After Katrina, A Lonely Homecoming

(A.j. Sisco)
By Peter Whoriskey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 26, 2007

ARABI, La. -- Honie Bauer was the first to move back.

It was seven months after Hurricane Katrina, and she figured others would follow her return to the block of little brick houses they'd all abandoned during the flood. She plunked a FEMA trailer down in her front yard. She mucked out the house. She put up drywall. She laid tile.

The pull of her tightknit community in St. Bernard Parish, or at least her memory of it, was powerful.

"This is home, and I just had to be here," said Bauer, 35, a hospital office manager and a native of the area. "I was going to do whatever it takes."

But while Bauer was charging in, most of her neighbors on the city block bounded by Rowley Boulevard, Fawn Drive, Badger Drive and Fox Drive, were in the midst of a completely different maneuver: They were retreating.

Today, nearly two years after the storm, 11 of 14 properties on the block stand vacant, and in interviews, all but one of those who left indicated they have no intention of returning. Far from rising from the devastation of Katrina, this slice of St. Bernard Parish remains a desolate and depressing place.

It is a scene repeated in flood-ravaged neighborhoods elsewhere along the Gulf Coast, especially parts of the Lower Ninth Ward, Gentilly and New Orleans East. In St. Bernard, most of the 67,000 residents have not returned. The massive desertions are evidence that Katrina's destructive effects are no longer acute but chronic and that, as evacuees set down roots elsewhere, many close-knit communities blasted apart by the storm may never return.

House after house in Bauer's neighborhood sits abandoned, most boarded up, their darkened facades still bearing the spray-painted symbols that rescuers scrawled on each house to record the dead. Other structures have been demolished down to the concrete slab. In some yards, the grass grows shoulder-high.

Dingy white pump trucks regularly rumble through, stopping at manholes, dropping tubes down and sucking the sewage out of the parish's broken underground system. And in a neighborhood that once enjoyed backyard cookouts for New Orleans Saints football games, those few children who have returned are now forbidden from going barefoot -- there's too much broken glass out there -- and they complain of having no friends to play with.

"It's like the apocalypse over here now," said Phyllis Puglia, a 52-year-old lawyer and former resident of Fawn Drive. "People are afraid."

Exactly who is to blame for the persistent abandonment is a matter of argument here.

Some point to the FEMA-led rebuilding bureaucracy, which has proved unequal at times to the challenge of rapidly rebuilding the vast wreckage. Others cite paperwork delays plaguing the state-run "Road Home" program, which -- eventually -- is supposed to distribute federal funds to homeowners.

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