St. Bernard: the forgotten Parish

by Jordan Green

East of the boundary line that demarcates the city of New Orleans lays rural St. Bernard Parish, where the flooding from the Industrial Canal seeped in after crossing the Lower 9th Ward, and Katrina’s storm surge topped the Arpent Canal levee from Lake Borgne from the northwest.

St. Bernard Parish ended up being an inconvenient exception to the rule in the national media’s Katrina meta-narrative of how the natural disaster exposed and magnified New Orleans’ long-festering problem of racism, indeed the city’s heritage as the port of entry for many of the Africans bought and sold in the nation’s largest slave market.

St. Bernard Parish, in contrast to the majority-black Lower 9th Ward, is 88.3 percent white. As a refuge to many whites fleeing integration in the post-civil rights era 1970s, residents voted by a majority for former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke in Louisiana’s 1991 gubernatorial election.

Katrina was cruelly indiscriminate in its assault.

The harrowing stories of escape from the rising floodwaters in areas like St. Bernard are stunning in both their horror and consistent similarity. And nine months later the parish stands as an extreme case study of the personal depression, family breakup and deep uncertainty about the future that has beset much of southeastern Louisiana.

‘“In fifteen minutes we lost everything,’” says Cookie Dembrun.

A 68-year-old resident of Chalmette, Dembrun stayed in St. Bernard Parish, watching her children and grandchildren scatter to Colorado and Nevada. She and her husband, Emile, moved into what was formerly an assisted living center run by her son and his wife, after volunteers helped them make the structure fit for habitation.

The Dembruns’ ravaged house in Chalmette, a spacious, light brown brick, single story across the street from a drainage ditch, still bears the rectangular hole in its roof that allowed the family’s escape from the rising floodwaters.

At 8:35 on Aug. 29 Cookie Dembrun and her daughter-in-law, Karen, talked on the phone.

‘“Uh oh, water’s in the garage,’” Cookie Dembrun told her daughter-in-law.

She hung up the phone and walked from the dining room to the garage. All at once, it seemed, the water had risen from her knees to her waist.

‘“My son is crippled; we have him in a wheelchair,’” Cookie Dembrun recounts. ‘“He started floating. My eighteen-year-old grandson picked him up and threw him over his shoulder.’”

Another son and a granddaughter, a daughter and a home health aide from New Orleans were also in the house. Emile Dembrun, who is a housing inspector for the city of Chalmette, carried a chainsaw into the attic and cut a hole in the roof.

‘“We sent our grandson out to get the boat,’” Cookie Dembrun says. ‘“The water was coming with such force that he couldn’t pull the door open. My husband tried to push it out from the inside. We said, ‘Just come in through the dining room. We told him to bust out the window, and that’s what he did to get back in.’”

As it turned out, the motor wouldn’t turn over.

‘“We flagged a boat down,’” she continues. ‘“It was raining and storming, but they only had room for one or two of us. We didn’t want to be separated from our crippled son, so we waited for the storm to pass us over. Someone we didn’t even know picked us up.’”

Others were not so lucky.

Three houses down from the Dembruns an elderly couple died in their attic. A bulge in the house’s tin roof shows where they tried to push their way out, Cookie Dembrun says.

At the shelter she ran into a parish councilman from the area where her son, Ricky, and his wife, Karen, lived before the storm.

‘“Are Ricky and Karen all right?’” Cookie Dembrun asked.

‘“No, Maw,’” the councilman replied. ‘“The whole parish is gone.’”

It was weeks before Rickie and Karen were reunited with Emile and Cookie.

Now Rickie and Karen are in Loveland, Colo. planning to open a Louisiana-themed gift shop. Another child is in Las Vegas.

Some recovery is evident in Chalmette. FEMA trailers fill empty parking lots and many front yards. The Exxon Mobil oil refinery is running again, as is a sugar plant.

Judge Perez Drive, one of two main drags through Chalmette, features numerous empty strip malls, debris piled in their parking lots, the signs from Vietnamese nail salons and off-track-betting parlors a testament to the commerce that once thrived there. A Big Lots store is boarded up. Battered metal filing cabinets line the outside of the parish government offices.

The physical toll is but a superficial wound; the worst is the psychic damage.

‘“I was a happy-go-lucky person, but now I’m taking medication for depression,’” Cookie Dembrun says. ‘“I didn’t want to go on medication but my children told me I should. They said, ‘We want the old Mamaw back.’ There used to be kids running through the house. The grandkids would stop in and get something to drink. They’d say, ‘Hey, Mamaw,’ and go back out again. Now everybody’s gone.’”

She traveled to Las Vegas to see family for Mother’s Day and went to Florida on the weekend of May 20 to see her grandson graduate from high school, but she hasn’t liked being away from St. Bernard Parish. Emile Dembrun stayed home during his wife’s trip to Florida and went fishing.

‘“I never had stomach pains before,’” Cookie Dembrun says. ‘“I went to the doctor, and he said, ‘Cookie, do you think about suicide?’ I said, ‘Like shooting myself or cutting my wrists?’

‘“No, I never feel like that, but sometimes I wonder,’” she muses. ‘“Why did I go in the attic? I should have floated out with the waves.’”

More than two thirds of St. Bernard’s parish population, pegged at 67,229 in the 2000 Census, has been dispersed across the country, according to parish estimates. Cookie and Emile Dembrun have never considered leaving before on account of a hurricane; now they are no longer so certain.

‘“We never, ever left with a hurricane before,’” Cookie Dembrun says. ‘“People can’t evacuate every time there’s a hurricane in the gulf.

‘“It’s terrible; nobody is the same,’” she continues. ‘“What are we going to do? The levees aren’t fixed. We don’t know whether to fix things up because what if another hurricane comes? We’re not going to go through this again.’”

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