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. (Published 9/7/2005)
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."
Whatever their differences, the two jurisdictions are joined by pain and destruction, and it will take years for them to recover. Just as New Orleans leaders had trouble keeping things together, so does St. Bernard. Menesses, for instance, wonders how Vancouver was able to send 50 people to help, while the National Guard provided 15.
Don't even mention FEMA. "These guys have not been doing anything," he said, noting that officers have been working 18-hour days. "We pushed them to the limit, and they're breaking down. They're deserting."
Even though things look bleak, residents are vowing to stay and rebuild. Many residents refused to leave flooded homes as a FEMA-sponsored rescue team from Memphis went door to door. "Tell them it's their last chance," said Mike Pohl, the search manager.
Leaving wasn't on Andrew Sylvester's mind. He rode out the storm in New Orleans's devastated Ninth Ward. He caught a ride back home Saturday. He had nowhere else to go. And Sunday, he said, was a good a time as any to come back.
"Whoever stayed here died because that water was high," he said turning his attention to the task ahead. Mud stuck to his feet, the street and every house in sight.
"This mud is a problem; the government is going to have to do something about that."
Stories of heroics abound. Commercial fisherman Ricky Raymond Robin, 51, said he and his crew members rescued 250 people, and he is upset that government officials have refused to bring him and some relatives fresh water while things are getting fixed. Jim Pitre and Robert Rapp, who sent their families away, say they have plucked the same number from the raging waters.
They have no intention of leaving. "My ancestors were shipwrecked and walked to this place in the early 1700s," Robin said. "We're used to this."