Correction to This Article
A Sept. 5 article incorrectly said that Judge Perez Drive in New Orleans was named for Leander Perez. It was named for Judge Melvin Perez.
In Chalmette, La.

A Commonality of Suffering Binds Suburb, New Orleans

Like New Orleans, which lies across the Mississippi River, Chalmette has experienced vast flooding and many deaths.
Like New Orleans, which lies across the Mississippi River, Chalmette has experienced vast flooding and many deaths. (By Michael Robinson-chavez -- The Washington Post)
By Robert E. Pierre
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 5, 2005

CHALMETTE, La., Sept. 4 -- The Battle of New Orleans ended in 1815 with a decisive American victory over the British to end three years of bloodshed.

But the sons and daughters of those who fought looked like anything but victors on Sunday, as the last of those who chose to stand their ground against Katrina conceded that maybe the hurricane had won this one. The streets here are covered in a thick, black mixture of mud, sewage and oil. Houses have been ripped apart. Thirty-one senior citizens were found dead in a nursing home whose management had ignored the order to evacuate.

Michel Kelly, his wife and three children battled the storm in their home. After a levee broke, the family climbed into the attic to flee the water, punching through the roof -- first with a hammer, then with their fists and feet. A neighbor snagged them from the roof, taking them to Chalmette Elementary School, where they stayed until Sunday.

When they were airlifted out from the famous battlefield Sunday afternoon, the Kellys had no idea where they were headed. "We're gonna find out where they're gonna bring us," he said. "We have some family in Pearl River. We hope to get in contact with them."

So much attention has been focused on New Orleans and the overwhelming task of evacuating hundreds of thousands of residents that this suburb abutting the city has gone largely unnoticed. But Katrina's wake here is also one of devastation, with 100 people dead, felled trees, destroyed houses and watermarks as high as 12 feet.

At St. Rita's Nursing Home, 31 residents were found dead in their beds. Police Officer Brad Mason said Sunday that about 6,000 residents were rescued from their homes. Some of the parish's southernmost towns remain submerged. The Murphy Oil refinery in Meraux is leaking oil, officials said, and natural gas is also leaking in various places. Parish officials have temporarily taken refuge at an Exxon Mobil refinery.

Thinking about the deaths and the damage gets Danny Menesses's blood boiling. He is angry at the nursing home owner, who was told days earlier to evacuate. He is angry at the federal response -- which he said has been slow and not nearly enough. He is also tired.

"This is mass destruction," said Menesses, the town's chief administrative officer. "You tell me where we're going to go. Show me the street that survived. Right now, I'm in the anger stage. I'm angry at the government. I'm just angry in general. It's a good day here if someone can make a call to our families."

Ask Menesses or nearly anyone else here about New Orleans, and noses are likely to turn up. St. Bernard, with its 70,000 residents, shares a border with the city, but people here say they live different lives.

The city is largely African American; St. Bernard, Menesses points out, is "predominantly white." One of its major arteries -- now littered with boats and debris -- is Judge Perez Drive, named after Leander H. Perez, a state judge and segregationist.

There is a running joke among blacks who live in New Orleans that sunset ought not catch them in "the Parish," as St. Bernard is known. Many here do not deny that they are an insular people. St. Bernard officials, after hearing accounts of lawlessness in New Orleans, gave a shoot-to-kill order that remains in effect. They defend it this way:

"We're surrounded by water and by chaos," Menesses said, pointing back toward the city. "We have residents who will stay on a boat and die before they go to New Orleans."


CONTINUED     1        >

© 2005 The Washington Post Company