St. Bernard Residents Say They Feel Forgotten

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Before Katrina raked St. Bernard Parish, more than 5,000 people lived there. Now the city is considered uninhabitable, but frustrated residents are demanding to know when they can return.

SUSAN STAMBERG, host:

In Louisiana, St. Bernard Parish, east of New Orleans suffered some of the worst damage from Hurricane Katrina; it's uninhabitable. And the nearly 70,000 people who lived there before this storm don't know when or if they will be able to return. Yesterday, thousands of them showed up at the state capital in Baton Rouge looking for answers; many left unsatisfied. NPR's Tom Goldman reports.

(Soundbite of people)

TOM GOLDMAN reporting:

The only thing remotely funny about yesterday's town hall meeting was that originally it had been scheduled for the Embassy Suites Hotel in Baton Rouge. As it was, they couldn't even stuff everyone into the state capital building. Both the House and Senate chambers were packed leaving hundreds of residents from St. Bernard Parish milling just inside the front doors and outside. That's where Kathleen Miller was, sweating in the afternoon heat and simmering about what she said was a lack of attention.

Ms. KATHLEEN MILLER: We don't hear anything about St. Bernard or Mattery(ph), it's all New Orleans. What about the little parishes around that need help?

GOLDMAN: Many of the St. Bernard residents who turned out refer to themselves as the forgotten ones. Ginger Trepenny(ph) looked around at the predominantly white crowd noting that much of the media coverage of the disaster in New Orleans focused on African-American victims.

Ms. GINGER TREPENNY: All they're worried about is, is this race thing? It doesn't look like it's a race thing to me because just as many white people are out as black.

GOLDMAN: Inside the capital, the talk was less about social issues and more about practical matters. The people of St. Bernard came to find out from local officials what was happening to their homes, their businesses, following massive flooding and a huge oil spill at a local refinery. Parish President Henry Rodriguez had grim news.

Mr. HENRY RODRIGUEZ (Parish President): Some of you will never go back to their home. Some of you may never even be able to go back and see what you have until they clean up the streets and detox.

GOLDMAN: The estimate was that in about four weeks residents could return to inspect their homes as long as they wore rubber gloves and boots and not bring kids. The estimate for when they could live in the parish again--almost a year, depending on what environmental quality tests reveal. The news didn't get better as Sheriff Jack Stevens stepped to the podium.

Sheriff JACK STEVENS: We've recovered 56 bodies so far. There are 10 more locations where bodies have been identified. So I guess when we think about the loss of life associated with this event and compare it to the loss of property that most of us experienced, we can start things and put things in better prospective.

GOLDMAN: Listening to Stevens, many people nodded in somber agreement but the mood changed quickly back to anger. In the bull's-eye, the agency charged with helping parish residents in the hurricane's aftermath. The Federal Emergency Management Agency got most of the criticism, as it has elsewhere during the last two weeks. A FEMA official, Jane Teehan, explained to the crowd at the capital how to register for disaster assistance housing. She told people not to get frustrated by long waits on the telephone and said FEMA's goal is to have the number of recovery centers in Louisiana increased from the current seven to 25. But after about 45 minutes, the anger boiled over. St. Bernard resident Charlotte Oskavado(ph).

Ms. CHARLOTTE OSKAVADO (St. Bernard Resident): I've lost my home. I've lost my vehicle. I've lost my job. My community, look at it. We're all over the country. We can't get an answer from FEMA. We can't get through to FEMA on the phones. We can't get through to FEMA on the computer. We go to Red Cross and they keep saying, `Go to FEMA.' Where's FEMA?

GOLDMAN: FEMA's Teehan answered this way.

Ms. JANE TEEHAN (FEMA Official): We have received registrations from over a half million of your fellow citizens in the last two weeks. We expect to receive at least that number again in the next two weeks. Processing one million applications is a very difficult thing.

GOLDMAN: Which many in the crowd said they understood, but the trauma of so much lost coupled with the sense of isolation has put understanding way down on the priority list in St. Bernard Parish. Tom Goldman, NPR News.

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