St. Bernard Parish Rebuilds in New Orleans' Shadow

Jim Kildahl, a resident of Chalmette, La., is a conspicuous presence in his empty neighborhood in St. Bernard Parish. Six months after Hurricane Katrina, only 10 percent of the St. Bernard population has returned. Kidahl wants to rebuild but he says the area is ignored in reconstruction efforts.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block in Washington, D.C.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel reporting this week from New Orleans.

The other day, late in the afternoon when there was still sunlight to work by, Jim Kildahl scrapped linoleum off the floor of his gutted rambler in Chalmette, Louisiana. The curbed brick hearth in the space that was the living room is still standing, and it suggests that this was a comfortable home until last August.

In this devastated neighborhood in Chalmette, you can still see a bicycle or a lawn chair stuck up in a tree. What you don't see much of in the neighborhood is people. Just by coming here to clean up, Jim Kildahl is conspicuous by his presence.

Chalmette is in St. Bernard Parish, just east of New Orleans. St. Bernard's other big neighbor is the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet, MRGO, a manmade waterway spoken of without affection here as Mr. GO. According to the Parish government, every house but one in St. Bernard parish flooded. The storm surge topped most of the homes. Oil spilled from the refinery across the highway.

Six months later, only 10 percent of the pre-Katrina population of 67,000 is back. Parish employees like Jim Kildahl, who is an engineer with the fire department, were offered trailers, and he is living in one. He says people in St. Bernard Parish feel overlooked.

Mr. JIM KILDAHL (New Orleans resident): We do feel forgotten, like we're in the shadow of New Orleans. We were devastated here. Not that many people know about St. Bernard Parish, but the hurricane actually moved over St. Bernard Parish. The eye actually passed over St. Bernard.

SIEGEL: I see a few FEMA trailers parked in front of houses here, but it's very rare. I mean, this neighborhood looks like it really took a blow, and I can't imagine anyone is really living here full-time.

Mr. KILDAHL: Well, people in this neighborhood are worried. They keep hearing that they are not going to be able to move back here. Other neighborhoods there are a lot more trailers. But this one in particular has had some flooding in the past, some flooding problems, and people are worried they are not going to be allowed to move back here. That's what they keep hearing.

SIEGEL: If that's what happens, you're going to see some new advisories, some new maps coming in from FEMA pretty soon.

Mr. KILDAHL: Hopefully on the 15 of March.

SIEGEL: That's going to tell you that you really ought to be this high off the ground if you're going to live here.

Mr. KILDAHL: I came by here the second day after the storm and there was about two and a half feet of my roof showing. That's how deep the water was. A guy across the street stayed for the storm, and he said that the water was completely over my roof at one point when the surge came in.

SIEGEL: So there's no practical elevation you could put this house at that make it safe from that.

Mr. KILDAHL: 17 feet maybe. I think we would be better off rebuilding our marsh, closing the Mr. GO, raising the levees, making them category 5 levees.

SIEGEL: What do you do in that case?

Mr. KILDAHL: I don't know. Try to buy a house on higher ground here. This is where my career is. I'm a St. Bernard fireman. Or move to the north shore of Lake Pontchartrain like a lot of other people are doing. Start over again.

I would like to stay. It depends on whether I can get fairly cheap flood insurance. A lot of people are worried about that. We hear talk of people that were paying $400 before and they started rebuilding their homes, and then they called about flood insurance and the quotes they got were like $7000 a year.

SIEGEL: Some people say this is a parish whose population could really dwindle after the effects of this are calculated. It used to be what, almost 70,000 people?

Mr. KILDAHL: 70,000. If people know that they were going to rebuild the levees to withstand a category 3, 4, 5, if they knew the government was serious about that, I think that it would come back pretty quickly. People are worried that the government just doesn't care. We'll see. It's been six months so far and we still don't know.

SIEGEL: Jim Kildahl returned to scraping linoleum. It's not just his house that was hit by the flooding. It was his whole life. His 16-year old son used to live in St. Bernard. After the flood, he went to Tennessee with his mother. He has made new friends there. He is in a rock band. He is not moving back.

As we left Kildahl, he was stoically cleaning up a building that may yet be bulldozed along with his entire low-lying subdivision. And the firefighter called out to us, please, just let them know about St. Bernard Parish. We sure would appreciate it.

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