Hurricane Katrina left St. Bernard Parish a ruin. Nowhere else did the monster storm leave so few seeds of hope, so little foundation to build on.
The floodwaters took just hours to inundate the entire parish, swallowing up subdivisions and sweeping two-story homes off their foundations. Nearly every home and business marinated in the fetid seawater for weeks. Almost every one of St. Bernard’s 68,000 residents was left homeless.
A leak at Murphy Oil’s refinery in Meraux spilled a million gallons of crude into the surrounding neighborhood, polluting canals and mixing a layer of thick muck into the topsoil. The stench from a stew of oil and sewage was overpowering.
The parish eventually had to demolish more than 8,300 homes.
There were psychic scars in addition to the physical ones. The flooding killed 127 people in St. Bernard, more than a quarter of them elderly residents who drowned as waters rose at St. Rita’s nursing home near Poydras.
Many families across the tightly knit parish on the Gulf of Mexico’s doorstep can trace their roots back long before 1965’s Hurricane Betsy, the last storm to bring St. Bernard to its knees. Katrina was far worse.
This time, no one was spared, sowing doubts as to whether the parish would revive at all.
“The unique challenge for us was: How do we keep our residents engaged and not making alternate plans to depart from St. Bernard?” said Craig Taffaro, a Parish Council member during Katrina who later served as parish president.
Almost a decade after the storm, much of the parish has been rebuilt and many of its residents have returned, though not all. As of last year, St. Bernard’s population was up to about 44,000 — a third less than before the storm struck.
Of 15 public schools, many of which were damaged beyond repair, 11 have been rebuilt. There’s a new parish-owned, $70 million hospital in Chalmette, built using federal aid, tax credits and other sources. A $1 billion floodwall system includes 23 miles of defensive structures along St. Bernard’s edge, part of $14.5 billion spent on flood protection for the New Orleans region.
Home prices have rebounded. On average, undamaged properties in St. Bernard fetched $77 per square foot last year, the same as before Katrina.
The parish also has become more diverse, with the proportion of nonwhite residents more than doubling from 12 percent in 2000 to 26 percent in 2010.
The median household income in St. Bernard has ticked upward: In 2000, it was near $36,000 in today’s dollars. It’s now above $41,300.
St. Bernard native David Gorbaty, a former state 4th Circuit Court of Appeal judge, believes the parish is halfway to making a full recovery.
“Finally, home values are coming back up,” Gorbaty said. “We’re starting to see construction again. Builders are interested. I think you’re going to start seeing it, but I’m not going to be surprised if it’s that 20-year process we talked about” after the storm.
As in New Orleans, there were questions not only about how long it would take St. Bernard to recover but also about how the local government should shape that recovery. The scope of the devastation was so massive, so thorough, that it spurred calls to rebuild more thoughtfully, in ways that avoided past mistakes.
In St. Bernard, as in the city, there was a difficult — if less racially divisive — public discussion about “shrinking the footprint” by trying to buy out homeowners in lower-lying areas and encouraging them to cluster on higher ground.
“We needed to look at where we were, where we thought we could’ve been at the time and drive to do better,” parish historian Bill Hyland said. “While it would always be a disaster, at least the aftermath could be better.”
The Parish Council put together a committee to draw up a framework for St. Bernard’s recovery. Members proposed various improvements, like integrating public streets with a system of canals, establishing a government center and encouraging more retail and office space along Judge Perez Drive.
Other ideas included redeveloping Old Arabi with a riverfront plaza and park and building a new complex along St. Bernard Highway in Chalmette that would bring together the parish government and the courthouse.
Addressing the footprint dilemma, the committee pushed to create a so-called “mitigation zone” along the lowest edge of land adjacent to the 40 Arpent Canal, which overtopped during the storm, and to restrict rebuilding in neighborhoods close to Lake Borgne.
The hope was that a smaller footprint would cut the cost of providing public services and prevent the dreaded “jack-o’-lantern” effect in spots where few homes were rebuilt.
There also was racial controversy over housing policies.
In the wake of Katrina, St. Bernard officials instituted a “blood relative” ordinance that required a parish permit in order for a homeowner to rent a single-family residence to anyone who was not a relative. Court battles over that measure eventually led to more than $2 million in settlements against the parish.
In 2012, the U.S. Justice Department got involved, suing St. Bernard over allegations that for years the parish had violated the Fair Housing Act by attempting to limit rental opportunities for low-income and black residents. A year later, the parish settled that lawsuit for $2.5 million.
Much as in the city, some of St. Bernard’s more ambitious visions were never realized, in part because they would have cost too much.
Walter Leger Jr., a lawyer who co-chaired the Citizens Recovery Committee, wanted to redevelop St. Bernard’s canal system “in a really attractive” way that turned the waterways into assets rather than open ditches.
He still sees the unrealized plans as a missed opportunity. “We knew that we would have opportunities to rebuild in a way that we would never have again,” he said.
Other pressing needs ultimately took priority: Katrina had left the parish’s drainage and sewer systems badly damaged. Rather than pay extra for aesthetics, officials kept repairs basic.
As in New Orleans, the council wound up punting on the question of where residents should live, buying up some pieces of land near the canal but never taking steps to restrict where property owners could rebuild.
The patchwork nature of St. Bernard’s recovery still troubles some leaders, who wish they’d had the money to offer buyouts to residents that would have kept them from rebuilding in low-lying areas.
“At once, you had to applaud people for being the pioneers,” Taffaro said. “Then you’ve got to bite your lip, because that is really going to screw up what we would’ve liked to have done in this particular area. You can’t drive by someone and not applaud their tenacity by telling them, ‘Would you please not rebuild your house and move out?’ ”
Current Parish President David Peralta, who was St. Bernard’s assistant community development director after Katrina, thought rebuilding should have been restricted. One reason that today’s residents are feeling pinched by higher property taxes, he said, is that a smaller population is paying for public services that have to be stretched over more or less the same area.
“It costs more in many cases to provide services when you don’t have people living in an area than when you do, because you’ve got to maintain the system,” Peralta said.
The overall property tax rate is up more than a third from before the storm, meaning the typical owner of a $150,00 home with a homestead exemption pays about $230 more per year. Voters signaled their displeasure last year by rejecting almost $10 million a year in property taxes - nearly all renewals - to pay for public services such as fire protection, garbage, recreation, roads and, perhaps most crucially for such a vulnerable parish, levee maintenance.
‘Jewel that needs polishing’
The squeeze on homeowners is complicating the decisions that St. Bernard faces now, a decade after the storm.
A report commissioned by the parish last year noted that St. Bernard “lacks many of the aesthetic, commercial and recreational amenities of surrounding parishes” and warned that “to effectively compete in the region — to keep and attract business and strong new middle-income families — the people of St. Bernard will have to agree to invest in the additional amenities.”
Voters, so far, have been unwilling to do so.
Donna Glaudi, a real estate agent with Latter & Blum, said she has steered a handful of first-time home buyers to St. Bernard. They’ve been swayed by low prices and generous financial assistance programs. But overall, sales have been pretty flat, which Glaudi attributes to the parish’s ongoing struggles.
“There’s just not enough retail,” she said. “There’s not enough grocery stores. They just need to have some more things for people to do.”
Gorbaty, the former state judge who also co-chaired the Citizens Recovery Committee, argues that St. Bernard has plenty going for it, calling the parish “a little jewel that needs polishing.” He expects the steady growth evident since Katrina will continue and the rest will follow.
“I’m confident that we’re going to be as big, if not bigger, but it’s going to take time,” he said. “It’s going to take time, and a lot of people are impatient with that.”
Follow Richard Thompson on Twitter, @rthompsonMSY.