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June 10, 2007

 

-- Hurricane Journal --

 

Dreams and memories in St. Bernard Parish

 

By Samantha Perez

Sunday, June 10, Violet, Louisiana ó Home 

            Itís 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 arenít so clear. All the lines have blurred and bled together, and hurricane life has become normal life. There isnít a difference anymore.

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St. Bernard Parish is turning green again.

            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. Itís a work in progress, but itís progress still the same. Our population is growing. 

            But the St. Bernard Parish I live in now isnít 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 ó the ones who remember the way life used to be and the ones who donít.

            Weíre going on two years. Itís so very hard to imagine. There hasnít been much time to stop, sit back, and analyze everything thatís happened. Thereís 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.

            But you donít notice it. Thatís the funny thing. You can drive by it day in and day out and not notice the pile of garbage thatís been there for so long that grass has begun to smother it. I guess you canít notice it and obsess over it every single day. Youíll 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 hadnít really noticed before. The damage fades away from the spotlight when you live around it all the time. You get used to it.

            Thereís also construction, rebuilding. Something new. Weíre doing it too ó making something new. My parents are building a new house, and this house is as strong as we can make it. If youíre going to stay in St. Bernard, then you need to go up and you need to go strong. And thatís 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.

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A trash pile in St. Bernard Parish.

            Weíve all become so jaded after the storm. My dad and I especially. We canít watch disaster films where nature creates a big mess and towns are tragically lost. Canít watch Ďem 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.  ďCall FEMA!Ē my dad says. Itís a running joke.

            But thatís 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. Thatís 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. Itís 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, thereís 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 canít 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. Itís 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 didnít 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 canít look out their window and see the Mississippi River levee.

            See, in St. Bernard, life is different. Itís a different world. You cross the bridge into the parish. (We all call it the Green Bridge, even though itís been painted gray for years now.) You step into a time warp and a culture warp. So many times after the storm, Iíve 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. Weíre resourceful and tough.           

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FEMA trailers in St. Bernard Parish.

My dadís mom is close now, living in my uncleís retirement home 20 minutes from my house. I visit her when I come home on weekends. Sheís 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 dadís 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 Iíll forget what that picture looked like. Thereíll be no way to remind myself. I donít want the past to die.

            My momís parents are still in Hammond, living in a house trailer. Theyíre struggling to get home to St. Bernard, but politics and bureaucracy and a thousand papers to sign and a million hoops to jump through arenít making it easy for them. The system is wrong. There are so many people in need of help down here, people who canít do it alone, but thereís so much corruption and mismanagement that nothing gets done and these people arenít 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 canít control, and so do I. I worry about where Iíll live when Iím older. Iím worried about forgetting the culture I was raised with or losing ties with the family. Iím worried about getting swept up in change and losing perspective. I look around my bedroom, and I think of all the trouble itís going to be to haul things out once theyíre 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. Iíve learned a lot of things inside of the classroom but even more things from the outside. College taught me that Iím fiercely loyal Ė loyal to my friends, loyal to myself, and most especially, loyal to my home. Iím 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.

Photos by Samantha Perez/ The Tattoo

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Hurricane Journal

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