Posted on August 24, 2010 at 10:37 PM
Tuesday, Aug 24 at 10:44 PM
PLAQUEMINES PARISH, La. -- When Hurricane Katrina made landfall five years ago, Plaquemines Parish was the first to greet her. The storm wiped neighborhoods, schools, fire houses and most everything else off the map, but not the people.
“We're survivors. We're survivors down here. What can you say? A bunch of survivors,” said boat captain Tony Riley.
Riley, 38, knows of only one home: south Plaquemines. He's watched an industry and friends pick themselves up, only to be knocked down again.
“It’s been a challenge. It’s been hard, to come back after Katrina, try to get stuff back together and we get here a few years later and have this big oil spill,” he said.
“There's a very strong unit down here of people that say ‘This is home. This is where I want to live," explained Stan Mathes, the parish economic development director.
For many, that is Belle Chasse. Mathes says Belle Chasse was home to between 55 and 60 percent of the people in the parish. Now 70 to 72 percent of the population live there and the area is thriving.
Venice, at the other end of the parish, has been supported since 2005 by the fishing and the oil industries, but the east bank and the middle of the parish have been hit the hardest by the storm and the spill.
“It’s starting to make a comeback. It just took longer than the other two parts of the parish,” Mathes said. “It didn't have the engine to get it started as fast.”
Katrina destroyed Stephen Treadaway's small military museum. Only an ancient cannon survived, but he's back, like many others, because of others.
“If you have friends and family, stuff like that to help you, and one thing, the good Lord,” Treadaway said.
You have to look a little harder, five years later, but the scars of Katrina are still there. But almost always close by, there is renewed life, like at the Buras fire station. They just cut the ribbon on it earlier this month.
“It’s a new day and each time we have a ribbon cutting and a new building opens, it’s hope for me,” said parish council member Lynda Banta. “And as long as you have hope, you have life.”
And there is life up and down Highway 23. With new schools and community centers, and a new EMS and fire station in Port Sulphur now creating shadows for the buildings tattered by Katrina. That includes a refurbished auditorium and new library in Buras.
Broadly speaking, from a business position, Plaquemines Parish is the oil and gas industry; the Belle Chasse Naval Air Station, employing some 8,000 people; small businesses; and the fishing industry, which includes commercial, recreational and charter fishing. The fishing industry will come back, but right now because of the oil disaster, it is an unknown.
“And then when you take out a way of life, the culture of shrimping, the fishing, the oystering, that was maybe an equal blow as Katrina,” Banta said. “With Katrina we knew where we stood, we knew what we had to do. With the oil spill, we don't know what we have to do. We have to wait until somebody tells us.”
The back levee system, running almost the length of Plaquemines, has been repaired and in spots is 17 feet. But bringing the levee up to current standards is still a couple of years away. Even so, the protection is better than it used to be.
When it comes to housing, there are far more mobile homes and trailers than existed before the storm, because the trailers enabled people to get home quicker.
John Treadaway's double trailer in Empire now sits where his seven-bedroom house once did. The welder says Plaquemines Parish has paid its dues, and then some.
And yet after two catastrophes in five years, there are no regrets calling it home.
"No, not at all,” he said. “And hopefully with the oil spill thing, we'll come back strong again.”