Junior Rodriguez, Hanging On in St. Bernard Parish

Henry "Junior" Rodriguez

Henry "Junior" Rodriguez, says he does not regret paying overtime to parish employees who worked through Katrina. Peter Breslow, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Peter Breslow, NPR

The colorful and outspoken president of New Orleans' St. Bernard Parish, Henry "Junior" Rodriguez, is coping with Katrina's destruction. He also faces a possible investigation for OT pay he authorized in the wake of the storm.

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Mr. HENRY JUNIOR RODRIGUEZ (President, St. Bernard Parish, La.): Just call me Junior. I'm president, parish president, but everybody just calls me Junior. Sometime they call me other things. (Unintelligible)

SCOTT SIMON, host:

Hurricane season is here and Henry Junior Rodriguez, the president of St. Bernard Parish in Louisiana, is holding court and doing business from the doublewide trailer in which he's lived and worked since last year's hurricane smashed, soaked or carried off just about every home, store and shack in the parish. He's sniffs at his breakfast oatmeal between phone calls. Many of the people who had to leave St. Bernard when their homes were destroyed want to return, but there aren't enough FEMA trailers.

Mr. RODRIGUEZ: Trailers, trailers, trailers. People want to come home, you know.

SIMON: President Rodriguez makes use of every foot of his doublewide. He's an affable, bulky, outgoing man of 70, who says he still savors the memory of the old breakfast of pork chops and biscuits that he used to enjoy before last year's hurricane season and his own heart and gall bladder surgery last summer. St. Bernard was the spot in which Hurricane Katrina landed a direct punch. The 17-foot-tall levees weren't just breached, they were overwhelmed by a 25-foot storm surge. FEMA says that it was the first time in the agency's history that an entire parish or county suffered the utter severity of damage that St. Bernard did from Katrina.

About 5,000 trailers are now set up in the parish, many occupied by people working in the local Mobil/Exxon refinery just offshore or the Domino Sugar Plant. The St. Bernard levees have been repaired, but most of the home, stores, offices and schools are still in ruins. Many are impossible to repair. Places that used to be neighborhoods now look like fields of indistinguishable rubble. The most visible sign of habitation are the tight rows of white FEMA trailers set out on the far end of parking lots, and they can look as vulnerable as birds' nests in a windstorm. Henry Rodriguez, who's been parish president for two years, says he's not panicked by the onset of hurricane season.

Mr. RODRIGUEZ: The parishes, we're well prepared. You know, we learned from some of our mistakes, which when you get in a situation like that, it's like anything else, you know, it's like you can plan all you want for something and when it actually happens, you know, everything's out the window that you thought you were ready for. But this time we'll be a lot more prepared than what we were before.

SIMON: There are now far fewer people in the parish and the government knows where there are: in one of four trailer parks. There are no nursing homes to evacuate and enough buses to deliver people somewhere safe. But where are they supposed to go?

Mr. RODRIGUEZ: The promise is, where do we bring them. The state still hasn't given us the information of where they're gonna - where we're going to bring these people to. I mean, it's not like we're going to be welcome all over anymore since the last year, I mean...

SIMON: So last year, for example, there were people who were taking in, in various spots in the region and in country, because it seemed like a once-in-a-lifetime thing, but if people get the idea they have an annual slew of refugees from your parish...

Mr. RODRIGUEZ: Yep, I think it's going - and some of them may have had some bad situations come out of it.

SIMON: How many people are back living here now?

Mr. RODRIGUEZ: We've got about 20,000 people back living here now.

SIMON: As compared to, what was the population before?

Mr. RODRIGUEZ: We originally had 67,500. I think we're going to wind up with at least 35 percent. We would've probably had 40 percent back if we couldn't gotten the temporary housing that we needed.

SIMON: Trailers or...

Mr. RODRIGUEZ: The trailers have been a nightmare, you know, the - and we still haven't gotten all our trailers in. Nine months and we still haven't gotten all of the trailers that we need for our people. I think we're lacking maybe about 2,000.

SIMON: I look around at all these trailers. You must be worried about what a big storm could do to all the trailers.

Mr. RODRIGUEZ: Oh, yeah, that's - I refer to this place here as, you know, you live condominiums? This is a condominium. That means there's nothing but tin cans. I mean, you know, it's - I think if you get 40, 50 mile an hour winds, you know, those things are going to be a serious problem. And my advice to anybody is, is they're going to have to get out. Yu know, storms that normally we would not, in no way, shape, or form would we even think about leaving for, now they're going to have to evacuate.

SIMON: Mr. Rodriguez is outspoken and unapologetic. He's been critical of both the federal and state governments for failing to deliver aid to St. Bernard Parish, and has come under criticism himself for authorizing extensive overtime payments to parish employees during and after the hurricane.

The New Orleans Times Picayune says that the parish filed for FEMA to pay more than $3 million in overtime to more than 140 parish employees, some of whom have relatives who are parish officials. The federal government is paying, but the FBI is reportedly investigating Mr. Rodriguez and those overtime claims. Some employees were paid for working 20 hours for 14 consecutive days. Mr. Rodriguez's driver collected $42,000 in overtime alone from the federal government from working during the storm and its aftermath.

Henry Rodriguez, who did not authorize any overtime payment for himself, insists that his parish employees not only worked it, they earned it.

Mr. RODRIGUEZ: Everybody else left. These people stayed. To me, when people stay, you should pay them. We were down to primitive times: no bathrooms, no facilities. Now, you've got to remember, this place was full of water. Our fire department was out there and they were picking up people off these roofs, and they were getting paid.

What I tell people now, you were concerned about people getting paid? The next time you're stuck in a roof, why don't you ask the guy that comes to save you if he's working on overtime, and if he is, tell him to go away. You know? The next time a fireman comes at your house and you're having a heart attack or something, ask him if he's getting overtime. And send him away if he is, you know? You're damn right. I'll pay overtime, because they deserver it.

SIMON: I think there are a lot of people who would absolutely grant what you're talking about, that there were people here who worked strenuously and even heroically, and they deserve overtime. I think what maybe they don't understand is 14 days of overtime.

Mr. RODRIGUEZ: Fourteen days. Mister, 14 days, the water wasn't out in this parish.

SIMON: Mm-hmm.

Mr. RODRIGUEZ: And the fact that the FBI is down here, hey, I tickle to death.

SIMON: And as you know, questions have been raised about your driver and bodyguard.

Mr. RODRIGUEZ: Mm-hmm.

SIMON: And the amount of money that he's been paid. How do you explain that?

Mr. RODRIGUEZ: How do I explain that?

SIMON: Yeah.

Mr. RODRIGUEZ: You want to come see with me one day? You want to come spend - come spend a week with me one week and I'll show you what it is. You know, go to the airport, he's there.

SIMON: Mm-hmm.

Mr. RODRIGUEZ: I've had guys come out here and knock on this door, not knock on this door, pound on this door, you know, and threaten me. I originally - he wasn't a bodyguard. Originally. I got him because I couldn't - I just come out the hospital. I couldn't drive. I still can't drive.

SIMON: You had major surgery, right?

Mr. RODRIGUEZ: Yeah.

SIMON: Yeah.

Mr. RODRIGUEZ: You know, if they don't understand that, I don't give a goddam. I'm going to be totally honest with you. Where in the hell were all these people that criticize me now? You know where they were at? They were sitting in a hotel room somewhere high and dry. I don't think I'm doing anything wrong. I know I'm not doing anything wrong. I don't make excuses for nothing I did.

SIMON: Henry Junior Rodriguez, parish president, hunkered down and waiting for the next hurricane, or FBI man, or investigative reporter, in St. Bernard Parish, Louisiana.

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