Monday, August 31, 2009

A Changing Landscape

I just finished my sixth visit to the New Orleans area. As I visited with residents, town leaders, and St. Bernard Project staff, a couple of things came up in the conversation over and over again.

First, of course, is the gratitude the residents and town leaders have for the staff of St. Bernard Project (SBP) and the volunteers who have traveled from across the globe to rebuild the community. One parish council member credits SBP with "having an outstanding role in helping people get back into housing that far surpasses the work of any other organization working in the area." SBP has built 230 homes to date.

Another common thread within each conversation is the changing culture and dynamics within each neighborhood. These good people who have struggled for so hard for so long to get home, are now dealing with the fact that St. Bernard Parish will never again be the same as it once was. People yearn for the close-knit neighborhoods they remembered before Katrina. Yet many neighbors have not returned. Many homes were bulldozed to the ground. Renters have moved in where there were once homeowners. The neighborhoods are now more diverse. The intergenerational friendships they treasured have, in many cases, been permanently dismantled by Katrina.

I have no doubt, though, that these people who endured so much to return home have the courage and generosity of spirit to rebuild the camaraderie and sense of community they so love.

Update: People of the Parish - Kenneth and Barbara

I was privileged to work on Kenneth and Barbara's home in May 2009. This was the first home rebuilt by St. Bernard Project as they expand into Orleans Parish.

Kenneth is the full-time caretaker for Barbara, who suffers from Alzheimer's disease. Kenneth's gratitude to St. Bernard Project is evident as he credits them being his "angels" by "putting my mind at ease because now I have a home. . .they gave me a light at the end of a long tunnel."

St. Bernard Project put Kenneth and Barbara's home on a fast track rebuild. Kenneth and Barbara had inadvertently purchased and installed Chinese drywall (see Chief Stone's story below), which causes health problems and erodes electrical wires and components. The drywall needed to come down, and a new rebuild begun. Because of St. Bernard Project, they were back in their home within just a few weeks.

Update: People of the Parish - Fire Chief Thomas Stone

April 2009: Fire Chief Stone with Tumwater Teens, a volunteer work group

Fire Chief Thomas Stone is a well-respected leader within the St. Bernard Parish community. In fact, he and his firefighters were instrumental in rescuing and caring for the St. Bernard Parish residents who were stranded by floodwaters for a week post-Katrina. If you'd like to find out more, a book has been written about this, entitled The St. Bernard Fire Department in Hurricane Katrina by Michelle Mahl Buuck.

Chief Stone took the time to meet with me on two occasions. Once, he spoke with a volunteer group of teenagers I chaperoned. The second time was a few weeks ago, when I was gathering information about the current state of recovery in the parish.

All of the fire stations were flooded during Katrina. Chief Stone is still focused on getting the fire stations and staff level back to pre-Katrina standards. The department has applied for a federal grant, and he is hoping that will come through to provide the department with much-needed funding.

Chief Stone views St. Bernard Project as a "community leader," and states the community would not have survived without them and the thousands of volunteers from all over the country.

Sadly, there is a new threat facing the homeowners of St. Bernard Parish. Many homeowners, including Chief Stone, purchased Chinese drywall - a product known to pose health hazards and erode electrical wires and equipment. Having just finished their homes, many are without the tens of thousands of dollars to tear down this toxic drywall and replace it.

Update: People of the Parish - Miss Joan

I met Miss Joan in April 2009 when I chaperoned a group of high school students who worked on the flooring in Miss Joan's house. It was rewarding to see the beautiful work the teens did when I toured her finished home!

Miss Joan misses her pre-Katrina neighborhood, where all the neighbors knew each other. Only one-half of her original neighbors are back. She also misses the local church, was has not been rebuilt.

When asked about the community's most pressing needs, Miss Joan echoes those of the other homeowners I spoke with. Number one on her list was a hospital - she has health problems and has to travel to either Slidell or Covington for care. Her personal physician has not returned to the parish. She also wishes there was a grocery store in Violet, along with a place to purchase clothes (like a Wal-Mart).

Update: People of the Parish - William and Sharon

Happy News! After more than three years in a FEMA trailer, St. Bernard project finished the home of William and Sharon last fall. Their dream came true - they were in their home in time for the holidays.

William and Sharon report that the majority of their neighbors were able to move back. Some homes were torn down, or sold. The neighborhood has become more diverse, which William and Sharon stated gave them a chance to "open up our eyes. . .and learn the world is not just one color."

They appreciate the school leadership that protected their public school system - one they believe is the best in the area.

William and Sharon are concerned about the need for a local hospital, and opportunities for jobs for local citizens. They also mentioned the high rental rates, and the high cost to insure a home - at times 5% of the home's value for a homeowner's policy.

Update: People of the Parish - Miss Melanie

Miss Melanie with granddaughter, Alayna

I met Miss Melanie in May 2007 when my brother, David, and I worked on her house during a volunteer trip for St. Bernard Project. It was wonderful to walk in and see her in her beautiful home with her granddaughter, Alayna.

Miss Melanie stated St. Bernard Project helped her and many of her friends. Her family has lived in her home since 1952, and she can't imagine living anywhere else.

When asked about St. Bernard Parish post-Katrina, Miss Melanie mentioned there is more crime in the parish than before Katrina, and the children do not go out after dark. Before Katrina, "you knew where the crime was - now it could be anywhere." There is a larger transient population. She also stated there is greater diversity. She believes many people arrived in the community seeking work.

Miss Melanie feels the most pressing need in the community is for a hospital and a store like Wall-Mart, where residents can buy clothes and other items at reasonable prices.

Update: People of the Parish - Miss Leola

Miss Leola is as gracious and beautiful as ever as she takes the time to talk with us about her community. She is very grateful to St. Bernard Project for getting her back home. "I would not have known how to rebuild without them," she said.

Miss Leola still suffers from sinus headaches - an ailment that appeared after she lived in her FEMA trailer. Miss Leola also suffered a stroke in September 2007, but states she has recovered "pretty well."

One of the most pressing needs in St. Bernard Parish at this time is a hospital. The nearest facility is 45 minutes away. In addition, some of the doctors have not returned to the parish. Miss Leola states that she often waits two or three hours to see a local doctor, even though she has an appointment. Yet, her former doctor is an hour away, and she has to rely on someone to drive her there.

Miss Leola mentioned that her neighborhood has changed. Only one neighbor has returned. Most of the homes which were rebuilt have become government-subsidized rentals. She misses her neighbors and the close-knit community where everyone knew each other, and neighbor helped neighbor.

Update: People of the Parish - Les

Although Les is retired from a career as a school principal, he was so grateful to St. Bernard Project after they rebuilt his home, he decided to volunteer for them part-time. Three days a week, he stops by the St. Bernard Project building sites to thank the volunteers.

Les always takes the time to help. Each time I've visited the parish, he's been there to give me directions, or connect me to homeowners, or answer questions about the status of rebuilding in the area. I'm extremely grateful to him.

Les states the "sense of community" is starting to come back to St. Bernard Parish. "Without St. Bernard Project, the churches, and the thousands of volunteers, we would not be anywhere close to where we are today."