive with my housemate to
stay with friends in Memphis . Just past dismissal, I was locking up when
one of my students stopped by.

"If the storm hits, will you come back?" he said.

I told him I would come back no matter what. If the school was damaged, I
would try to help fix it. If there was no building, I would teach in a
trailer. If there were no homes, I would live in a camper.

"Me too," he said. "I hope I see you soon."

A constant threat

To live now in St. Bernard Parish, or New Orleans, or any other Gulf Coast
commun ity that has been destroyed over the past few years requires the
ability to simultaneously acknowledge the past and believe in your heart
that history cannot repeat itself so cruelly. If someone truly thinks that
another storm will bring destruction on the scale of Katrina, then south
Louisiana is just not a place it is possible to live.

The people here elevate their houses, urge the government to strengthen the
levees and do everything they can to prepare themselves for the next time a
storm comes. But ultimately, this place is at the mercy of wind and water,
and its future is left to forces beyond our control-to fate, to luck, to
God, to global warming, to probability. Although we dodged a bullet with
Gustav, the storm succeeded in shaking that faith.

On Monday morning, the yellow buses will arrive again in front of the
school. I will be there to hug each student hello and ask them how they
spent our weeklong hiatus. I will be happy to see them. But I also won't
forget the fears they laid bare in their writing.

"I pray to God that this hurricane turns around and=2 0doesn't hit New
Orleans ," one of my students wrote the day before the evacuation. "I know
everyone is wishing the same thing, because this is terrifying."
Would YOU come back?

Elizabeth Walters teaches English at Chalme tte High School in Chalmette ,

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