Right below New Orleans along the winding Mississippi River, you'll find the little cottages, fishing shacks, beauty parlors and dancing schools, shaved-ice stands and modest refineries that make up Louisiana's gritty St. Bernard Parish. There's not one of these places that the killer Hurricane, Katrina, did not mangle eight months ago.
While floodwaters rose slowly, treacherously, upstream in the big city that terrible night, a roiling, six-meter-high wall of water, funneling up a little-used shipping channel, slammed full-force into St. Bernard. Dozens of defiant ones who would not flee, and thirty-four old people trapped in a nursing home, died in the deluge. In the days that followed, rescue teams had to spray their body counts on the roofs of submerged St. Bernard homes.
Today, there's but one school open, attended by kids of every age. Most St. Bernard children are gone. Private schools have relocated, likely for good, to safer parishes, or counties. All that's open for a bite to eat are a few food trailers and a free soup kitchen that the locals call the "hippie tent." The parish government is run out of a tent, too.
Chalmette National Battlefield, site of the 1815 "Battle of New Orleans" in which future president Andrew Jackson gained fame as the general who defeated superior British forces, remains closed because of severe hurricane damage. So, too, is the adjacent national cemetery that is the final resting place for soldiers from the U.S. Civil War, the Spanish-American War, World Wars I and II, and Vietnam. Chalmette, the largest community in St. Bernard Parish, was almost entirely destroyed.
Near the river, a six-year-old boy, poking a stick into soggy rubble, points across the street. "That's my room," he says. The front of his shattered home is missing, his bed and playchest exposed. The boy now lives in a little white trailer out front. This is one of the famous "FEMA trailers," supplied to returnees. They are small, hot, and could be in immediate peril come a tornado or another strong hurricane.
From northern Louisiana, an older girl, Samantha Perez, writes in an online journal of St. Bernard émigrés' homesickness for schoolmates and crawfish and lazy days on the water. She went home once, she says, to something surreal. "Usually, I see green," she writes. ". . . green grass, green bushes, green shrubs and trees. The salt water had killed all of those things. It [is] brown now, an old, dry brown."