Thursday, September 01, 2005

The tragedy of St. Bernard

I worked for a number of years for a weekly newspaper in St. Bernard Parish. The main community of Chalmette flourished after desegregation, a haven for white flight. This bothered me when I first came out there. The more time I spent there, the less I noticed. This was not Mississippi, some place people raged against their neighbors.

After desegregation, some of us in both communities chose to try to live among each other. Some in both community retreated, and chose to live among themselves.

St. Bernard was one of the latter, and its residents unapologetic about it. For all their antipathy toward the city I loved, I came to love St. Bernard and its people.

Today, the Parish is complete immersed in water, its boats and it buildings ravaged by wind and waves, its people scattered or traumatized or drowned. US Senator Mary Landrieu, flying over the parish, is reported to have made one remark: "It's gone", while crossing herself.

The real tragedy of St. Bernard is this: no one should have waited out this storm there.

Everyone knew the next big storm could be a tremendous catastrophe. Members of the Police Jury (the equivalent of a County Commission) knew it. The people who didn't rebuild after Betsy--continuing to live in their government-supplied trailers knowing the next storm would just take their house again--they knew it. The Corps of Engineers and all the experts knew it. Long-time Police Juror Junior Rodriguez had railed for years for some way to close off the MRGO during a storm, knowing the surge that charged up that channel during Hurricane Betsy--causing much of the flooding in the 1965 storm--would one day return even stronger.

They were all right.

Here's is a bit of their story, from the WWL-TV web site new blog:

3:40 P.M. - WWL photographer Willie Wilson: People being rescued from Chalmette were begging for water, wanted to talk to family members. People rescued in Chalmette were ferried across to Algiers. People hot and parched from
days on roof tops.
3:42 P.M. - Wilson: You can't fathom it. I've covered tragedies around the
world, never thought it would be here.
3:43 P.M. - Photographer Willie Wilson: Those rescued from Chalmette homes
are dazed, don't know where they are going and just asking for water and to find
family members.
3:44 P.M. - Tugboat captain who rescued those in Chalmette. "Without more help, many people will die."
3:46 P.M. - Tugboat captain: We have so little help. Send us some food and water immediately!
3:47 P.M. - Man rescued after spending night on Chalmette High School roof for two days: "It's all gone."
3:49 P.M. - Survivor from Chalmette: We spent two days on a roof, swam to a storefront, food was pouring out, we ate it, we drank the water. We had to do something. There's no help.
3:52 P.M. - Chalmette man. I spent 40 hours on a roof then God sent a boat from a neighbor's house floating by and we took it to safety. 3:54 P.M. - Wilson: People were passing out in the heat in front of me.
3:55 P.M. - 40-year veteran photographer Willie Wilson: Maybe one other time in my career did I shoot pictures crying.
Once I knew these people. I know this place. They will come back.

I know that, however great the devastation, I will someday take my children to Rocky and Carlos, and we will eat macaroni and cheese. We will go the battle field, and I will tell them of the Pirates' Lafitte and the Creoles and flat-boatmen who beat the British.

And I will drive them down Highway 300 to Shell Beach, and show them on each side of that narrow road the swamp these people wrested their homes from.

We will watch the shrimpers unload, and buy some fresh from the lake. I will take them down the road to The End of the World Marina in Delacroix, and show them the beauty of these waters, so they will not think them cruel.

I want to show my children the beauty in a place they don't understand, growing up in the Midwest. I want them to see people who live with the water the way people in Fargo live with air; people who shrimp and crew towboats and work on rigs in the Gulf and, when the refinery lets out for the day, go fishing; people who chose to live on an island in the middle of a swamp, and not in Kenner or Fargo, ND; people who worked hard and set aside a little and built a place for themselves out of a swamp, a place they would not willingly let go.

I want them to know why I am crying at my keyboard for people who's views on issues of race I could never understand, and teach my children to abhor; people who took me into their homes and fed me sweet tea and told me stories until the stars and the mosquitoes came out; people who chose to live apart, surrounded by capricious waters, an island; people who would not willingly surrender their island back to the waters.

I want them to understand why some people stayed , and why they would come back and start over again.


Comments:
This is the best thing I have yet read on the tragedy. Keep writing.
 
I have heard police juror Junior Rodrique speak at many public meetings on the need to close the Mr. Go (Miss. River Gulf Outlet), but one thing he said I will never forget. He said, it just occurred to me, if each of us would have brought a bucket of sand and dumped it into the Mr. Go every time we came to one of these meetings, it would be filled by now.

Great job Mark, we are so anxious to hear real news from the bayou communities.
 
Wow!!! I know the feeling Mark. It could not have been stated any better. Thanks!
 
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