October 10, 2005

Lifelong parish residents devastated by storm

By Nichola Groom

VIOLET, Louisiana (Reuters) - When Kathy Roussel looks down
her street, she imagines the neat green lawns her neighbors
were so proud of, not the cracked mud that weighs on the homes
and spirits of Louisiana's St. Bernard Parish.

Like many of the devastated area's residents, Roussel
cannot imagine leaving the place she, her husband and their
extended family have always called home. But many, awaiting
official decisions on the future of the parish, are still
unsure if they will be able to return.

"I don't understand that kind of 'I'm not coming back'
mentality," Roussel, 50, said tearfully as she stood outside
her red brick single-story home, which flooded to the ceiling
with water following Hurricane Katrina. "You don't know
anything else -- this is all there is."

Roussel, who drove a school bus for the parish -- a
local-government jurisdiction near New Orleans, turned the
pages of an album with pre- and post-Katrina photos of the
rooms in her house. Beside one picture of the destruction, she
had written: "My kitchen, where meals were prepared daily for
my family."

A mostly working-class parish five miles from downtown New
Orleans, St. Bernard was home to about 67,000 people before
Hurricane Katrina hit on August 29, flooding the area with up
to 12 feet of water.

Residents were allowed to return to their homes during
daylight hours two weeks ago only to find them sunken with mud,
moldy, and torn to pieces. It was a massive blow to the many
whose St. Bernard roots go back for generations.

"Most of St. Bernard you're going to find is families,"
said Karen Scott, 47, who was one of the few residents visiting
their homes on Sunday. "It's your fathers, your sisters, the
church you went to all your life, schools you went to that your
children now go to -- now everyone's scattered."

While nearby New Orleans is allowing residents of some
neighborhoods to start work on their homes, the future of St.
Bernard is less certain. Officials have said the parish will
lack water for the foreseeable future and schools are expected
to be closed for at least a year.

Residents said they are worried by rumors of plans for
widespread bulldozing, but the St. Bernard government said on
its Web site that no building would be demolished without its
owner's permission.

Scott said she was skittish about returning to St. Bernard,
but her husband Jesse -- also a lifelong resident -- wants to.
Both had on rubber boots, gloves and surgical masks as they
tried to salvage their son's video games through the front
window of their home. A buildup of mud inches (cm) thick has
made even getting inside the houses a challenge.


Silence hung over St. Bernard's abandoned residential
subdivisions, broken only occasionally by the sound of
helicopters carrying away debris. American flags on makeshift
poles waved in front of two houses, one of the few signs
residents had been back.

An insurance adjuster stopped to seek directions since most
of the parish's street signs were lost in the storm.

One glimmer of life was a group gathered outside the
decimated Praise Temple Fellowship church in Chalmette. About
50 members sat in a circle on folding chairs to hold their
first Sunday service since the storm. Two burned dog carcasses
lay nearby.

Some drove from as far away as Pensacola, Florida and
Houston just to pray and reconnect with each other, said the
church's pastor, Jesse Boyd.

Church member Diane Fugate, 51, said she and her daughter,
son-in-law, and her five granchildren had ridden out the storm
at the Domino Sugar refinery in nearby Chalmette, Louisiana
convinced that it would spare St. Bernard.

Asked why she wanted to return to St. Bernard, Fugate said,
"Because it's our home."

After the service, Roussel piled her husband, Logan, and
two of their children into a black van to visit their house
before returning to the Brandon, Mississippi, hotel where they
have been living.

"We don't have a reason to come here except that it's just
home," she said, adding that they hoped to clean out the house
and move back as soon as possible. "We'll hang a wreath on the
door and call it home."