Early Returners Suffering in Jefferson Parish In Jefferson Parish, near New Orleans, residents were allowed to return briefly last week to survey damage to their homes. Many decided to stay; they now find themselves in a kind of limbo. Since the area is off-limits, FEMA hasn't provided the kind of assistance it is now providing elsewhere in the area.
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Early Returners Suffering in Jefferson Parish

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Early Returners Suffering in Jefferson Parish

Early Returners Suffering in Jefferson Parish

Early Returners Suffering in Jefferson Parish

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In Jefferson Parish, near New Orleans, residents were allowed to return briefly last week to survey damage to their homes. Many decided to stay; they now find themselves in a kind of limbo. Since the area is off-limits, FEMA hasn't provided the kind of assistance it is now providing elsewhere in the area.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

Jefferson Parish, a suburb just outside New Orleans, sustained significant flood and wind damage. It was the first area affected by floods that let locals return to survey the damage. That was on Labor Day, more than a week ago, and residents were told that they couldn't stay. People were supposed to vacate once they gathered their things and took care of essential business.

BLOCK: Except thousands refused to leave and are now living in their neighborhoods in a kind of limbo. There's no reliable communications network, only a patchwork of relief efforts and no fully functioning government. And as our college Michele Norris discovered yesterday, if you're searching for help in Jefferson Parish, confusion rules.

MICHELE NORRIS reporting:

When we first met Paul Brisco(ph), he was topping off the tank in his black Silverado, but his frustration level was already overflowing. His job at the New Orleans airport is on hold; his home, badly damaged. Once he was allowed to return to Jefferson Parish, he quickly decided that he wouldn't leave. Like many, Brisco wants to stay close to his property.

Mr. PAUL BRISCO (Jefferson Parish Resident): I don't know what else I can tell you. Something need to be done. Just like they went and helped Iraq, come down here and save us. You were saving them. Save us.

NORRIS: There was some help. Paul Brisco was headed to the Jefferson Community Health Care Center, a free clinic in the suburb of Avondale. He was looking for a tetanus shot and a check on his blood pressure.

Mr. BRISCO: So what's my pressure?

Unidentified Woman #1: Your pressure's...

Mr. BRISCO: Is it high? Pretty high, huh?

Unidentified Woman #1: Well, it's probably higher than I'd like to see it.

Mr. BRISCO: Oh, yeah.

NORRIS: Brisco hoped that someone at the clinic might know how to track down FEMA or, really, any kind of disaster relief. Despite constant calls to FEMA and other agencies, he's yet to get through. Lines are overloaded; callers advised to try later.

Mr. BRISCO: We don't have nothing, no kind of funds.

Unidentified Man #1: No ...(unintelligible).

NORRIS: The banks in Jefferson Parish are still closed, so there's no money and, really, nowhere to spend it. Most stores are closed, too. As we stood in the parking lot of the free clinic, we realized what pushed many here past the boiling point. The major disaster relief centers were bypassing Jefferson Parish because the area is supposed to be empty, and yet an estimated 100,000 people, or about one-quarter of the parish population, are, in fact, living here. Many, like Deborah Stroma(ph), say their plight is overshadowed by the massive relief effort directed at New Orleans.

Ms. DEBORAH STROMA (Jefferson Parish Resident): I'm looking at the news, and I'm seeing where they're constantly just showing New Orleans, New Orleans. They're not showing nowhere where people done lost their lives in Kenner. They're not showing where people done looted people's homes and broke in and took people's belongings. You know, Jefferson Parish--they're not showing all of that. They're just showing directly New Orleans, but it's more than just New Orleans. And everywhere you go, these people giving you the runaround. We have a center right here in Avondale, and I feel that they should--Red Cross, FEMA, all of these people could set up something right here for the people of Avondale, Louisiana. Why do we have to run all over to get help? We are here, the ones here. Come set something up in our neighborhood.

NORRIS: If Jefferson residents decide to look for supplies or apply for disaster relief outside their parish, to head, for instance, to a state-run relief center 12 miles down Route 90 in St. Charles Parish, they face an excruciating choice. Avondale resident Buddy Franklin(ph) explains.

Ms. BUDDY FRANKLIN (Avondale Resident): We don't have nothing, and we can't go out the parish. Everything is out the parish.

NORRIS: Why can't you go out the...

Ms. FRANKLIN: They said, `Once you leave the parish, you can't come back in.'

NORRIS: If you leave, you can't get back into your home.

Ms. FRANKLIN: The--today. You need a pass or something.

Unidentified Woman #2: A pass for 6:00.

NORRIS: So you feel like you're...

Ms. FRANKLIN: Trapped in a hole!

NORRIS: Trapped because they could be stopped at checkpoints at the Jefferson Parish boundary and not allowed back in. Now this did not entirely make sense, so we headed across the street to the fire station, where a small aid operation was set up. The Red Cross was unloading a truck of sweet corn, baked beans, water and Gatorade. We asked firefighters and volunteers where Jefferson residents could find FEMA or other relief agencies.

Unidentified Man #2: In...

Unidentified Woman #3: I think they said Hahnville.

Unidentified Man #3: Hahnville.

Unidentified Man #4: Yeah, Hahnville High School.

Unidentified Man #3: Hahnville.

Unidentified Woman #4: Yeah. I think that they...

Unidentified Man #4: Yeah, Hahnville High School.

Unidentified Man #3: Right up the highway.

Unidentified Woman #3: Yeah. Oh, for applications and stuff? That's where they're supposed to be.

Unidentified Man #3: Yeah, right.

NORRIS: Now is that in Jefferson Parish?

Unidentified Man #3: No, that's in St. Charles Parish.

Unidentified Man #5: No, that's the...

Unidentified Woman #3: St. Charles.

Unidentified Man #5: ...St. Charles Parish.

NORRIS: Here's the other problem. People say that because of the checkpoints, we've heard over and over again that if they leave Jefferson Parish, they can't come back in.

Unidentified Man #6: Right. You can't come back in.

Unidentified Man #7: Yeah, right.

Unidentified Man #3: But the chief's sister went down there to go get some food, and they wouldn't let her back in till the next day, you know.

Unidentified Woman #4: The parish is on lockdown, in other words. It's on lockdown right now...

Unidentified Man #3: Yeah, it's on lockdown.

Unidentified Woman #4: ...except for the people working.

Unidentified Man #8: And that's a problem. It's a problem right there.

Unidentified Woman #4: That's right. And that's the problem, right. That's a problem.

Unidentified Man #8: It's one of the biggest problems; you leave and you can't come back.

Unidentified Woman #4: You can't come back. The parish is on lockdown.

NORRIS: After talking to firefighters, we headed to Hahnville High, where they told us we might find FEMA.

Unidentified Woman #5: Joseph Billerica(ph).

NORRIS: There were scores of people and long lines for food stamps but no sign of FEMA, so more directions.

Unidentified Woman #6: Get on Route 10 right here. Don't go across the bridge. Take the ramp. You'll see a little bridge cross right on the left side of the bridge. It's like a little baseball field right there. Just take the ramp off, and you'll see them right there, Red Cross and FEMA.

NORRIS: By this time we'd learned our lesson. We called first before driving to another location. We were told that FEMA has no office in St. Charles or Jefferson Parish. We discovered that their closest relief center is located in Plaquemine, another 80 miles away, and that office had just opened. So we changed course and headed back to Jefferson Parish to the Emergency Operations Center, a fenced-in fortress where parish officials have been camped out 'round the clock since Katrina hit. Surely someone there would have answers. We spoke to Walt Maestri, director of emergency management for Jefferson Parish. He said FEMA is planning to open a multiservice center in Jefferson as early as tomorrow. Maestri, though, seemed somewhat out of touch with the people we met in his parish.

Mr. WALT MAESTRI (Director, Emergency Management, Jefferson Parish): I know of no one who has needs in Jefferson Parish right now. We haven't received any calls recently from anyone who doesn't have and hasn't received those services: food, water, clothing and so forth.

NORRIS: Now I wonder what you'd hear if you walked the neighborhoods, though, because people are, you know, literally coming out of their houses, walking up to us in parking lots, and they are upset. And they point, for instance, to the Avondale Multipurpose Building. They wonder why that building is empty, why FEMA isn't there to answer their questions, to give them some help.

Mr. MAESTRI: The reason is simple. Most of our government staff has also been displaced, and they haven't come back. You know, you don't have electricity, so you don't have air conditioning. Furthermore, we don't have any grocery stores that are functional; we don't have any pharmacies that are operational. We're not open for that kind of business, and it'll be a while before we are.

NORRIS: There's a lot of confusion out there on the streets right now. We talked to people who want to get access to some sort of relief. And they say that in order to go to a relief center, they have to leave Jefferson Parish, go to St. Charles Parish. And they say if they do, they're not sure that they're able to get back in.

Mr. MAESTRI: It's true. We don't have any shelters functioning in Jefferson Parish right now. Those folks who come back, who don't have the services that they require, are going to have to leave the area.

NORRIS: But so many people are afraid to leave their homes, they're afraid to go back to the shelters because they say there have been break-ins; people are taking things out of their homes. And so they feel like they're stuck.

Mr. MAESTRI: We have had the lowest crime rate we've had in this parish in the last two weeks compared to the last six months. I mean, that--it isn't happening. From 6:00 at night until 6:00 in the morning, if you travel the streets, you're going to be stopped. You're going to be stopped by a sheriff's deputy or by a municipal police officer, who'll ask, `Why are you here? What are you after? And what's your business?' I mean, we shut the place down at 6:00 at night.

NORRIS: Well, not exactly.

(Soundbite of football game)

NORRIS: When we returned to Avondale just before sunset, residents were cleaning debris, talking in the street. It was a damaged but vibrant community.

(Soundbite of football game)

NORRIS: Here at the corner of Capital and Georgetown, there is a lively pickup game. Looks to be about a dozen young men playing football out on the corner, and they don't look to be going in anytime soon. In Avondale, Louisiana, in Jefferson Parish, I'm Michele Norris.

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