January 20, 2006
Outside New Orleans, Katrina Victims Feel Forgotten
By Ellen Wulfhorst
VENICE, Louisiana -- At the mouth of the Mississippi River, where Hurricane Katrina flattened nearly everything in sight, residents consider themselves the "forgotten survivors."
With so much public attention paid to New Orleans, locals living on the decimated, southernmost spit of Louisiana fret that little is coming their way to help rebuild their houses and businesses that sat directly in Katrina's path.
The handful who have returned to the wasteland left by the August 29 storm sleep in ramshackle tents or, if they're lucky, in tiny trailers. They gather to smoke, sip beer and swap stories at what's left of a local convenience store.
"Beer, cigarettes, alcohol. I got the necessities," proprietor Morris Hartt, 51, jokes as he serves a thin trickle of mud-splattered customers.
What they call home is a thin finger of delta called lower Plaquemines Parish, which follows the last 60 miles or so of the Mississippi River as it pours into the Gulf of Mexico.
Storm victims in Plaquemines voice the same complaints as those in New Orleans -- trouble getting government aid, insurance payments or loans, scarce temporary housing, high material costs and spotty services. Electric power is not expected to be restored in lower Plaquemines for months.
Store customers grumbled good-naturedly that they had little to do other than fill out forms and push debris into piles.
"The only one that helps is me. What's been done, I did it myself," said Ned Malley, a 68-year-old welder. "You can't get no help down here."
Before the storm, the parish had a population of roughly 16,000, many of whom worked in commercial fishing, citrus groves or businesses serving off-shore oil platforms.
But nearly everyone and everything is gone since Katrina blew in 170 mile an hour (272 km/hr) winds and what local officials say was a 10-foot (3.3 meter) storm surge that lasted 12 hours. From the west, Gulf water covered the roofs of houses while from the east, the Mississippi overflowed its levees in seventeen places, they say. No structure was undamaged, and most are beyond repair.
Feeling as devastated as New Orleans 75 miles to the north, the few people left in lower Plaquemines say the rest of the world is passing them by.
"This is the end of the world, ain't it, and there's nothing on the news about it," said Roger Tiser, 29, a commercial fisherman. "We're the forgotten survivors."
'GOT THE DOG. HE'S OKAY'
With little left, lower Plaquemines doesn't look much different than New Orleans' hard-hit areas -- but without television cameras and tourists taking photographs.
"How many times has Plaquemines Parish been on TV? Twice?" asked Tammy Gilbert, 44.
Long-gone residents have left messages painted on their ruined homes -- "Bulldoze Me" or "Please Do Not Bulldoze."
Others are more personal. "Got the dog. He's okay," someone wrote on one collapsed house.
Sheer economics should help rebuild Plaquemines. Although most fishing boats are splintered or sunk, the ports in Venice and nearby Empire were two of the nation's busiest in terms of how much seafood was hauled in. And the Gulf oil industry uses local services and workers.
Some experts question why residents stick around after being battered by four huge hurricanes in four decades.
Those who do rebuild live on land more vulnerable now that much of surrounding wetland that was a natural buffer is destroyed, said Bruce Sharky, professor of landscape architecture at Louisiana State University who specializes in designing hurricane-resilient communities.
"They're in more danger," he said. "But the fish are there, the oil is there and they going to rebuild. It probably is worth taking the risk."
"That's all they know," he said. "They're not going to move to Houston and work in a Burger King."