St. Bernard Parish Takes Stock of Damage

Hurricane Katrina's winds slammed St. Bernard Parish, but the worst damage was inflicted by a storm surge of more than 30 feet. It powered over the parish's levees, depositing boats on top of houses and laying waste to this low-lying parish of about 70,000 just east of New Orleans.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

One of the places President Bush visits today is St. Bernard Parish. NPR's John Ydstie reports the president will encounter scenes of utter devastation that have been overshadowed by the disaster in New Orleans.

JOHN YDSTIE reporting:

Hurricane Katrina's vicious winds slammed St. Bernard Parish, but the worst damage was inflicted by a storm surge of more than 30 feet. It powered over the parish's levees like a tsunami, depositing boats on top of houses, ripping off the sides of steel buildings, snapping power line poles in half laying waste to this low-lying parish of about 70,000 souls just east of New Orleans.

Much of the water has now disappeared. What's left is an oozing stinking black mud, some of it infused with oil from a refinery spill nearby.

Mr. JOHN MALLETT(ph) (Evacuee): My truck was in the driveway. I don't even see it.

YDSTIE: John Mallett evacuated with his family before Katrina struck. He's made his way back to the parish with his brother-in-law to check on the damage to his home. The house next to his is demolished. His looks intact until you step through the front door around soggy furniture, and he points out the high watermark.

Mr. MALLETT: Oh, that's nine feet right there. Yeah. It's halfway. Unbelievable. It's just unbelievable that we have some stuff that was in the dining room that's in the study. Some stuff that was in the study, that chair was here. Look at the trailer and the pool.

YDSTIE: There are four RVs piled on top of each other in Mallett's back yard covering his swimming pool. Mallett guesses the storm surge picked them up at a dealership about a mile away and dropped them here. Outside the house, this subdivision of substantial brick and stucco homes looks like it's been visited by a biblical plague of mud. It stretches a foot or more through the streets and across the lawns. Toxic mold will flourish here and cause most of these homes to be demolished.

(Soundbite of end loader)

YDSTIE: A small front end loader is scraping the mud off a street in the parish's main town, Chalmette. Parish President Junior Rodriguez, a large man in a white shirt, has set up his command post here in the offices of the ExxonMobil refinery.

Mr. JUNIOR RODRIGUEZ (President, St. Bernard Parish): There is not one resident in this parish that has not been severely impacted by this, either water or wind. Most of them is by water. She was Mother Nature's--she might have gave us a perfect storm because I've never seen nothing like it.

YDSTIE: President Bush's visit here today gives Rodriguez an opportunity to express disappointment with the federal government's response.

Mr. RODRIGUEZ: We got no assistance from anyone for five days. Five to six days before any of our federal people showed up or even the state, but I don't understand the federal government because they knew what was going to happen, the worst case scenario, but they just weren't ready I guess.

YDSTIE: The mayor says a contingent of Canadian Mounties from Vancouver was the first outside help to arrive. They showed up two days after Katrina struck. About 80 percent of the parish evacuated before the storm, Rodriguez says. He rode it out with a contingent of police and firefighters who evacuated another 8,000 after the storm. The parish coroner, Bryan Bertucci, a local medical doctor, helped evacuate the parish hospital which flooded to the second flood.

Dr. BRYAN BERTUCCI (Parish Coroner): They had to take the people and we had to lower them with sheets under their arms and a sling under their butts and put mattresses in the boat and most of them you could fit two mattresses to three per boat and lay the patients in there. Take them down to Paris Road, unload them into a truck, take them from the truck into the jail and there we set up a mini hospital. After four days, we had basically removed most of the evacuees, most of the patients and then help started to come in which was kind of ironic 'cause I think when they got here, they're kind of looking, `Well, what's the big deal?'

YDSTIE: Dr. Bertucci says he certified 47 deaths so far caused by the storm, 34 in a nursing home that he says made a bad decision and didn't evacuate. President Rodriguez figures the death toll could go above 100. The devastation has many parish residents wondering whether it's worth it to come back and rebuild. Dr. Bertucci himself is uncertain.

Dr. BERTUCCI: I have to decide and my wife has to decide. I'm going to bring her down here and let her see this destruction because the possibility is that this may occur again. If she mutually agrees, I think I would be most helpful here.

YDSTIE: But Junior Rodriguez is confident his parish will be resurrected. He's ordered 30,000 trailers to temporarily house the community's residents.

Mr. RODRIGUEZ: Well, I think plenty of our people are going to come back, and those that are, that's the hard-core segment of New Orleans and they're not going anywhere.

YDSTIE: There's a meeting today in Baton Rouge to discuss the parish's future with evacuees. Officials will tell them they can't come home yet because of health risks.

John Ydstie, NPR News, St. Bernard Parish, Louisiana.

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