Friday, November 23, 2007

St Bernard Parish: The Backstory

Anderson Cooper, what were you thinking?

On August 29, 2005 St. Bernard was devastated by Hurricane Katrina. The eye of the massive Category 5 hurricane passed over the eastern portion of the parish, pushing an unprecedented 25-foot storm surge into the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet ("MR-GO"). This surge was so powerful, and moved so quickly that it destroyed the parish levees. In just 15 minutes time, the entire parish was inundated. (1)

Most areas were covered with 5 to 12 feet of standing water as the storm damaged virtually every structure in the parish with the exception of only two homes. In many areas, houses were crushed or washed away from their foundations by the storm surge which ultimately submerged the homes.

See Google Map of St. Bernard Parish

I spoke to lifelong St. Bernard resident Benny Chappetta, a former government employee, musician and videographer. Benny was part of a skeleton staff who volunteered to remain behind at the Parish Government Center to handle emergency calls during the storm. His personal recollections of the disaster are detailed and vivid, and the video that he shot is that of a combat photographer, documenting the storm, the flood, destruction and death.

“I just couldn’t believe how quickly the water rose,” Chappetta told me during a phone interview. ”Within 20 minutes’, Benny recalls, ‘the (government center) parking lot went from a few puddles, to waves splashing over the roof,” of the 2-story structure.

Since Katrina’s visit to St Bernie’s over 2 years ago, Benny has lived aboard a cruiseship, under a tent and inside a FEMA trailer. Renovations to his house, which sat fully submerged for two weeks, are nearly completed, and Benny will soon be returning “home.”

But Benny Chappetta is one of the fortunate citizens of St. Bernard’s Parish. He held flood insurance on his home and was able to rebuild on his own, at his own pace. Others have not been so lucky. A great many parish residents who have chosen to return and rebuild continue to raise their families in 31-foot trailers. They hope and pray that someone will come along and offer assistance.

“It’s two years out from the storm,” says Parish Councilman Mark Madary. “These folks were made a promise and that promise has not been delivered.” Madary adds that those who are attempting to rebuild feel that they are no longer wanted, and that a sense of urgency is missing. (2)

Locals add that the delay in rebuilding the parish has to do with money that had been promised, but has never made it to the local coffers. Over 2 years after “the storm” the $116 billion that FEMA had allocated for reconstruction has not yet filtered down to many local governments. Why? FEMA says that assistance money must be requested by the state, but quickly adds that Louisiana has not made a specific request for St. Bernard’s Parish.

So, what does it take to get the attention of state government to recognize the urgent need in St. Bernard’s Parish? I thought to myself, perhaps a documentary. So I phoned the offices of Spike Lee, the award winning filmmaker whose HBO special “When the Levees Broke” won wide acclaim and huge audiences for the powerhouse cable network.

As the leading African-American filmmaker in the film industry, Lee’s focus was the area in and around the 9th Ward, a two square mile section of New Orleans that is joined directly to the 700 square mile St. Bernard’s Parish. During filming Lee was made aware of the situation in St. Bernard, but says he was unable to add that story to his Levees project, which already had hundreds of hours of interviews in the can.
So these days, when Spike Lee is asked if the Federal response to Katrina was racially motivated, he immediately refers to the plight in St. Bernard’s Parish.

“It's not just a black/white thing” Lee told HBO’s Bill Maher. “I think class has a lot to do with it, too.” Lee continued, “When I got to New Orleans, I was amazed to see St. Bernard's Parish got demolished just as much as the Lower 9th Ward -- but they (the networks) never showed St. Bernard's Parish on television.” (3)

When and if Spike Lee does a follow up to “When The Levees Broke,” rest assured that St. Bernard’s Parish will be somewhere near the top of his filming schedule.

(1) Wikipedia
(2) Video interview: YouTube
(3) HBO

No comments: