Below New Orleans, at the end of Highway 39 on the East Bank of the Mississippi River, lies Bohemia, La. — what little remains of it since Hurricane Katrina stormed through. Wiped from the face of the earth, if this town is to rebuild, it will have to start from scratch.
Before the hurricane, about 200 residents lived here, all African American. Now their 25 homes, many trailers and a few houses, are gone. In a few places, concrete stairs still stand, leading nowhere. Otherwise, there is little to distinguish the spot from a landfill; appliances, building materials and toys are mashed together in heaps and coated with mud. Scraps of clothing hang from trees.
Even the Bethlehem Judea African Baptist Church, a large brick structure that dated to the Civil War period, is gone. All that remains is its sign.
“It was a nice little country town, mostly all family,” says Rogers Landry, a resident and deputy sheriff who remained in devastated Plaquemines Parish in Katrina’s wake. Bohemia used to be green and peaceful, a little rural paradise. "We didn’t have any schools, but we had that one big Baptist church,” Landry says.
For schools and stores, residents needed to go at least as far as Pointe a La Hache, the parish seat a couple miles up the road. Many families have roots dating to the early 1800s on the East Bank, and locals can often guess where another parish resident lives just by their surname. But the neighboring towns also are devastated, including Pointe a la Hache, with its churches, government building and jail, and Davant and Phoenix still farther up the road. A Head Start school built in Phoenix just a few years ago to serve all parish students on the east bank of the Mississippi River was gutted by the flooding.
“It was a beautiful little community,” Landry says of Bohemia. “But the storm came and took everything away from us.”
Katrina pushed a wall of water over levies intended to protect Bohemia and its neighboring towns from the Gulf Coast marsh on the east, and the Mississippi river on the west. By the look of it, the town was subjected to a monumental flushing motion. Afterward, water trapped between the levies left the towns underwater for days before gradually receding.
For residents who came back to see if there was anything to salvage, the damage was breathtakingly complete.
“They were in awe,” says Landry. “They just couldn’t believe it. It’s like something you’d see in Iraq right now. ... Like somebody dropped a bomb on it.”
'We need each other'
What makes the dislocation worse is that the community was so family-oriented and people weren't exposed "fast culture," says John L. Barthelemy Jr., the parish councilman for the area. He says people on the east bank, home to about 3,200 people altogether, are used to a lot of community support.
"If someone was sick or lost home to fire, or had an accident, people would get together and get benefits for those people. They would immediately rally to support them," says Barthelemy. "So no one would have to fight for themselves."
Now the people are scattered throughout the state and the country, many of them in shelters.
"I’m hoping all of them come back because we need each other," says Barthelemy.
The monumental job of cleaning up
At this point, one month after Katrina's landfall, it’s still too early for rebuilding. Levy repair is under way, and only after completing that will the massive clean-up job begin. Government employees and police will occupy a trailer city just up the peninsula while the area is cleaned up.
Can the tightknit little community return to normal?
In large part, it depends on what FEMA provides in compensation. Landry says many people in Bohemia had some insurance, but not flood insurance.
And while some residents will be able to return to their jobs at local refineries, about half made their living harvesting oysters and crawfish. Those jobs will be on hold until the marsh recovers from the inundation of saltwater, silt and industrial contaminants. People who raised fruit in the area now have fields of brown trees that also were swamped by saltwater, and it is unclear how long it will take the soil to recover.
For families with children, one consideration will be schools. On Oct. 17, three of the parish's 12 public schools will reopen, all in Belle Chasse, about 25 miles north of Bohemia, and they will be crowded. And there are related problems — since many of the school buses were commandeered to evacuate people before the storm, many have been lost across the state.
Landry says some of the older residents are likely to stay where they have evacuated, with family and friends in cities like Baton Rouge. But he expects the younger people to return. As for himself, he says: “I’m not going anywhere. I'm coming back."