Self-reliance in St. Bernard Parish

The command center for rebuilding St. Bernard Parish is a kitchen table in the double wide trailer of parish president Henry "Junior" Rodriguez. It's the first clue this parish is like no other post-Katrina.

Katrina punished St. Bernard unlike any other place. Breached levees flooded from the west, and a storm surge roared in from the east. Everything went underwater — 27,000 homes and 4,500 businesses.

In the aftermath, Junior, as most folks call him, hates to wait.

While other parishes waited for housing help from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Rodriguez brokered a deal with a private source for 6,500 trailers. Empty lots were transformed into home fields.

Rodriguez scoffs at the notion of federal assistance. 

“They haven't given us anything,” he says. “They've loaned us money. I can get a loan at the bank.”

His impatience has been infectious. In addition to trailers, residents needed schools. Struggling to reopen them, the school board looked to FEMA.

“They couldn't possibly do it till March,” says Wayne Warner, principal of St. Bernard Unified Schools, “and that was unacceptable.”

In November the parish opened a trailer campus around the hull of the high school. Seniors to preschoolers — they're all here.

Like everyone else in the parish, teacher’s aide Mary Ann Johnson's house flooded. After school she returns home to find her 18-year-old daughter and friends tackling a new kind of homework — repairing their own home.

People were self-reliant in this mostly blue-collar parish before the hurricane. St. Bernard Parish resident Cory Stephenson says they are even more so now. 

“It's kind a like they help me out, I help them out, friendship thing,” Stephenson says.

Sixty-seven thousand people lived in St. Bernard. Only 12,000 have returned. But many others can't wait to join them. They are impatient, just like the man who wants to bring them back.