The Ties that Bind St. Bernard Parish

Hurricane Katrina nearly destroyed St. Bernard Parish, a tightly-knit suburban neighborhood just five miles from downtown New Orleans. Now those close community ties are proving to be both a help and a hindrance as the parish struggles to recover.

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And far from the Beltway in St. Bernard Parish near New Orleans, sheriff's deputies and National Guardsmen are still staffing roadblocks more than eight weeks after Hurricane Katrina struck. The sheriff tells residents he's trying to protect what little they have left. The community of 65,000 was completely flooded after Katrina, and virtually every home was left uninhabitable. As St. Bernard tries to rebuild, its close-knit culture is a source of strength, but in this period of adjustment, it's also causing some problems. NPR's Scott Horsley reports.

SCOTT HORSLEY reporting:

A sign outside a newly opened bank confidently declares, `St. Bernard is coming back.' But the bank building itself is gutted. Tellers and loan officers are working out of a temporary trailer in the parking lot. Instead of toasters, the bank is giving away `flood buckets' full of bleach, rubber gloves and extra-large trash bags.

Fernell Encalad(ph) has been working on cleaning up the parish where he's lived his entire life.

Mr. FERNELL ENCALAD (St. Bernard Parish Resident): The whole parish is gone, not just my neighborhood. The whole parish--there's nothing left in this parish. There's nothing left.

HORSLEY: But in the very same breath, Encalad vows to return to St. Bernard. He's staying temporarily in New Orleans' French Quarter, while his wife and daughters are in Dallas. Encalad says all of them are anxious to come back home.

Mr. ENCALAD: The neighborhood where I live is a close neighborhood. You don't find those kinds of neighborhoods anymore. You know, like if I didn't have bread and a neighbor had bread, I had bread. If I had meat and my neighbor didn't have meat, they had meat. It was like that, you know? And if I didn't have it, my neighbor had it, I had it.

HORSLEY: The challenge now is that no one in this blue-collar community of fishermen and refinery workers has any bread to spare. Even in a part of the country known for keeping kinfolk close, St. Bernard stands out, the way extended families stay together. That's something locals like about the place. But Parish Council Chairman Joey DiFatta says it left whole families vulnerable when Katrina's floodwaters rose.

Mr. JOEY DIFATTA (Parish Council Chairman): This is probably one of the closest-knit communities in Louisiana. Most of the folks here, probably about 70 percent of our population, is five and six, seven generation families. They don't leave. But it's the weakness, because if we had a portion of our community that wasn't flooded, we could all go live with our relatives in that area, but we don't have that luxury.

HORSLEY: Sociologist John Beggs of Louisiana State University has spent more than a decade studying the way people's social networks, their friends, families and co-workers, affect their response to hurricanes. He says having a tight circle of family and friends can be very helpful when it comes to cleaning rotten drywall out of a flooded house. But if the circle is too tight, it can be harder for people to adjust to a sudden change in circumstances.

Mr. JOHN BEGGS (Louisiana State University): If you wanted to find a non-fishing job, or you no longer can be a shrimper or a fisherman or something and you need to go do something else, all you know are shrimpers. It's a different thing. You want people who have information about different things in the broader world.

HORSLEY: St. Bernard residents who are used to having family close at hand say they miss that now that they're scattered. During a short visit back to the parish, Ronnie LaHost(ph) pointed wistfully to familiar spots in his old neighborhood.

Mr. RONNIE LaHOST (St. Bernard Parish Resident): I had a son that lived over here. My mother lived over there, a sister that lived there, a sister that lived there, and now they're in four different states.

HORSLEY: LaHost is living for the time being about 70 miles north, in Morgan City, Louisiana. He figures he'll be there for at least a year, but says it's a poor substitute for St. Bernard.

Mr. LaHOST: I mean, I have relatives and all in Morgan City, but I still don't feel like it's home. I'm buying another house, and I'll be sitting in my house in two weeks, in my lounge chair in my own house, and I won't feel like I'm home.

HORSLEY: He says that feeling won't return until he's back in St. Bernard.

Scott Horsley, NPR News.

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