[StBernard] Hope springs eternal in post-Katrina parish

Westley Annis westley at da-parish.com
Wed Apr 29 08:05:56 EDT 2009

Hope springs eternal in post-Katrina parish

Wed. Apr 29 - 6:09 AM

ST. BERNARD, La. - Hope lives on the Bayou Road, in a flood-scarred school
that should have long been given up for lost.

Classrooms have been reclaimed as dorm rooms and the gym now serves as a
cavernous dining hall. Where once Beauregard Middle School welcomed more
than 500 students and teachers, its doors are now open to volunteers from
throughout North America. They come to help rebuild an area hurricane
Katrina almost wiped off the map in August 2005.

This is Camp Hope. It is aptly named, these modest and sometimes rough
accommodations. For in the days and months after the devastation of Katrina
- when authorities declared every home in St. Bernard Parish unlivable -
what could possibly drive such a massive rebuilding effort but hope? And not
just the hope of the parish's 68,000 residents, but of those who come to

The first to arrive were Canadians. In the hurricane's immediate aftermath,
this area just southeast of New Orleans, hugging the Mississippi, lay
ignored by U.S. rescuers. Two days after Katrina, a search-and-rescue team
from Vancouver was in the parish pulling people from roofs and attics. The
Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) would take another four days to
arrive. The U.S. military, five days.

How devastated the residents must have felt - even in their relief and
gratitude at rescue - to abandon their homes to floodwaters that reached
five metres in places and stayed for three, sometimes four, weeks. No home
survived. Few belongings were salvaged.

This is the land I have travelled this past week as a volunteer with New
Orleans Area Habitat for Humanity and its ambitious rebuilding project. I
wish I could report that more than three and a half years after Katrina, the
area is thriving. My observations and many conversations tell me otherwise.

If, as some have described, Katrina knocked New Orleans and surrounding
areas flat on their back, then the analogy now is that they have finally
made it to their knees. Life here is now described in terms of pre- and
post-Katrina: St. Bernard Parish, for example, has regained only 30 per cent
of its pre-Katrina population.

The rebuilding required is so massive, and has occurred so unevenly, that it
has made for some stunning contrasts in the landscape. In neighbourhood
after neighbourhood, spanking-new homes with freshly laid sod alternate with
abandoned buildings with punched-out roofs and overgrown lawns. Brightly
painted new houses take turns on the same block with condemned buildings
still marked by the spray-painted codes left by searchers who had moved
meticulously through each house looking for life.

At one half-finished house I worked at last week in the Lower Ninth Ward, a
newly built home with a restored garden stood on one side; on the other, a
house stripped down to its outside shell and wall framing. Inside the
abandoned house, on the floor of what was the kitchen, someone - likely a
volunteer sent in during early days to remove dangerous mould - had neatly
stacked the flood-stained fancy dishes and glasses, as if hopeful the owners
might one day return and want them.

Such is the hope of the volunteers who come to Habitat for Humanity's Camp
Hope, a base created to provide affordable accommodations. Theresa, from
Boston, is with her husband, who bunks in the all-men dorm. Claire is from
Tucson, Ariz., freshly graduated from university. Dave is from outside
Calgary, on an extended spring break, he says; Eddie is from New York,
combining a bit of paid work while in the area.

I have met volunteers from Florida and California, Tennessee and Texas,
Virginia and Washington state. Some have been here several times, like Bob
the retired firefighter from Phoenix who works on plumbing and wiring. Flor
has been here before too, when tearing down, not rebuilding, was the
priority. Ask them why they're here, and they'll all say something similar:
"To help. At least, I hope I can."

But there's a worry at hand - a concern that the more distant a memory
Katrina becomes, the fewer the volunteers who come.

"We're such an instant-gratification society," said Flor, from Portland,
Ore. "We expect things to be fixed quickly, and then we forget about it. We
move to the next disaster. Who knows? Maybe it's the swine flu next.

"But this is long-term. Rebuilding this area will take a long time.
Volunteers will be needed for a while yet."

Few are more aware of this than Habitat for Humanity, which has completed
213 homes in the area and has 103 under contruction. It has seen the number
of volunteers to Camp Hope - capable of housing up to 900 - dwindle to
dozens. And now, as the school board looks to build a new school on the
property, it must wrap up operations over the next month.

The organization has been trying to find another building in the parish to
use as a volunteer base. Hope, it knows, isn't just found on Bayou Road. It
lives in every person working to rebuild the area.

( mmarwah at herald.ca)

Maggie Marwah is a freelance writer and communications consultant living in

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