On frontlines of the spill, little faith in BP or in Washington

McClatchy NewspapersMay 31, 2010 

CHALMETTE, La. _ Hurricane Katrina left several feet of water, a tangle of water moccasins, crude oil from a busted refinery tank and two feet of thick, black marsh sludge in Curtis Nunez’s house in St. Bernard’s Parish.

Five years later, with hurricane season opening Monday, Nunez is worried about a different kind of muck.

Fifty miles south, the ruined Deepwater Horizon drilling rig continues to unleash a torrent of oil into the Gulf of Mexico, imperiling an area that still hasn't fully recovered from 2005's Katrina, which put much of Chalmette, east of New Orleans, under water for weeks.

Many residents moved into FEMA trailers; many have never returned; and streets are dotted with concrete pads that once held houses. The Chalmette Battlefield, site of the Battle of New Orleans in 1815, was severely damaged, and its visitor's center was destroyed.

"It makes you wonder," said Nunez, 51, who bulldozed his house and moved to higher ground. "After Katrina we wondered, 'Is there even going to be a parish to come back to?' "

It took Donna Barone and her husband eight months to reopen their Chalmette Hardware store.

"It was tough," said Barone, noting that without homes or jobs, most of her employees left town. "We gutted houses for months, just to make some money. A lot of people are still not back."

Though the worst memories of Katrina _ the eight feet of water that covered the hardware store and destroyed the inventory _ are fading, Barone said the community is now distracted by the oil spill.

"I don't think anyone is thinking about hurricane season with all this other stuff going on," she said. "And now we have to worry: If a hurricane does come, what kind of devastation do you have with all this oil in the water?"

Nunez said he's disappointed but not surprised by BP's and the government's responses to the spill.

"I didn't expect no more," he said. "I was here for Katrina. I didn't expect them to run down and here save us. The first people we saw after Katrina in town was the Canadians."

There's little trust here in either the oil company or the federal government. Mechanic Dud Alphonso, 42, said he's got his own hurricane plan.

"Get the hell out of here," he said Monday, standing across the street from an open space that was once a house.

"I was here for Katrina, I swam in oil, I had four feet of mud in my house and they told me I could still live there," Alphonso said. "They told us troops would come and help. Yeah."

Like most of coastal Louisiana, Chalmette is plenty familiar with oil: After Katrina, a refinery tank burst, flooding neighborhoods. The EPA estimated in 2006 that more than 1,800 homes in the area had been "oiled" by the spill.

"First we had the waters from Katrina washing away homes, then the oil tank broke, then there were the snakes," said Nunez, a district chief at the St. Bernard Parish Fire Department. "What more can they do?"

He said Louisianans would cope, even as the oil spill threatens to lay waste to a way of life on the coast.

"After you get hit with something like Katrina, it's like, keep pitching it, we'll knock it out of the park," Nunez said. "We’ll do our best."

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