Fleeing Katrina Journals News The Tattoo

Dreams and memories in St. Bernard Parish

St. Bernard Parish (Samantha Perez/YJI)

Sunday, June 10, Violet, Louisiana — Home

It’s been a while since I wrote anything about Hurricane Katrina. I guess, in the beginning, it was easy to tell where normal life stopped and hurricane life began. Now, those boundaries aren’t so clear. All the lines have blurred and bled together, and hurricane life has become normal life. There isn’t a difference anymore.

My home, my St. Bernard Parish, is coming back. More and more people are returning home. Businesses and schools are reopening. Houses are being constructed and remade. It’s a work in progress, but it’s progress still the same. Our population is growing. 

But the St. Bernard Parish I live in now isn’t the same as the one I knew before the storm. Many things are different. The atmosphere itself has changed. Different people have moved into homes I used to know. My mom and I pass piles of debris on the streets and have a hard time remembering what used to be there. This is a new St. Bernard, drastically different than the one I remember. The St. Bernard I remember, the one that everyone misses, is something like a dream nowadays, something to separate future generations — the ones who remember the way life used to be and the ones who don’t.

We’re going on two years. It’s so very hard to imagine. There hasn’t been much time to stop, sit back, and analyze everything that’s happened. There’s always a rush, always a paper to sign, a nail to hammer. You learn your lessons as you go. Two years and there are still flooded houses standing, stinking up the air with mold and mud. Two years and there are still piles of debris on the neutral grounds, still street signs missing, still destruction everywhere you look.

A trash pile in St. Bernard Parish. (Samantha Perez/YJI)

But you don’t notice it. That’s the funny thing. You can drive by it day in and day out and not notice the pile of garbage that’s been there for so long that grass has begun to smother it. I guess you can’t notice it and obsess over it every single day. You’ll go insane if all you see is the damage. When I drove around St. Bernard to take the pictures for this journal entry, I was shocked at all the destruction I hadn’t really noticed before. The damage fades away from the spotlight when you live around it all the time. You get used to it.

There’s also construction, rebuilding. Something new. We’re doing it too — making something new. My parents are building a new house, and this house is as strong as we can make it. If you’re going to stay in St. Bernard, then you need to go up and you need to go strong. And that’s what this house represents. The new world. The post-Katrina world. The house is made of cement poured between Styrofoam blocks, and the garage is on the first floor. The living quarters are on the top. That way, if it floods, our possessions and furniture will be safe. This house was obviously made in the wake of Katrina.

FEMA trailers in St. Bernard Parish. (Samantha Perez/YJI)

 We’ve all become so jaded after the storm. My dad and I especially. We can’t watch disaster films where nature creates a big mess and towns are tragically lost. Can’t watch ‘em with any seriousness at all. We find them hilarious. Like in that movie Deep Impact with the asteroid that hits earth. Tidal waves wipe out the coast, and our heads roll back and we laugh.  “Call FEMA!” my dad says. It’s a running joke.

But that’s how my family works when the going gets tough. We eat, we laugh, and we manage the crisis. Right after the hurricane, after we found out that our homes, our schools, and our possessions had been wiped out, we got together and had a barbeque in the hotel parking lot. That’s just how it works down here.

I look back at pictures, and I think, God, Katrina swallowed the Gulf. It sucked the water up, churned it around, and spat it back out at us like a monster. It’s frightening what nature can do, and meteorologists everywhere are calling for a highly active hurricane season because of La Nina, the cooling of Pacific Ocean temperatures. When we have La Nina, there’s no wind cutting through the Gulf that disrupts hurricanes. Adding to the mix, there are very warm surface waters in the Atlantic. Wonderful. St. Bernard can’t take another storm, not this soon.

This past May, I finished my first year of college at Southeastern Louisiana University in Hammond, Louisiana, about an hour and a half from St. Bernard. It’s great, but it makes me miss everything I used to have. I took so many things for granted before the hurricane. I guess, in the back of my mind, I didn’t understand that not every place has water to swim and ski in or family lining the street. Not everyone knows their entire parish in terms of up-the-road or down-the-road, and most people in the world can’t look out their window and see the Mississippi River levee.

See, in St. Bernard, life is different. It’s a different world. You cross the bridge into the parish. (We all call it the Green Bridge, even though it’s been painted gray for years now.) You step into a time warp and a culture warp. So many times after the storm, I’ve heard people commend the people of my parish for their hard work. Tell a person from St. Bernard what to do, they say, and that person will find a way to get it done. We’re resourceful and tough.           

My dad’s mom is close now, living in my uncle’s retirement home 20 minutes from my house. I visit her when I come home on weekends. She’s getting stronger than she was before the storm, moving herself around a lot more. I remember the old slides we used to have of my dad’s childhood and the fort my Papa Mutt owned in Lake Borgne. There was this one picture of my grandmother where she looked like Jackie Kennedy with her hat and red lipstick. She was so beautiful. I worry sometimes that I’ll forget what that picture looked like. There’ll be no way to remind myself. I don’t want the past to die.

My mom’s parents are still in Hammond, living in a house trailer. They’re struggling to get home to St. Bernard, but politics and bureaucracy and a thousand papers to sign and a million hoops to jump through aren’t making it easy for them. The system is wrong. There are so many people in need of help down here, people who can’t do it alone, but there’s so much corruption and mismanagement that nothing gets done and these people aren’t helped.

I worry about the future. I guess we all do after Katrina. I know my dad does. He worries about parts of the future he can’t control, and so do I. I worry about where I’ll live when I’m older. I’m worried about forgetting the culture I was raised with or losing ties with the family. I’m worried about getting swept up in change and losing perspective. I look around my bedroom, and I think of all the trouble it’s going to be to haul things out once they’re wet and heavy with mud.

The past two years have taught me a lot of lessons, and my experiences in college have only continued to turn me into an adult. I’ve learned a lot of things inside of the classroom but even more things from the outside. College taught me that I’m fiercely loyal – loyal to my friends, loyal to myself, and most especially, loyal to my home. I’m from St. Bernard Parish, the backwater, marsh-covered, completely demolished parish overshadowed by New Orleans and tucked away, not-so-safe and not-so-sound, in the bottom of the country. And guess what. I love it.

Samantha Perez is a Reporter for Youth Journalism International.

Read the next #FleeingKatrina entry here.

St. Bernard Parish (Samantha Perez/YJI)

Leave a Comment