After Katrina -- Getting Back to Work

A Company Town on The Mississippi

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By Anne Hull
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 22, 2006

ARABI, La.

A cap pulled over his blue eyes, David Bachemin crunches across the gravel toward his front door. Bachemin used to have a porch where he would take off his boots after a 12-hour shift at the Domino Sugar refinery. A brick house where his old black Lab could wander from room to room, and his wife of 38 years could make coffee in a kitchen with actual counters.

Now Bachemin and his family live in a trailer on the grounds of the refinery, surrounded by 210 other employees who also lost their homes in Hurricane Katrina. In a grand social experiment, Domino is overseeing a village of 700 residents, evoking a an old-fashioned company town.

The encampment is Dickensian: rows of aluminum trailers dwarfed by a 13-story refinery blowing steam from boilers on the banks of the Mississippi River. Each morning at 5, Bachemin crawls out of his bunk and joins the other men on their 100-yard walk to work.

"We fish together, we hunt together, we drink together, and now out here in these trailers, we live together," says Bachemin, a 56-year-old mechanic supervisor.

With the gallows humor of the shipwrecked, they call this place "Chateau Domino."

The refinery is in St. Bernard Parish, a predominantly white and working-class community of 65,000 east of New Orleans, which suffered the hurricane's most thorough destruction. Water swallowed nearly every home, business and government office. Five months later, marsh grass grows inside abandoned houses, and a shrimp trawler is still beached in a subdivision. One school is functioning, but no grocery store has reopened; only a couple of honky-tonk bars near the oil refineries and a handful of restaurants serving plate lunches in their parking lots.

Yet inside the gates of Domino, the amenities multiply: electricity, water and a laundromat. A school bus arrives each morning for the children. Last week, Domino started publishing a newsletter for its residents.

After the hurricane, Domino needed to keep its place as the nation's largest cane sugar refining company, and needed its workforce to do it. "We are back to the days when the little towns were built up around manufacturing," says Pete Maraia, Domino's plant manager. "This the nucleus of how you rebuild a community."

An oddity of the post-Katrina landscape in Louisiana is that thousands of workers displaced by the storm are living in trailer parks set up by their corporations. Union Carbide, Murphy Oil and Exxon Mobil have set up encampments to get their workforces going again. The Folgers roasting facility in New Orleans set up 150 trailers but only for employees. Domino decided to house both employees and families.

Bright curtains and statues of the Virgin Mary recovered from wrecked yards cheer up the surroundings, but there's no escape from waking up each morning in a 28-foot trailer surrounded by chain-link fence in the din of a sugar factory. About 240 of Domino's 326 employees lost everything in the storm.

"We're all walking on eggshells," Carol Bachemin says. "I am warm, so I am grateful. But I find myself so angry. This is what my life has become."


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© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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