The Survivors' Street: 10 Years Of Life After Katrina
This is the long story of a short street: Schnell Drive, two blocks of brick homes in Arabi, La., just east of New Orleans in St. Bernard Parish.
When we first visited in the fall of 2005, Donald and Colleen Bordelon were often the only two people on Schnell Drive. They had stayed in their home through the storm and the flood, and through the weeks after when the first floor was still filled with water.
The Bordelons were determined to restore their home. They started working as soon as the water drained away. They continued even as many neighboring brick houses were torn down — even as people talked of turning the entire flood-prone neighborhood into green space. NPR documented their struggles for years afterward.
Today, Colleen Bordelon still lives in the home, joined by her mother-in-law Donna. The population of the surrounding neighborhood has rebounded as some people have returned and newcomers have moved in, building new lives and even new homes amid the remnants of the old.
Staying Through The Struggle
Donald Bordelon grew up in the modest ranch house on Schnell Drive. He was a boy when it flooded during Hurricane Betsy in 1965. The family fled in a boat, and later restored the home, even adding a small second floor. That's where Donald, his wife, Colleen, and, for a time, Donald's parents took refuge from the flooding after Katrina.
The older couple had to evacuate briefly, but Donald and Colleen remained, cooking food on a burner and keeping a boat tied up by a second-floor window. They remained after the water receded, in a neighborhood coated in silt — "potato-chip kind of mud," as Colleen described it, huge flakes of drying earth.
Slowly the grass re-emerged; slowly the Bordelons restored their home. Their determination inspired NPR listeners through a series of stories; they had a way of laughing as well as crying, sometimes in the same sentence.
The renovation was nearly complete in 2010 when Donald abruptly died in bed. By the time of our visit in 2015, all the other men of the immediate family had died: Donald's father, brother and son. Colleen now lives with her mother-in-law, Donna, in the restored house that the men had been so determined to save.
"We've been through a lot," Donna told us. "We could've made Katrina, but the deaths ... were bad."
We took a short drive to the mausoleum where the men are interred, driving past the occasional house, with extra-wide green lawns between. Some of the streets brought to mind a mouth missing many of its teeth.
"All this was houses along here," Colleen said. "Wherever you see, like, an empty spot? It was a house."
The Bordelons live amid a small cluster of houses of people who returned to Schnell Drive. Just up the street, for example, is Ruth Nunez, who had her old house torn down and replaced. The new home is on stilts, with the space underneath used as a garage.
"I wanted a 10-foot porch," Ruth told us, and from that deep, shaded porch with a white railing, we had a view up and down Schnell.
From her vantage, Ruth was able to pick out signs of change. Before the storm, 80 to 90 percent of the street's residents were elderly, she said.
"Since Katrina," she said, "we have children all up and down the street."
An ice cream truck passed as we talked.
The New Arrivals
One of the old ranch houses on Schnell now belongs to the Depaula family. We found Jose and his son Igor outside, repairing a red pickup truck.
They told us they're immigrants from Brazil. They had once lived in Boston, but moved to the New Orleans area after Katrina in search of construction work. Both adults in the family work in construction; the mother, Francisca, installed the new tile floors inside their modest home.
The Depaulas' story is not unique.
"You see that big house over there? That's one of our friends, Johnny — he's from Brazil, too," said Jose. Another house also flies a Brazilian flag, and another is home to "people from our church," which holds services in Portuguese.
At the time of Katrina, St. Bernard Parish was an overwhelmingly white parish of 71,000. In the years immediately after the storm, less than half the population remained. But St. Bernard is growing again — it's back up to about 44,000 residents — and it's more diverse than it used to be.
Jose considers the area "paradise" — more tolerant than other parts of New Orleans or the country at large.
Entrepreneurs In The Wreckage
Schnell Drive has attracted a number of people investing in new lives — among them, Raymond Gaspard and Tanya McCrory. Their house stands out because of the boat and the jet plane they keep parked across the street. (On closer examination, the jet is a toy, more like a golf cart.)
"Everything's for sale!" Tanya called out when she spotted us eyeing the plane. Within a moment she had produced a jar of honey, which the family harvests from beehives on their property and sells for $5.
Raymond and Tanya are not from Schnell Drive, and the story of how they got here is the story of Katrina. They say they met just three weeks before the storm.
Flooding destroyed Raymond's house in New Orleans, and his boat disappeared — though it later turned up on a city street.
In the aftermath, Raymond found work with a railroad, removing trees from the tracks. Tanya signed on with a catering crew serving utility workers. Raymond later spent years renting out his boat, taking scientists out on the water after the BP oil spill.
Eventually the couple found vacant lots on Schnell Drive where ruined houses had been torn down.
"We bought the three lots, right here, in a row, for $10,500," Tanya said.
They built a new white house, with architectural frills reminiscent of an older New Orleans style. They set up their beehives, and got a beekeeping suit for their daughter, who's now 8 years old.
They are mindful of the lives that were lived on Schnell before they ever knew it.
"I have enough photos of this area, after Katrina," said Raymond, "I said I was going to write a book of The Houses of Arabi."
He spread his photos out on the kitchen island. We saw homes wrenched off their foundations, and a car resting atop a somehow intact chain-link fence.
Raymond knows that if a great flood came again, his new house, too, could be ruined. And water was on his mind; the couple talked about the Mississippi River levels as we left.
This conversation was like nearly all our interviews on Schnell Drive: People had so much to say, it was hard to find a stopping point. Even after we departed, Raymond left us a voicemail.
"I failed to mention to y'all that Katrina was actually a blessing to me," he said. "It actually got me over the hump, from being in debt. I don't owe anything anymore."
He paid his debts with flood insurance from his old, ruined house. The money he made clearing trees from the rails helped build this new one.
Given time, he's come to believe that the disasters of 2005 finally led him to moments of grace.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
The other day, we stopped a car in front of a house. It was a house on stilts, a good 8 feet off the ground. We climbed the steps to the high front porch. We were talking with everyone who would answer the door on a single street outside New Orleans. It's Schnell Drive in Arabi, La. It went underwater after Hurricane Katrina.
Ten years later, a visit to Schnell Drive shows what has changed.
Sorry to bother you, we're reporters from NPR, NPR National Public Radio.
The woman at the door at first declined to talk.
RUTH NUNEZ: Can you come back? I was eating boiled crab.
INSKEEP: The scent of that crab dinner came out of the house. But before we could turn to leave, she changed her mind. She talked, as did every person we approached. Ruth Nunez was living here long before the storm.
NUNEZ: So I'm back and here to stay.
INSKEEP: She built a house on her old lot after 2005, much higher to await the next flood.
We're standing on this high porch...
...Which gave us a view up and down the street.
NUNEZ: This street, 80 to 90 percent was elderly. And then since Katrina, we have children all up and down this street.
INSKEEP: People have moved back even though most of the houses are not raised up from the ground. We look down on it all from Ms. Nunez's porch as a passing ice cream truck went trolling for customers.
Before the storm, this county, known as St. Bernard Parish, was home to 71,000 people. A few years after the storm, far more than half were gone. Now the population is slowly growing. And Schnell Drive is home to newcomers, like the people repairing a pickup truck down the block from Ms. Nunez. The guy gunning the engine was Jose Depaula. He told us he was an immigrant from Brazil and that he moved to this area after Katrina.
Did you come because of the hurricane because there would be work here?
IGOR DEPAULA: (Foreign language spoken).
JOSE DEPAULA: (Foreign language spoken).
INSKEEP: His 17-year-old son, Igor, translated the story. The Depaulas lived in Boston years ago but only found restaurant work there. They moved to New Orleans after Katrina for better-paying construction work. And they weren't alone.
I. DEPAULA: You see that big house over there? That's one of our friends, Johnny. He's from Brazil, too.
INSKEEP: And then there's the house that flies a Brazilian flag. And...
I. DEPAULA: Third house down there is some people from our church.
J. DEPAULA: (Foreign language spoken).
INSKEEP: Their church down the street, which holds services in Portuguese. Census figures show this parish is far more diverse than it used to be. People are starting new lives on Schnell Drive. Some are even building new homes on lots where ruined houses were torn down. Consider the house and spacious yard of Raymond Gaspard and Tanya McCrory.
And what was on this lot when you got started?
RAYMOND GASPARD: That tree in the backyard right there.
TANYA MCCRORY: We bought the three lots right here in a row for $10,500.
INSKEEP: And on them, they built a white house. Under the eaves are frills reminiscent of older New Orleans homes.
MCCRORY: Like those things on the porch, they call those corbels. And the thing...
INSKEEP: Tonya McCrory gave us jars of honey. They were harvested from the bee hives out back.
Well, thank you. You can't just give this away, though. You must sell it. How much is it?
MCCRORY: Five dollars.
INSKEEP: Five dollars, I can pay you $5 for that.
In the end, they wouldn't accept a dime and kept talking, and attempted to show us their chickens, which were hiding under the back porch.
MCCRORY: (Imitating chicken). They're not stupid. It's hot out here, so they go hide.
INSKEEP: Raymond and Tanya's whole life together is the story of Katrina. They say they met just three weeks before the storm. Flooding destroyed Raymond's house in New Orleans. He was a fisherman whose boat disappeared in the flood. It turned up on a street after the water went down. In the aftermath, Raymond found work with a railroad removing trees from the tracks.
GASPARD: From Brookhaven, Miss., to Biloxi.
INSKEEP: And the job was just clearing the tracks all the way to Biloxi?
GASPARD: Clearing the track, running an excavator, swinging the logs off of the...
INSKEEP: Anything they needed done.
INSKEEP: Tanya worked for a catering crew feeding utility workers. Eventually, they built a life together on Schnell Drive, a life built out of odds and ends. Raymond spent years renting out his boat, taking scientists out on the water after the BP oil spill. The couple's bees are swarms cleared out from other people's homes. Their 8-year-old daughter has her own beekeeping suit. They're still finishing their house amid the wreckage of the past here in Arabi.
GASPARD: I have enough photos of this area, after Katrina, I said I was going to write a book of the houses of Arabi.
INSKEEP: For example, the house that settled in a road when the water went down.
GASPARD: Middle of the street and someone took some legs and stuffed them with the witch's boot.
MCCRORY: Like on "The Wizard Of Oz?"
INSKEEP: Are they somewhere where we could look - get a few of them real quick before we go?
GASPARD: I can dig them up.
INSKEEP: We went inside the oversized kitchen, with its island down the middle. On a high shelf was a can of coffee from New Orleans' Cafe du Monde. On the floor was a bucket into which these beekeepers were draining a honeycomb. Tanya took a beer from the fridge, and we couldn't let her drink alone.
GASPARD: I think...
INSKEEP: And Raymond spread out his pile of photographs. They showed the wreckage of lives that had been lived here before.
GASPARD: Look at this automobile here.
INSKEEP: That is in - OK, the car is on top of a fence and resting on something else back between two houses.
GASPARD: So it either floated in or was trying to float out. That was on Alexander Street right there.
INSKEEP: Raymond knows if a great flood came again, his new house, too, could be ruined. He says he'd just rebuild, though water is on his mind. We were saying goodbye when Raymond and Tanya started talking about the Mississippi River that flows a bit more than a mile from this house.
Thank you, guys.
GASPARD: What's kind of nice about here, you get the horns on the river from ships - passing ships - on a foggy morning.
MCCRORY: Early - 4 o'clock in the morning (imitating foghorn).
INSKEEP: That got them thinking about water levels, which were high on the day of our visit. This conversation was like nearly all of our interviews on Schnell Drive. It was a little hard to end it. People had so much to say. Even after we departed, Raymond left us a voicemail.
GASPARD: Hey, Steve. This is Raymond. I failed to mention to y'all that Katrina was actually a blessing to me. It actually got me over the hump from being in debt. I don't owe anything anymore.
INSKEEP: He paid his debts with flood insurance from their old, ruined house. And the money he made clearing trees from the railroad helped to build this new one. Given time, he's come to believe the disasters of 2005 finally led him to moments of grace. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.