St. Bernard Parish

Devastated Residents See No Future

By Peter Whoriskey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 18, 2005

CHALMETTE, La., Sept. 17 -- This small suburb wasn't exactly wiped off the map by Hurricane Katrina. But for many of the people who were allowed to visit their homes Saturday for the first time, it might as well have been.

They won't be coming back again.

"I don't want it," Pete Maggio, 50, a millwork contractor said, gesturing from the sidewalk toward his brick home that he'd renovated just before the storm.

Like others facing their flooded homes for the first time on Saturday, Maggio said he'd find a house in another community farther inland, and St. Bernard Parish officials say privately that they are worried that most of the parish's 68,000 residents may never return.

Inside Maggio's home, there was thick green mold on the walls, inches of muck on the floor, his furniture turned upside down, and his dog Blackie dead. His wife could not speak of the damage without getting tearful.

"I could never put my family through this again," Maggio said. "It's devastating, and you know there's going to be more hurricanes."

Situated near Lake Borgne, the Gulf of Mexico and the Mississippi River just east of New Orleans, St. Bernard took some of the worst of Hurricane Katrina's flooding -- water flowed in from the north and from the east, from a breach in the Industrial Canal.

"It was the perfect storm -- it's a cliche but a fact," said Marine Maj. General Douglas V. O'Dell, who chose to bring his forces here because their amphibious vehicles were well-suited to the flooded terrain. "For our area of operations, this was ground zero."

Of the 25,000 homes in the parish, authorities estimate that more than half are damaged beyond repair -- and that may be a conservative estimate. Parish officials said they are afraid of scaring people away from returning, though they are putting on a brave face.

"Oh, yeah, we're going to be coming back better than ever," parish President Henry J. Rodriguez Jr. said. "You're going to find some people saying they're not coming back, and maybe a lot. But this is one of the best places in the world for fishing, and everybody loves to be on the water."

Besides, he said, "this storm was a one-in-a-million. I don't think we'll have another one for a long time."

But even those who came back Saturday and ventured that they might return said they felt that they were in limbo, either because their employers have moved out or because they lacked flood insurance -- several said they were not required to have it because they were not in a hazard zone.

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