Returning to St. Bernard Parish
STEVE INSKEEP, host:
We're about to meet two people still living in one of the most devastated parts of the Gulf Coast. Their entire county was evacuated after Hurricane Katrina. About 40 days after the flood, they were still holding on in a town where almost every other doorway is dark. We arrived in their living room after driving through empty streets, past empty homes and trees that were splintered in the wind.
Mr. DONALD BORDELON: No, we haven't. To tell you the truth, I just got home now. How you doing, man? Donald Bordelon.
INSKEEP: OK. I'm Steve.
Mrs. COLLEEN BORDELON: How you do? I'm Colleen.
INSKEEP: Donald and Colleen Bordelon welcomed us into their house in St. Bernard Parish, which is just east of New Orleans. We went there to learn what some of the most determined Gulf Coast residents are doing in order to recover.
Mr. BORDELON: Kind of like camping uptown. You know? Instead of having a tent, you got a little house and a bedroom and a generator and a fan, you know? No running water.
INSKEEP: How high did the water get in here?
Mr. BORDELON: In here? How high can you see? That's how high it went, buddy. I'll show you on the side--let me show you like that. The easiest way is to walk right through here, man.
INSKEEP: Donald Bordelon is a gray-bearded man. He wore overalls and his glasses glinted in the last of the daylight. He'd just returned to work that day in a shipyard and he had a Bud Light in hand. His wife Colleen had been stripping everything from the first floor of their house that was ruined, which is to say everything.
Mrs. BORDELON: We had the two bedrooms done, so I did the hall and these walls here, but I stopped by the cabinets because we still have the cabinets in there.
INSKEEP: When you say getting them done, you mean tearing down the Sheetrock?
Mrs. BORDELON: Tearing down the Sheetrock, the paneling, carrying it out, dumping it.
INSKEEP: That's what that enormous pile of trash is on the front lawn.
Mrs. BORDELON: The enormous pile out there.
Mr. BORDELON: Buddy, that's, I guess I'd have to say, 40 years of everything in your house. Years and years of just...
Mrs. BORDELON: Stuff people save.
Mr. BORDELON: Stuff--right, you know. All your stuff. You know, it's hard to leave something like this. It really is.
INSKEEP: Well, you haven't.
Mr. BORDELON: No, not yet.
INSKEEP: Donald Bordelon grew up in this house. The last hurricane to flood it came in 1965. He remembers his father pulling him out through a window and putting him in a boat. After that, the family built a cinder block addition to their tiny home. It included a second floor, the only second floor in this neighborhood, which was just beyond the floodwater's reach.
Do you mind if we see the upstairs?
Mr. BORDELON: No. Take a walk up there if you want. Kind of dark right now. Tell you what, if you don't mind, let me go start the generator up. Make it a little bit better.
INSKEEP: The route to the generator led up an aluminum ladder to the roof.
Mr. BORDELON: This is a daily thing right here, filling the generator up, you know? Fill it up, check the oil, crank it up and hope it's still running in the morning.
INSKEEP: As he got the generator ready, Donald was joined on the roof by the woman he calls `My baby.' Colleen Bordelon's skin was ruddy from the work of many days, but she took almost any excuse to smile and put an arm around her husband. They've been living on donations from the Red Cross and FEMA--water, ice and meals ready to eat.
(Soundbite of phone ringing)
Mr. BORDELON: Oh, excuse me just a second, man. Let me catch this.
Hello? Oh, I'm doing fine, Kenny. How you been, man? That's OK, I don't need none, Kenny, man, really, I really don't, man. I tell you what, today I went to work, man. Yeah, OK, I'll let you know. All right, man. Bye-bye.
INSKEEP: Standing up here on the carport roof looking around the neighborhood, I see a bunch of one-story houses. House after house after house after house after house is dark. There is nobody in this neighborhood but you guys.
Mr. BORDELON: No. Got a neighbor down the street, man.
INSKEEP: You got one?
Mr. BORDELON: Got a neighbor down the street. He come in yesterday. He's camping out in his back yard.
INSKEEP: Does it get--when you look out that window and you see everything's dark, does it get kind of lonely at night?
Mrs. BORDELON: Oh, but it's peaceful. And you can see the stars. We come out, we sit up on the roof, sometimes we'll eat our dinner out here, look at the stars, look at the lights in the city. With the generator on, we have one light that shines on our American flag. That's for our nephew Ben. He's in the service, in the Marines.
INSKEEP: Where's your nephew?
Mrs. BORDELON: He just left for Iraq.
Mr. BORDELON: Iraq.
Mrs. BORDELON: What, two days ago?
Mr. BORDELON: Yep.
INSKEEP: Just before the Bordelons' generator started, we heard the sound of birds in the twilight. That sound is new.
(Soundbite of birds)
Mr. BORDELON: First two weeks, you ain't heard that. You know, but--same when I was coming back. When I was coming in today, man, they had about 15 or 20 doves landed up in a tree.
INSKEEP: So for the first period, the birds were gone?
Mr. BORDELON: Oh, yeah. They didn't have nothing. You didn't hear nothing at all.
Mrs. BORDELON: Just the dogs barking.
Mr. BORDELON: All you heard was air boats running out in the marsh, looking for bodies or whatever, you know? Every now and then, you'd hear some machinery running back this way where they fixing the levees at.
Mrs. BORDELON: The helicopters.
Mr. BORDELON: The helicopters. Thousands of them. Blowing my tarp off.
INSKEEP: Are you planning to fix up this house and stay right here?
Mr. BORDELON: Going to try to.
Mrs. BORDELON: Definitely. Definitely. Do what we can. That's why--we got a jump start on a lot of people. Our house don't smell.
(Soundbite of generator)
INSKEEP: When the generator started, a light came on in a window which served as our way in to the second floor.
Mr. BORDELON: Be careful, now, folks. We can step right on this stool and step on this chair and step on the floor, man. You ain't did this in a while, huh?
(Soundbite of laughter)
INSKEEP: The Bordelons hope they will eventually get a trailer from FEMA, something with running water that they can park in the driveway. From what they've heard, they expect a long wait.
Mr. BORDELON: This is our kitchen. Kind of rough, huh, buddy? You wouldn't stay here, would you?
INSKEEP: From the kitchen, we moved on to a tiny bedroom where clothes were piled in plastic baskets on the floor. Brown wood paneling covered the walls, a television sat on the dresser, and a cat slipped in to sit on Colleen's lap.
Mrs. BORDELON: Come here, Pam.
INSKEEP: There was no air conditioning, so two fans were blowing. This is the room where Donald Bordelon begins and ends his daily routine.
Mr. BORDELON: Get up in the morning, I'll check on her, get my walking stick. I might go walk down to the corner, walk a couple blocks this way, come back. I like to do my little walking in the morning, you know. Things like that, you know. And try to bring a little bit every morning, try to go feed the cat across the street, feed the dog over there. I don't know whose they are, just you hate to see them starve. So, you know, we feed them a little bit, you know? I mean, what's a 10-pound bag of dog food, you know?
INSKEEP: We couldn't see the pets anymore in the dark, but we could hear them. About 40 nights after the flood, the neighborhood animals, like the Bordelons themselves, are survivors.
This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.
(Soundbite of cat meowing)
Mr. BORDELON: Hang on, kitty. Come on. There's nothing to--don't be scared, honey.