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Katrina's Outskirts

26 Aug 2007

By Jimmie Briggs

The year Hurricane Katrina hit, 2005, saw three of the strongest storms ever recorded in the United States: Katrina, Rita and Wilma. The weakest of the three, Katrina, had the most damaging impact, causing $80 billion in damage over an area the size of the United Kingdom.

While the citizens of New Orleans have the most high-profile struggle to recover, the individuals and communities on the Gulf of Mexico along Interstate 10 endure in the shadows.

Here, as in much of the South, the past and the present co-exist. Confederate flags blow in the wind. Antebellum-era family feuds are maintained as though they were yesterday, and the odors of shrimp and oysters mix with those of fried okra, corn bread and banana moonshine in the forgotten towns dotting highways along the Gulf.

Here, the names of hurricanes such as Betsy, Camille and now Katrina are spoken with familiarity - and fear.


For as many years as anyone can remember, Sundays in Violet, La., a New Orleans suburb, have meant afternoons at the ballpark drinking Pabst Blue Ribbon beer, eating pork sausages or spicy potato chips while watching two or three softball games in a row. Younger fans would lie on the tombs or sit on the headstones of the neighboring all-black Violet Cemetery.

"This is all we got now," says DeNardi, who agreed to be identified but only by his first name. "At the games, it's all family," he said as he dropped off his nephew at a midday game last month. "I lost a brother after the storm. He was evacuated to Dallas, Texas, and got killed by some local boys."

Maneuvering his car into the cemetery's parking lot, he walks between opened tombs and cracked headstones. "This summer is the first season of softball since Katrina. We trying, man."

DeNardi was a substitute teacher and worked briefly for the government in St. Bernard Parish, where Violet is located. After Katrina, he started a car wash, hiring friends from his block and former students.

"I want to try and make this area better," he explains. "We have to get out here and do things ourselves."


Violet is just east of New Orleans. None of St. Bernard Parish's 10 firehouses have been rebuilt, 12 of 15 area schools remain closed, and, like in New Orleans, the homicide and suicide rates have mushroomed since Katrina. No one knows exactly how many people live in the parish or the city, just as it's unknown how many people died in the storm.

"I don't know how to feel," says Shelton Alexander, surveying the wreckage of his street while standing on the concrete slab that used to hold his house.

Most of his adult life, Alexander, more popularly known as Shakespeare, has been writing and reciting poetry for the community. One of thousands stranded in the Superdome after Katrina, he lives in a government-lent trailer with his mother and young son. On his particular block, a handful of houses remain standing, and a few of those are uninhabitable. White trailers dot an entire side.

A regular on the spoken-word poetry circuit since 2001, Shakespeare was featured in the Spike Lee documentary "When The Levees Broke" and regularly performs on HBO. One night a week, he hosts an open-mike poetry evening at Sweet Lorraine's, a jazz club in St. Bernard Parish. The first black student to be elected Mr. St. Bernard Parish and class president of his high school graduating class, Shakespeare was always a leader.

Sipping from a water bottle, he murmurs: "We numb. People been dying from aneurysms, heart attacks, obesity. There's a lot of old beefs being settled, too. Dope dealers killing each other, or trying, going back and forth. I look at the obituaries in the newspaper and they used to be two or three pages. Now, they're five and six pages. It's a lot of pressure down here. You want to see change, but you also want to see change for the better."

'Redneck Riviera'

Biloxi, Miss., along with neighboring Gulfport and Pass Christian, comprise a stretch of land along the coast known as the "Redneck Riviera" for its entertainment venues, restaurants, hotels and floating casinos.

Essentially the first town destroyed along coastal Mississippi by the storm, Biloxi is a town divided in every sense of the word by a railroad line. The southern side of the tracks is generally populated with pristine mansions, glitzy gambling establishments and middle- to upper-class residents. Insurance money and volunteer rebuilding efforts flowed into the area easily.

North of the railroad tracks, the community is mostly black and Southeast Asian. Debris remains scattered throughout the area, and most homes are condemned or abandoned.

Westward down the coast in Gulfport, God's Katrina Kitchen prepared to evacuate its headquarters after a year and a half of providing hot meals, counseling and employment services to displaced residents and volunteer groups. It was the first to start helping Gulfport and Biloxi after the hurricane ended, before the federal government or the Red Cross arrived.

Made up of a circus-size white tent surrounded by an array of mobile homes and trailers, God's Katrina Kitchen is run by church volunteers and evangelical lay ministers from across the country giving spiritual and material support. Inside the tent, where meals are prepared and distributed to those with pre-approved, weekly vouchers, a large wooden cross sits in front of a sign: "Leave your burdens here."

"We received a letter in late June from the (Gulfport) city attorney informing us we have to leave our site," explains Vicki Weesner, a volunteer from Colorado who moved her family to the region. She's sitting in an air-conditioned trailer, several days before the Gulfport City Council would vote to deny the organization's request to extend its tent permit.

"Not too long ago, we came here from Pass Christian. Here, the neighbors say we're increasing the vagrant population. If our kitchen leaves, the feeding of other volunteers will collapse. Everyone says this community is in the second stage of disaster relief, which is recovery. Actually, it's still in the first stage, response."


Across the Bay St. Louis Bridge, the coastal town of Bay St. Louis is faring better than its neighbors, at least on the surface. Thought to have been at the eye of Hurricane Katrina, homes over one mile inland were washed away by 32-foot storm surges.

The casually paced community has become an enclave for painters, writers, and craft designers. Within 10 months, the destroyed bridge connecting the town to Highway 90 was rebuilt and most of the 9,000 residents had returned, often to empty lots where their homes once stood.

Year-round residents and summer tourists still mourn the demise of the Fire Dog Saloon, and the Good Life and Beach Bar, mainstays by the ocean that had been popular social haunts for nearly 20 years. A year ago, Bay St. Louis joined with its neighbors to restart the annual Cruise the Coast rally, a 26-mile block party with classic cars of ranging styles.

Though he survived the infamous Bloody Sunday clash with British soldiers 35 years ago in Derry, Northern Ireland, Martin Chambers nearly didn't make it through Katrina. A home restorer, he and his wife, Alicein, a Bay St. Louis native, flew into the storm while returning from a wedding in Pennsylvania.

"I don't want to ever see or feel that experience again," he says, sitting at a table in the coffee shop he built with Alicein. "I knew something bad had happened."

Evacuating with his then-pregnant wife, Martin drove from Montgomery, Ala., to Bay St. Louis on the second day after the storm.

"I wasn't ready to be a 'refugee.' Something bad had happened, but I wasn't ready to give up. Coming into town, it looked like those aerial photos of Nagasaki or Hiroshima. The place was under martial law, and the whole place had been sterilized by the storm. There weren't even any bugs. You'd find people sitting on the beach, crying. One woman I met had spent six hours standing on her tiptoes on a piece of furniture to stay above the water in her house. All she wanted from anyone was a cigarette."

Although their home had been destroyed, the Chamberses used their savings and insurance money to open the Mockingbird Café, a pre-Civil War German-style cottage in the city's Old Town neighborhood, which rests on the area's highest point and received only a few inches of water.

A St. Louisan helped them make Mockingbird the success it is.

Rick Milton, owner of Northwest Coffee with stores in the Central West End and Clayton, trained Martin and Alicein Chambers to make and sell artisan coffee and supplies all the blends, including their own special brand. He traveled from St. Louis to Bay St. Louis last summer and stayed several weekends in a trailer.

"What was meant to be an expression of camaraderie became a business relationship," he explained recently while sitting in the courtyard of his store on Laclede Avenue. "I was there for the opening of the Mockingbird, and there were people coming in, grown men, with tears in their eyes that there was finally a new business opening in the community."

The Mockingbird celebrated its anniversary Aug. 1 and remains a place of relief and comfort, for residents and visitors alike.

"We never allow people to bring the storm in here," said Martin Chambers. "There must be as much normality as possible, without denying what happened. It's a place for information, meetings with insurers, whatever."

Adds his wife, Alicein: "I hope nothing like (Hurricane Katrina) ever happens to us again. It was an awful feeling, like the end of the world."


Joanette was locked up in the women's prison just outside Mobile, Ala., when Hurricane Katrina came to Coden, a fishing community near the larger town of Bayou La Batre.

Firefighters had accused her of starting a kitchen fire in her home to collect insurance. She denied the charge but accepted the guilty plea anyway.

When she was released from prison, she returned home to an empty lot where her house once stood. Now, she and her daughter Tequeela exist precariously in a rusted trailer donated by a friend, surrounded by mounds of trash and human waste.

"Just before they let me go, I had a stroke in my leg," said Joanette, who did not want her last name used. She spoke while sitting in a bent folding chair outside the trailer, next to Tequeela. "I want some money, some help for what happened to my house, and then I'm going to leave. There's nothing for me here now."

Coden is a highly insular community where blacks, whites and Creek Indians mixed socially and professionally. Along with Bayou La Batre, it served as a locale for the 1994 movie "Forrest Gump."

After the hurricane, residents were told the damage from Katrina was too severe to rebuild. Notoriously resistant to outsiders, Coden residents can today be found sleeping in tents, cooking by fires in the woods.

To get to Bayou La Batre by car, one has to drive west on U.S. Highway 90 and turn left at the Citgo gas station with a plastic chicken sitting in the passenger seat of an El Camino convertible. Rebuilding efforts rested on the shoulders of individual families, visiting church volunteers or government investment. One-third of those living in Bayou La Batre were already in poverty, so there wasn't a great distance to fall.

When the storm ended in Bayou La Batre, several dozen shrimp boats were found hanging in oak trees. Some of the vessels weighed more than a ton but managed to stay airborne amid the oak and pine branches. Only when a county health officer declared the ships a public health hazard did the city receive money to remove them.

Unbelievably, a cargo ship from Honduras managed to get itself stuck in a nearby marsh. It had been carrying several million dollars worth of livestock, shrimp and cars. The crew lacked the proper immigration working papers. Afraid of deportation or jail, they refused to leave their vessel for a year.

A massive Confederate flag gently billows in the wind outside Jody Schultz's house. The first in Bayou La Batre to begin rebuilding, he has spent a lifetime reading storms and hedging bets for survival and loss. Before Katrina, he witnessed Hurricane George, in 1998.

"I knew (Katrina) was going to be bad because of the surge," he recalls, sitting on a tree swing in the front lawn during his son Jamos' birthday party, surrounded by in-laws from Louisiana and his wife. "So many slackers feed off (the aid available). They don't help themselves."

Seven feet of water sat in his two-bedroom house in the weeks after the hurricane. When the water subsided, he got help from visiting churches and friends to start over. Dr. Regina Benjamin, a black doctor and the main source of health care for those living in Bayou La Batre and Coden, provided medical care to Jamos and many other children in exchange for shrimp, oysters and vegetables. By Thanksgiving, his family was back in the house, which he's now trying to sell.

"What's needed now is motivation," he adds. "It's going to take awhile to recover, but it'll never be like it was before."

Reprinted with permission of the The St. Louis Post-Dispatch, copyright 2007.

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