That Rogers Landry has given up living in his beloved Bohemia in southeastern Louisiana is testimony to the power of Hurricane Katrina.
The tiny town, which consisted of a few dozen African American families clustered around a large Civil War-era church on the east bank of the Mississippi River Delta, endured for nearly two centuries.
But Hurricane Katrina wiped it off the map in a day. And while the hurricane could not destroy the powerful bonds of kinship, it did show how hard it is to rebuild the character of a town that evolved over the course of generations.
“It probably never will be the same,” Landry says he now realizes.
When we first saw Bohemia’s remains about a month after the hurricane, memories of the nice little country town were still fresh for Landry, a longtime Bohemia resident and deputy sheriff in Plaquemines Parish. As he gazed over the ruined landscape — which looked like little more than a landfill to us — he could still describe where each of the homes belonged and the relatives and friends who belonged in them.
Now, two years after the disaster, Landry has put down roots --not in Bohemia, but in Port Sulphur, a town on the more developed west side of the Mississippi where recovery is proceeding more quickly. Though his new mobile home is still in Plaquemine Parish, and just a ferry ride away from Bohemia — the move represents a concession to reality.
While a few families have moved back to Bohemia in mobile homes, and Landry says as many as 80 percent of the former residents from the “lower end” are back, most are living in the rows of trailers at a FEMA park in nearby Davant.
Landry says some people, especially the elderly, need help to get back into their own homes. People are still awaiting funds from the state-run “Road Home” program that has been mired in red tape. Meantime, unemployment is high and many residents are hunkered down in the government trailers without an exit strategy — a big disappointment in Landry’s eyes.
‘They'll stay there as long as they can’
“They’ll stay there as long as they can… until the government does something (to get them out),” says Landry. “Then maybe they’ll get off their butts and do something.”
There is no sign or news of efforts to rebuild the onetime centerpiece of Bohemia, the Bethlehem Judea African Baptist Church, which celebrated its 143rd anniversary just days before the storm demolished it. St. Thomas Catholic Church, just up the road, has been boarded up since Katrina, so many of the area’s Catholics cross the river to the repaired St. Patrick’s in Port Sulphur.
As Landry and his wife were trying to decide on their next step, they started thinking about conveniences that hadn’t seemed so important until they had to start over. The West Bank has more stores and services.
None of the infrastructure provided by the parish government on the east side of the river has been restored, says Councilman John L. Barthelemy Jr.. That includes community centers, marinas, the fire department and community centers. The parish government and FEMA are trading blame over the lack of progress, he says.
The east side has a couple of bright spots. Up the road in Phoenix, the school serving the east side has opened for about 240 students, a little more than half its former class size. A metal recovery plant opened on the upper end on the east side, creating 70 to 80 new jobs.
A few weeks back, says Landry, Bohemia residents held a “Welcome Back to Bohemia” party with traditional Louisiana-style barbeque. More than 100 people turned out for the reunion. But at the end of the day, the little town was largely vacated again as guests left for homes that remain elsewhere.