Heated Parish Meeting Turns on Recovery
MELISSA BLOCK, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
And I'm Robert Siegel.
Residents of St. Bernard Parish near New Orleans heard today that they won't be able to visit their homes for at least a month and that it could be next summer before they can return to live. Thousands heard that in a meeting in the Louisiana state Capitol Building in Baton Rouge. The meeting was called by the St. Bernard Parish president, who's roughly the equivalent of a county executive. NPR's Tom Goldman has been attending the town hall meeting, and he joins me now.
And, Tom, I guess, first, we should explain that this meeting is in Baton Rouge, but all these people have left St. Bernard Parish because the parish is uninhabitable right now.
TOM GOLDMAN reporting:
That's right. Yeah, they can't be in St. Bernard Parish, so it was not surprising that so many showed up. It's a parish, Robert, of about 90,000 people. There were people here who said everyone showed up today. I think that's an exaggeration, but there were thousands. And, as you say, all the homes are uninhabitable--I mean, amazing devastation that's hit there. And these people really, to a person when you talk to them, say they feel like the forgotten people. The residents of New Orleans have taken a horrible hit, but they've gotten a lot of publicity, and the people in the St. Bernard Parish believe they haven't.
SIEGEL: What did the people from St. Bernard Parish, now Baton Rouge, hear from their parish officials today about the possible resumption of normal life?
GOLDMAN: They heard a lot of morale-boosting talk--I mean, not empty words because the local officials are living this disaster as well. And they said, `We're going to try and do everything that we can.' They gave very specific information about what, you know, areas were hit worst, which areas were not. But everyone knows, as you said, that--the month-long wait, at the earliest, they're saying, until they can get back in, and that's to inspect the houses and then maybe next summer, which would be a year, before they could inhabit them. And that depends on EPA tests of the soil because there's intensive contamination down there.
SIEGEL: And what was the reaction to this news that it could be until next summer before people can actually move back?
GOLDMAN: Well, you can imagine it's not the news that people wanted to hear. There was a lot of head-shaking. I witnessed one very angry confrontation between a couple of parish residents and some Red Cross workers. They save a lot of their venom for the Red Cross and for FEMA, saying that those agencies just haven't been responsive. The Red Cross officials appeared to be befuddled. They tried to say, `We're doing all we can,' but the residents weren't buying it, I can assure you that.
SIEGEL: You've mentioned their attitude toward the Red Cross and their attitude toward FEMA. On the other hand, their own parish officials?
GOLDMAN: Yes, Robert, I think I made out the question. We've got a huge helicopter flying overhead.
SIEGEL: Yeah, I hear it. Yeah.
GOLDMAN: Yeah. You asked if they have their own commissioners--their parish commissioners. Is that right?
SIEGEL: How they feel about their performance?
GOLDMAN: They feel very good actually. They feel that their local politicians are on board with them. And the local sheriff spoke, and he got a couple of great responses by the things he said. He said, `We're not going to let the Army and National Guard take over our parish. We're going to protect it with our own law enforcement.' And so county commissioners spoke, and there seemed to be a good response, even though the news they were getting wasn't necessarily what they wanted to hear.
SIEGEL: This was an overflow crowd. Far more people turned out than, I gather, could be accommodated in the town hall meeting actually. Where are they all staying now? What are their accommodations now in Baton Rouge?
GOLDMAN: Everyone has stories mainly of family, and all of them are saying, `Thank God for family.' They're staying in areas around the New Orleans area and down here in southern Louisiana. A lot of people have family, and that's where most of them are going.
SIEGEL: OK, Tom. Thanks.
GOLDMAN: You're welcome, Robert.
SIEGEL: That's NPR's Tom Goldman reporting to us from Baton Rouge, Louisiana.