William Charles Tinker wtinker@metrocast.net
Mon, 19 Sep 2005 10:00:05 -0400

Returning residents find little to salvage
In St. Bernard Parish, authorities estimate most of what's still standing
must be razed

Monday, September 19, 2005

Arabi, La. -- The people of St. Bernard Parish who began returning this
weekend found little worth returning to.

The losses caused by Hurricane Katrina are so great that parish officials
said as much as 80 percent of what's still standing must come down.

The moonscape of devastation inspired analogies to bomb blasts and nuclear
wastelands. One man said it looked like someone tossed things around with a
giant pair of salad tongs. The devastation visited upon this once-lush
county just east of New Orleans robbed 67,000 residents of their words.

"I never thought it would be anything like I saw," Susan Probst said. She
and her husband arrived Saturday, among the first to return. "People kept
telling me, 'It's bad. It's bad. It's bad.' But never in a million years
would have I imagined anything like this."

It's been three weeks since Katrina passed through St. Bernard Parish,
bringing a 20-foot storm surge that rolled right over the levees protecting
the area. But the devastation looked fresh Sunday, like a wound that refuses
to heal.

Almost all 27,600 homes in the parish were flooded, officials said, and many
simply washed away. Cars still lay wherever the floodwaters had dropped
them. Boats teetered on fences or sat in fields amid the trash. Uprooted
trees and downed telephone poles blocked streets. And rooftops peeled back
by the storm exposed whatever fragments the water left behind.

Dead animals dotted the canals and fences. Those trees that survived were
black and grimy. The scorching sun has dried a coating of grayish sludge on
everything that the floodwaters left behind.

Although many houses in the parish still stand, the village of Yscloskey is
gone. Every last house vanished.

What's left of county government operates out of a cruise ship moored in the
Mississippi River, which forms the southern border of the parish. Most of
the bureaucrats now tackling the arduous task of rebuilding have lost their
own homes.

Hoping to prepare residents for what they would find when they returned,
parish authorities in a radio talk show urged people to bring boots, gloves
and Kleenex. Just as there would be toxic muck to wade through, there would
be tears to shed.

Probst shed more than a few tears outside the small clapboard house her
family called home for five generations. The few things that could be
salvaged were spread neatly on the grass or hung carefully from the trees to

"We're fortunate," she said. "We were able to save some things."

Eyes rimmed in red, she looked exhausted as she pieced together soggy bits
of her grandson's $50 savings bond and laid them out with the remnants of
his christening certificate. Thick rubber gloves covered her hands, and she
wore a surgical mask. Her husband, Tony, stripped to the waist and sweating,
carried an armload of framed photos toward a moving van out front.

Whatever doesn't go in the van, Probst said, will be left to the wrecking

"This is the last time I'll see my house," she said. Her air was so casual
it seemed the import of what she said hadn't really sunk in.

But the scale of the destruction boggles the mind, and many who described it
Sunday did so almost casually, as if they were discussing the weather.

"It looks better than I expected," Maria Guerra said as she surveyed her

Three cars lay dead in her driveway. Her living room was a jumble of strewn
furniture, broken glass and upended bookcases. Everything smelled of mold
and rotting garbage. The high-water mark left by the retreating flood ran
across the top of the door.

"I came back for my cat, which I didn't find, and a baby book, which I might
be able to salvage," she said.

A friendly brown and black dog, panting and obviously hungry, trotted back
and forth nearby, too afraid to venture near enough for the food a neighbor

Across town, three people from an animal shelter tried to coax a barking dog
from beneath a house but gave up after 20 minutes. They set a snare before
leaving, and said they'd come back.

"Unfortunately, we can't catch 'em all," one man said before heading off
with three armed soldiers through the empty neighborhood.

It didn't seem residents were rushing to return. Roads were largely deserted
but for the occasional Humvee full of troops, and a visitor could drive for
blocks without seeing any signs of life except scurrying, emaciated cats.

Some residents said they still resent the federal government's slow response
to the disaster; a Vietnam War veteran noted angrily that Canadian and
German rescuers got to the streets of St. Bernard Parish before American

Others said it's better to mourn the dead -- as many as 80 across the parish
by Sunday's count -- and look to the future.

"It's going to be tough, but I look forward to the battle," parish president
Henry "Junior" Rodriguez told the Associated Press. "We're going to rebuild,
and it's going to be bigger and better."

Emmett Dupas and his wife, Jennifer, plan to clean up and stay put. They
were born here, Emmett Dupas said, and they'll die here. That's just the way
it is.

"The playgrounds where I played as a kid, the schools I went to ... it's all
here," he said. "Where else do you go? How do you start?"

But a parish councilman told the local paper that an informal poll showed 6
in 10 residents of the St. Bernard Parish town of Arabi don't plan to
return. And many others said as much Sunday. Their jobs and homes are lost,
their kin are scattered across the nation. Let the bulldozers have what's
left, they said. It's time to move on.

"I'm not coming back," said Holly Freas, who has only her jewelry box left.
"There's nothing to come back to."

E-mail Chuck Squatriglia at csquatriglia@sfchronicle.com.

William Charles Tinker

New Hampshire Homeless  / Founded 11-28-99
25 Granite Street
Northfield,N.H. 03276-1640  USA
Advocates,activists for disabled,displaced human rights.