St. Bernard: Everything must go

Normally a Charlottesville-based home inspector, Peter Drenan is on special assignment as a FEMA leader and a Hook stringer. This is the first in a series of dispatches from the Hurricane Katrina-ravaged Gulf Coast.

ST. BERNARD PARISH, LA– It's been two months since Katrina hit. I've been down here for about two weeks now– the first was up in headquarters in Baton Rouge to get the overview, the personnel issues, the scope of the problem, and the efforts that were already under way. The last week I moved down to New Orleans to get the same view at a more regional level.

I'm in charge of all debris operations in the four parishes (counties) in the southeast corner of the state, including New Orleans. I'm also heading up a statewide effort to oversee all building demolitions. It's daunting. More than daunting.

The scope of the demolitions is inconceivable, even to me. Even if you get your mind around the scale of the operation, you tend to lose sight of the impact our actions have on the people. Each has a story that breaks your heart. It's so hard to hear them, day in and out.

Yesterday was the absolute worst of it.

St. Bernard Parish borders New Orleans' Ninth Ward that has been so much in the news. Unfortunately, it's at an even lower elevation that the Ninth Ward, so they were hit first by the storm surge and then the flooding.

There are about 26,000 buildings in the parish– private, commercial, and public. We estimate that over 18,000 of them need to be demolished because they're uninhabitable. All that's here are people living in tent cities. There are absolutely no businesses functioning. None. There's no revenue stream coming into the parish. No tax base. And in the last 45 days, only one percent of the debris has been removed.

"Debris" in this case includes trees and limbs. It also includes pieces of buildings , cars, boats, and airplanes. Unfortunately, it also includes rotted food products, animal carcasses, and– sadly– human remains.

Cemeteries here are above ground, and coffins have been shuffled like cards. The worst of it is that bodies of people who were alive during the storm are still being discovered because we're going into areas that have so far been unreachable.

People in St. Bernard Parish have lost everything, and there's no sense that they will recover. Most didn't have insurance. There is virtually no incentive to return here because it will be years before this is a viable community. And there is so much sadness that people get choked up just looking at their former homes. They are leaving the parish in droves, making the economic outlook even worse.

Very disheartening. Very tragic.

The Parish president and council asked us yesterday to put together a monumental plan for basically the complete demolition of their parish buildings. They want a massive lightning strike to clear the table– then, maybe, their folks will see a ray of hope.

There were tears in their eyes as they asked. It reminded me of those stories in Vietnam where a platoon was being overrun. They would call a bombing mission on themselves as their only, last recourse. They knew they might not survive, but it was their only option.

Peter Drenan

A member of the Georgia Task Force Search and Rescue Team, left, gets information from residents near a van left on fence by Hurricane Katrina' storm surge in Chalmette, Louisiana, in St. Bernard Parish