Sunday, September 04, 2005

In Chalmette, painted numbers tell tale of death
Sunday, 10:47 a.m.
By Jan Moller
Capital Bureau

CHALMETTE - Terry Hendrix's family evacuated before Hurricane Katrina struck this close-knit community with a devastating blow, but Hendrix himself decided to try weathering the storm at his three-story house on Riverland Drive.

On Saturday afternoon, five days after the winds died down, Hendrix found himself at parking lot of what used to be a BellSouth building, but which now has been taken over by firefighters giving "decontamination'' showers to people rescued from their homes. Although floodwaters have receded more than 15 feet and the pace of the evacuation slowed considerably Saturday in

St. Bernard Parish as most of those who stayed have either perished or been brought to safety, search teams were still finding people who had remained in their homes. "I've got 122,000 people in my district, and everybody's been affected (by Hurricane Katrina),'' said state Sen. Walter Boasso, R-Chalmette, who has been helping with rescue efforts since the winds first began waning Monday afternoon.

Although there is no official death toll, parish officials believe it is in the hundreds. St. Bernard Sheriff Jack Stephens said 31 senior citizens died at St. Rita's Nursing Home due to flooding, while another 22 people were discovered dead in a neighborhood subdivision, their bodies bound together. But it is too soon to start an official count, Stephens said, while rescue efforts continue. "We are not in a body recovery mode yet,'' he said.

Search teams from as far away as Canada ride airboats through receding waters in a parish that's become a virtual ghost town except for the rescue workers. They conduct house-to-house searches for anyone who might still be alive. When they finish searching a building, they leave a spray-painted marker to indicate whether anyone was found. An "X" means the house was empty. A number indicates how many bodies were discovered. On one house, just a block away from the Bell South building where evacuees are being taken for decontamination before being transported to the slip, a blue-pained "6'' tells the gruesome tale of what became of those inside.

While several days passed with little or no federal assistance, state and local officials set up their own improvised search-and-rescue operations, with the Mississippi River serving as a lifeline to safety for residents in the close-knit parish who rode out Katrina.

When the wind died down but the floodwaters remained, local government was forced to improvise. While firefighters work from the BellSouth building, the Parish Council set up temporary quarters at the Exxon-Mobil Chalmette Refining and the sheriff's office is operating from the Cajun Queen riverboat that's moored next to the Domino's sugar refinery in Arabi. And the local prison was turned into a hospital until the wounded and sick could be flown to safety, according to Boasso.

While Navy helicopters were shuttling people to hospitals who needed medical care, local officials are angry at the slow pace of the federal government's relief efforts. "We never had any communication from anybody,'' said Parish President Henry "Junior'' Rodriguez. "Anything that has been done in St. Bernard has been done by local people. We never had any goddamned help.''

Boasso, whose homes and businesses were badly damaged by the wind and floods as was just about everybody's home in the parish, said he's frustrated by the pace of the federal government's efforts - which he said he's made clear to Federal Emergency Management Agency officials in Baton Rouge."I don't care about finger pointing,'' Boasso said. "I'm hollering and screaming and you know what? If they can't help us we're going to help ourselves.''

By Saturday afternoon the activity at the Chalmette slip, which was a gathering point for several thousand people at the peak of the evacuation, had slowed significantly. Only a few local police and volunteers were there, surrounded by pallets stacked with water and other basic necessities. After getting a shower from firefighters at the BellSouth parking lot, evacuees are transported to "Camp Katrina,'' as the Chalmette slip has been dubbed by rescue workers. From there they are taken by ferry about five miles upriver to Algiers Point, where school buses were lined up to take them to shelters. At some points last week the slip was home to thousands of evacuees, but by Saturday afternoon the traffic had slowed to a trickle.

At Algiers Point, the ferry landing was home to about a hundred people Saturday morning, including some who said they had waded through water from the Superdome and hitched rides across the Crescent City Connection.

Others came lower St. Bernard, where the floods engulfed just about every home and those who stayed behind relied on neighbors for support - which sometimes brought surprising levels of comfort. JoAnn Robin said she spent four days after Katrina camped out with 25 of her family members in the Mandeville Canal at Elevating Boats Inc., the company founded by former state Sen. Lynn Dean, R-Caernarvon, who is now a St. Bernard Parish Council member. Robin said she stayed at home in Caernarvon as Katrina blew through but later decided to evacuate a few miles west to Poydras While her home and those of her neighbors sat in water up to their rooftops, the Elevated Boats had air-conditioning, a working television and radio and plenty to eat and drink courtesy of Dean and his family. "They treated us like royalty,'' Robin said.


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