I worked for a number of years for a weekly newspaper in St. Bernard Parish
, a narrow strip of land running along the east bank of the river south of the city. The main community of Chalmette flourished after desegregation, a haven for white flight. This bothered me when I first came out there; but the more time I spent there, the less I noticed. This was not Mississippi, some place people raged against their neighbors.
After desegregation, some of us in both communities chose to try to live among each other. Some in both communities retreated, and chose to live among themselves.
St. Bernard was one of those latter places.
The parish was also a perfect diorama of life between the river and the gulf. From the clap board shotguns and Creole cottages of Arabi, past the brick-clad suburban panorama off Judge Perez Drive and the shining and noisome refineries of Chalmette and Meraux, down to the hard scrabble fishing villages that perched on listing stilts along the coastal bayous, St. Bernard was Louisiana in miniature.
True, it lacked real Cajuns, except the odd fellow whose grandparents came up from those bayous and, finding New Orleans unsettling, found themselves back in much the same place they left. While the people of the eastern end of St. Bernard were not refugees from Acadiana, they were not much different from their Gallic cousins from across the river. Everyone down here is a refugee from somewhere. Those who settled in St. Bernard were no different.
There were Isleños, who came from the Canary Islands and were among the first to settle the ends of the earth to truck farm and fish. Others were central Europeans, their long and ethnic names looked to the northern census takers like a spoonful of alphabet soup. In a few communities African-Americans—descendents of the slaves who worked the grande plantations that once lined the river—toiled at the same simple labors allotted to them as it was to their parents and grandparents.
Out in the easternmost wards of the parish, these people lived on houses raised on stilts above the periodic floods, built boats by hand from the cypress stands that filled the back swamp of the parish, and wrestled nets and oyster rakes to make a precarious living on the water.
All of them took what they could from the marsh--fishing, trapping, hunting--and respected the marsh for the life it gave them.
St. Bernard had known tragedy before. Hurricanes have come and gone. Many in the eastern parish still lived in government-grant trailers dating back to Hurricane Betsy. Why should they rebuild knowing the next big one might sweep it all away again? Better to get used to living in this trailer, so as to be ready for the next.
People from the parish would proudly show off the great crevasse, a long thin lagoon of great depth just behind the river levee, scoured out when those levees failed and millions of tons of the Mississippi gushed through the breech. These things have hapened before. They can happen again.
The people of St. Bernard, sandwiched one of the narrowest strips of land between river and lake, always knew the levees could fail, and that those outside the levee had no real chance. They had watched for decades as the new ship channel to the north let in the salty waters of the gulf and killed the cypress swamps and grass marshes which once slowed the flood waters. In Hurricane Betsy, everyone on the east side of New Orleans
learned that the channel was a superhighway for the floodwaters that one day those waters would come and drown their world.
They were right. The storm came and the waters of the Gulf raged up the ship channel, and easily overtopped the Parish’s levees. A picture taken at the height of the storm shows not the quiet marshes, but an ocean of storm tossed swells easily mistaken for the high latitudes of the Pacific, and a cascade of water over the levees like a great breaker on a surfer’s beach.
When the storm was gone, the marsh had reclaimed the parish, as if in revenge for the indignities of the ship channel and the levees, insults from people who did not understand the place. What still stood in the Parish stood deep in water, up to the eaves of the one story homes, drowning those who could not get to higher shelter. By the refinery in Meraux, an oily sheen spread over the flood.
The St. Bernard of memory—the old Creole homes of Arabi, the last bits of the de la Ronde plantation, the American sprawl of Chalmette, the precarious villages to the east—was erased from the face of the earth.
Most of those who stayed, hoping to save a little of the life they had made for themselves, lost that life in the confusion of wind and waters. Far from the city and the attention of ambitious cameramen, the survivors captured drifting boats and huddled on a riverfront wharf, waiting for rescue, forgotten.
Once I knew these people. I know this place. They will come back.
I know that, however great the devastation, I will someday take my children to Rocky and Carlos, and we will eat macaroni and cheese. We will go the battlefield, and I will tell them of the Pirates Lafitte and the Creoles and flat-boatmen who beat the British.
And I will drive them down Highway 300 to Shell Beach, and show them on each side of that narrow road the swamp these people wrested their homes from.
We will watch the shrimpers unload, and buy some fresh. I will take them down the road to The End of the World Marina in Delacroix, and show them the beauty of these waters, so they will not think them cruel.
I want to show my children the beauty in a place they don't understand, growing up in the Midwest. I want them to see people who live with the water the way people in Fargo live with air; people who shrimp and crew towboats and work on rigs in the Gulf; people who, when the refinery lets out for the day, go fishing or boil shrimp to celebrate; people who chose to live on an island in the middle of a swamp, and not in Kenner or Fargo, ND; people who worked hard and set aside a little and built a place for themselves out of a swamp, a place they would not willingly let go.
I want them to know why I am crying as I write this for people whose views on issues of race I could never understand, and teach my children to abhor; people who took me into their homes and fed me sweet tea and told me stories until the stars and the mosquitoes came out; people from scattered backgrounds who chose to live apart, surrounded by capricious waters, an island; people who would not willingly surrender their island back to the waters.
I want them to understand why some people stayed—gambling against death and losing--and why the survivors would come back and start over again.