[StBernard] First Katrina, Then BP: Life in the Gulf's Unluckiest Town

Westley Annis westley at da-parish.com
Fri Aug 27 09:20:35 EDT 2010

First Katrina, Then BP: Life in the Gulf's Unluckiest Town
Laura Parker

AOL News CHALMETTE, La. (Aug. 27) -- The sleek Bell helicopter, one of the
perks BP is making available to cranky officials whose coastlines it oiled,
lifts off from the lawn in front of the St. Bernard Parish government
complex, tilts toward the Gulf and flies straight into the thunderheads of
Tropical Depression 5. The gathering storm has already forced a pullback of
the flotilla out at the Deepwater Horizon drill site and will soon roll over
New Orleans, dumping enough rain to flood the streets.

We are headed down parish to Hopedale, if we can thread our way through.
There, near a sleepy marina, a couple of wharves and several weather-worn
sheds, BP has erected the hamlet's largest building, a temporary command
post where parish President Craig Taffaro begins and ends his work every

Between his dawn and dusk clashes over oil cleanup, Taffaro is back in
Chalmette, full-steam-ahead on hurricane recovery. That's his life now. Oil
and water. BP and Katrina.

The four-color brochures full of ribbon cuttings and grand re-openings that
commemorate every Katrina anniversary tend to make the recovery from the
hurricane seem almost easy. But the road back has in fact been a tough slog,
and there is still far to go.

Nowhere is that more true than for St. Bernard's Parish, which crawled back
from the bashing it took five years ago and then, even before the Gulf oil
disaster, endured one merciless post-storm bad break after another.

"So Much Need, By So Many, At So Many levels"

Looking out as Chalmette shrinks below us, the new landmarks that $1 billion
in federal Katrina money built sparkle -- new schools, new fire stations, a
new recreation complex with baseball diamonds and soccer fields. Our bird's
eye view also reveals the deep challenges of presiding over a place so
geographically at risk. Katrina's fury is still much in evidence. That is a
given. But there is as well the sight of the vast, emerald-green marsh
spread out below like a lace doily, revealing how truly vulnerable southeast
Louisiana is to storms and explaining why folks are so furious at BP.

"It's not just about dead fish," Taffaro says. "It's about our culture, our
way of life."

Lightning flashes. The pilot swings around, looking for a hole in the
clouds. We pass over a section of marsh that once was a cypress forest and
is now a brackish grave to dead tree trunks, then head south along the
Mississippi River Gulf Outlet. Locals know the 64-mile shortcut from the
Gulf to the Port of New Orleans as MR-GO and say it as "Mr. Go." The channel
was carved through East St. Bernard a half-century ago, hastening the
coastal erosion, which further weakened the last barrier protecting St.
Bernard and New Orleans from sea. The damage it causes was the subject of
much debate, but it took Katrina's handiwork to create the political will to
finally close it last year.

Katrina turned the MR-GO into a funnel and drove her surge into the
Industrial Canal, which gave way and caused much of the flooding that nearly
drowned New Orleans. In St. Bernard, the flood almost finished off the
parish for good. Nearly every building was damaged, most beyond repair. Of
27,000 homes, five survived.

The misery was compounded in countless other ways. The storm killed 163
people in the parish, including 35 elderly patients who drowned at St.
Rita's Nursing Home, a one-story building that failed to evacuate. The soil
in a 1,700-home development was poisoned when a million gallons of oil
leaked from a dislodged refinery storage tank. None of the houses could be

Taffaro, a psychologist, served at the time on the part-time parish council.
That first year, the devastation was so complete, the mere sighting of an
operating street light was cause for cheer.

"There was so much need by so many at so many levels," he says, "it gave us
a sense of helplessness, that no matter what we were able to do, the
magnitude was just too great."

Then, two years ago, a bottleneck of federal funding finally loosened, and
the parish went on a building binge. It has completed more than 100 new
projects that range from walking trails to rehabbed water towers to a new
sewage treatment plant. Last month, officials broke ground on a new 40-bed

But now that the parish has the new facilities, it has had to figure out how
to finance their operation with a smaller population and lower tax revenue.
The pre-Katrina population of 67,000 has shrunk to 42,000 and the parish is
being repopulated as a much slower rate than New Orleans.

"Building a new fire station is a wonderful thing," says Taffaro.
"Maintaining it is another."

"Katrina All Over Again"

The parish construction boom coincided with the arrival in the U.S. of
defective Chinese drywall, which was sold widely through the region in the
post-Katrina years. This drywall emits noxious odors and corrodes copper and
other metals, eating away at electronics and air conditioning units and
other appliances. It is now the subject of a class action lawsuit in federal
court in New Orleans.

Several hundred St. Bernard families own homes rebuilt with the defective
drywall, including Fire Chief Thomas Stone. In two decades on the force,
Stone has encountered every imaginable horror. But the thought of having to
tear his walls out down to the studs for a second time is so overwhelming it
can reduce him to tears.

"How do I pay for that?" he asks. "It's destroyed our lives. My wife calls
it Katrina all over again."

The drywall scandal sent a fresh wave of chills through parish officials.
"If it had been more widespread, it could have crippled us," Taffaro says.

Scared to Take a Bath -- Or Even Move In

With the parish physically on the mend, however unevenly, the picture of St.
Bernard's residents themselves is more complicated still. Five years out,
the Katrina storyline that locals most want to tell is one of turning the
corner. A local funeral home is hosting a "funeral" for Katrina on Saturday
to bury the storm once and for all.

But a study by doctors at Tulane University has tracked a threefold increase
in heart attacks, which they blame on Katrina stress. Mental illness is on
the rise in the parish, not the decline. Anxiety, depression, even post
traumatic stress disorder have all surfaced.

"The conventional wisdom is that symptoms go down after two or three years.
That is not the case in this disaster," said Michele Many, a professor at
Louisiana State University's Department of Psychiatry. "I've had older
clients who've told me, 'My home is gone, my friends are gone, the school I
went to is gone, the church I was married in is gone, the graveyard where I
was going to end up is gone.'"

Zack Rosenburg and Liz McCartney, a husband-and-wife team who run a
charitable foundation that rebuilds Katrina-ravaged homes, discovered the
traumas residents still suffer in an unexpected way. Six months after the
storm, they arrived in Chalmette to pitch in as volunteers. The scenes of
people sleeping in cars and standing in food lines so shocked them they quit
their jobs in Washington, D.C., and moved to New Orleans to set up the St.
Bernard Project. The program has so far rebuilt more than 300 homes.

But along the way, Rosenburg and McCartney realized their carpenters and
plumbers had become de facto counselors as homeowners poured out their
troubles to the people they saw most every day.

Last year, the St. Bernard Project partnered with LSU to set up a mental
health wellness center that now counsels 300 patients. Their stories
illustrate how for some the storm rages on. One woman told how she was
incapable of taking a bath -- it was showers only for her, because she can't
bring herself to stand in water more than ankle deep. Joycelyn Heintz-Gray,
a St. Bernard native who acts as the clinic's administrator and outreach
liaison, recalls another who would not stay in any other room of her new
house except the living room, which was about the same size as the FEMA
trailer she'd lived in during the long ordeal to get the house rebuilt.

Another family couldn't even manage that. "After we finished the house, they
didn't move in," Heintz-Gray says. "When I asked what was going on, the wife
told me, 'I had my grandmother's picture over the mantle for 18 years and my
father's chair in the living room after he died. This is not the same house
we lived in for 22 years.'"

It's a response similar to that of people unable to grieve after a death.

"When they move back into the house, they have to come to grips with
everything they've lost," she said. "If they have been living in a shelter
or a trailer, they have no expectation that life should be normal."

Taking a Pass on the 'Katrina funeral'

Depression and anxiety spiked anew after the spill. This time, it hit
tough-as-nails fishermen who had battled through the worst of Katrina
recovery, only to now feel lost.

"After Katrina, they had goals to fix their boats and get back out on the
water," Heintz-Gray said. "How can you set any goals when you don't know
when the spill is going to end?"

The anxieties have only heightened since the rogue well was capped. The fall
shrimping season opened earlier this month with fanfare -- complete with the
traditional blessing of the fleet -- but prices are way off.

Earlier this month, George Barisich, head of the United Commercial
Fishermen's Association, had to travel all the way to Biloxi, Miss. -- 100
miles away -- to find a buyer for his catch, instead of returning to the
docks in St. Bernard Parish. What should have brought $2.15 a pound paid
$1.40. He wasn't surprised. He's read all the stories about the decline of
salmon market in Alaska after the Exxon Valdez.

"I was glad I was able to sell them," he said.

Katrina cost him $750,000 in damage to his boats, equipment and oyster beds.
He repaired his gear. He rebuilt his house. But his wife wanted to stay in
Baton Rouge, which Katrina spared, so he has not moved back to his hometown.
He attends his daughters' track meets, sitting alone because most of his
friends are in Chalmette. His brother and sister came back and rebuilt, only
to discover they have the Chinese drywall. "What am I going to do with these
boats? Do I go back to law school? No, I can't stay awake that long. I'm 54
years old."

Down in Hopedale, Barisch's fishermen friends gather daily at BP's command
post to map out the bayout-to-bayou hunt for BP's ever-so-elusive oil.
Usually they don't have any trouble finding it.

Barisich calls them "spillionaires," saying it with a laugh, though others
intend the term as a pejorative for those cashing in on the biggest windfall
to hit Louisiana since Thomas Jefferson bought the place from the French. It
was coined after the Exxon Valdez, but the Louisiana fishermen are all too
happy to be on BP's payroll. Someone has to clean up the coast. It might as
well be the people who know the waters.

Not for a minute do the fishermen believe NOAA's numbers that three-quarters
of the oil has somehow disappeared. But they are tracking other signals
closely. A few days ago the Hopedale marina, a stone's throw from BP's
encampment, ran out of gas for fishing boats used to lay out boom, and BP
has not sent a check to pay for another load of fuel. New Orleans Mayor
Mitch Landrieu, in a speech at the National Press Club last week, accused
the company of getting ready to "cut and run."

Louis Molero, who's been on the BP payroll organizing cleanup operations, is
an oysterman who'd just as soon not become a former oysterman. He's worried
about reports he's hearing about a mysterious slime growing on his quarry.

"We don't have any spat," he says, referring to oyster spawn that develops
into a harvestable adult. "We've checked the oyster beds, nobody does."
Tests are under way.

Molero lives not far from Hopedale in a stilted house at Shell Beach that he
rebuilt after the hurricane. He's heard about Saturday's "Katrina" funeral,
but doesn't plan on going.

"That was five years ago. When we moved back into the house, I was done with
Katrina," he said. "The people I know are way more concerned about the spill
and what it will do to our future."

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