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Rogers Landry: Return of kids is the ‘best thing’

The string of tiny African American towns in the Mississippi river delta are stirring to life a year after many were obliterated by Hurricane Katrina. The best sign for the area, says resident Rogers Landry is getting the kids back in school. By Kari Huus.
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It’s a good thing that Rogers Landry was used to slow-paced rural life before Hurricane Katrina, because it gave him the fortitude to get through a year of recovery that has at times been infuriatingly incremental.

The local deputy has worked almost continuously since the storm clobbered this skinny strip of delta land on the east side of the Mississippi River. It was long a place with end-of-the-earth charm, but in the wake of Katrina, that seemed to mean it was the last place that services arrived — from removal of hurricane debris to electrical repairs.

Now the string of mostly African-American towns that were obliterated, including Landry’s end-of-the-road hometown of Bohemia, are coming back to life. And finally, Landry seems not just patient, but downright encouraged.

“Getting the school back and running, getting the kids back in school — that’s the best thing,” Landry says.

Phoenix rises from ashes
School on the east bank reopened Aug. 11 in portable classrooms in Phoenix — at the site of the school that Katrina demolished -- drawing 177 students. That’s a little less than half the pre-Katrina population of the school, but it represents momentum.

Principal John Barthelemy Jr. gave pep talks to the returning students, reminding them about the school's namesake — the phoenix that in legend rises out of the ashes.

"We've risen out of the ashes of Katrina, and that’s what a phoenix bird is," he told them. "We are designed to survive."

"The only sport we won’t have is football, because there's not enough kids," says Barthelemy who is also the councilman from this district. "But we’ll have the other sports for high school and middle school."

The biggest challenge, he says, will be to get the kids back in the right frame of mind for learning after a year of dislocation and the stresses of losing their homes, evacuation to strange places and, for kids from many larger families, being split up in the past year.

"A whole potpourri of things that changed the way of life for them," says Barthelemy. "We can still see it in the kids. They are going to need a lot of support to help them because of the level of stress."

The state is setting up a mental health operation for the area, and FEMA is planning to offer mental health awareness meetings. Barthelemy says they are still looking for other groups to provide this type of service.

Housing still a major challenge
The prospect of a local school reopening helped convince some families to move back to the area, even though housing options remain limited.

A FEMA park in the east bank town of Davant finally opened about four months ago, with spots for more than 400 travel trailers.

About 200 are now occupied. But another 200 remain empty and FEMA is now hauling them away. Barthelemy says a large number of people in this rural parish have more than four kids, and didn't think they could fit into the trailers.

A few families have managed to buy mobile homes and full-size trailers. And some of them have set up as far south as Bohemia, where Katrina left nothing standing. That wasn't possible until recently, when the electricity and water service were finally restored.

In another bright spot, the oyster farmers are finding that this year's harvest has been far better than originally expected. Fears that the marine life would be loaded with toxins proved unfounded.

Just under half of the population has returned to the lower end of the east bank. On the upper end, which had less damage, about 80 percent have returned.

To Landry, it's all starting to look and feel a little more like home again.

"The east bank is pretty smoothly, rolling with the flow, but it won't happen overnight," he says. "The east bank was a slow area even before the hurricane. We move slow in everything we do."