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Bohemia: Finally, a reason to return

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Police Officer Rogers Landry's mobile home, his tiny town of Bohemia and indeed much of the rural district along the east side of the Mississippi River Delta was essentially wiped off the map by Hurricane Katrina.

Even so, he remained in the area, living in a hotel at the edge of the destruction zone, doing his job patrolling, mainly for looters, while the government scrambled to re-establish the bare essentials. The goal was to restore enough so people dispersed from this close-knit community could come back together.

At last, this month, the power was restored along Highway 15, the two-lane thoroughfare that connects a string of tiny towns along the east side of Plaquemines Parish —Phoenix and Harlem to Nero, Bellevue, Davant, Pointe a La Hache, and finally Bohemia — or at least what little remains of them.

At last, Landry and other officers are moving into a new "cop town" — 50 FEMA trailers on the east side — after months of driving back and forth to their turf. And in the coming month, with the opening of a 471-unit FEMA trailer village in Davant, the government on the east side is calling back its residents en masse. Now they face the biggest uncertainty: Will the people return?

Plaquemines Parish is a quiet place off the beaten track, though just south of New Orleans. On the east side, it is dotted with tiny African-American communities with generations-long ties to the Delta, many of them oyster fishermen or farmers.

It was flattened to such a degree that when Landry and his wife first returned to Bohemia the first time, they couldn't find their home. Then his wife found one of the teddy bears she collected in the wreckage, and then another in what became a trail that led to their ruined home 100 feet on the opposite side of the road.

A teddy bear trail
"That’s the only reason why we found it was them little teddy bears she had kept," says Landry. "Besides that, that’s all we had, you know."

But, while nearby New Orleans was subject to constant media attention after Katrina, Plaquemines was rarely in the news — one reason, locals speculate, was that the wait for power, water and debris removal was so long. At times, progress has been infuriatingly slow for Landry and others who feared that their community would simply dissolve, as most of the east bank's 4,000 or so residents settled into the communities where they had evacuated.

Now, he has reason for hope that Plaquemines will be reborn. "Every day you see a different face," he says. "People are getting ready to come home."

Even though Bohemia, which had about 200 residents and a church, remains empty and devastated, the trailer village just a few miles up the road will allow residents to live near their properties and begin working on them.

This week, 100 to 125 of the new trailers will be ready for residents, with the rest getting water and power hookups within a month, according to Councilman John L. Barthelemy Jr., a leader in the effort to get Plaquemines back on its feet.

"My biggest challenge is to get the people back," he says. He's working through the local ministers, who are reaching out to their congregations to get the word out to locals that there is housing for them when they return.

A long to-do listBut after getting the homes in place, he knows other urgent needs will follow.

"When you have 471 trailers in one site, you have to do some serious planning for the children. They will need something to do," says Barthelemy. He's working on getting a cultural building in place.

By August, Plaquemines east is scheduled to have a school housed in mobile buildings so kids won't have to take long bus rides. That may help convince some parents to return.

But a monumental cleanup still awaits. Many sites along the highway have been taped off, indicating the presence of asbestos. That means they will require hazardous waste teams. Many of the homes are still on the right of way, so g as service has not been restored in the area.

And now that residents are settled outside the area, Barthelemy says, part of the challenge is to convince them that if they do return, there is a future in Plaquemines Parish, perhaps beyond the traditional rural industries.

"Jobs are plentiful right now because of the cleanup process," says Barthelemy. "But we’ve got to look beyond that … and make sure we work on future employment."

For now, the area has a major landmark in its sites: Enough housing to begin pulling the community back together. Barthelemy hopes to get 75 to 80 percent back in coming months.

"Change is finally coming," he says. "Positive change."

As for Landry, his mind was made up from the beginning. He loves this area.

"I’ve been in the parish what — it’s going to be 48 years," says Landry. "So you know I ain’t going anywhere."