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Sojourn to St. Bernard by Anne Rolfes, Louisiana Bucket Brigade

Anne Rolfes, Louisiana Bucket Brigade
September 19, 2005


This is a story about my return to St. Bernard Parish. Although personal reflections are mingled with the nuts and bolts of the environmental work we set out to do, there is one point that is essential: those who lived in the devastated communities were part of this initial work and MUST be part of the post Katrina work.

The sampling and monitoring that we have done and will do with the Louisiana Bucket Brigade involves the St. Bernard Citizens for Environmental Quality in the design and implementation of the sampling. Partnering with those who live in the affected communities is a fundamental principle of environmental justice.

For the last three years I have gone to St. Bernard Parish about three times a week – sometimes every day of the week – to work with the St. Bernard Citizens for Environmental Quality. I know the best place to buy shrimp, the best place to stop for a beer, and the best spots to photograph and take air samples from the polluting refineries in town. When a New York Times reporter visited earlier this year, I told him the best way to get right to the fence of ExxonMobil to show that terrorists can strike at any time.

Now Katrina has struck, and the people that I have worked with are scattered to the winds. The places, if they are still standing, are drowning in mold, toxic sludge, and 800,000 gallons of oil spilled by the Murphy Refinery. Your tax dollars will probably be used to clean this up.

On Monday, September 19th I returned to Chalmette, a town within the parish, with Ken and Genevieve Ford. Ken is the founder and President of the St. Bernard Citizens for Environmental Quality. This group and the Louisiana Bucket Brigade have worked together for three years. I talk to Ken more than I talk with my own family. That’s how it is when you get into these community battles. I never dreamed that someday I would take an ax to his dresser to try and rescue family pictures.

As with most work these days, the personal gets mixed up with the professional. This trip to take soil samples and document the environmental concerns with the community members was combined with an attempt to rescue items from the Fords’ home. This was their first time to go home since Katrina hit. I remember calling them on the Saturday that we all evacuated. “This is Anne calling,” I said. “I guess you’ve already evacuated. I’ll see you Monday or Tuesday when we all get back.” Little did I know we would all never be back.

I’ve thought about my voice on the answering machine since then. It was submerged by rising waters, the last message I would ever leave. We couldn’t see the answering machine or anything else amidst the rubble of their house. What a mess. The Fords reared three children in that house. They lived there for 43 years. Now they have no home. They can’t make plans about their future or where they might live just yet; they are waiting to hear how much, if anything, they will get from the insurance company.

We drove past a checkpoint when we first got into the parish. Ken had to show his id to show that he lived there. On the big bridge over the marsh the smell – even with the car windows closed – was unbearable. We pulled over and put on our venhilators. We were miles away from the neighborhoods, but the marsh is now holding God knows what. Some of Murphy’s Oil is no doubt in there. But don’t worry, your tax dollars will clean it up.

National Guard soldiers and barricades shouting “Do Not Enter” prevent you from going into the neighborhood near Murphy. The National Guard soldiers are nice guys and are doing their best. Now they are guarding a toxic zone. My friend Johnny lives in that neighborhood. He managed to get in but was kicked out, told that it was a “Hot Zone.” A Murphy spokesman who has not been to the site, according to the Wall Street Journal, says that some of the brown color in the water in that neighborhood is mud. Never mind the 800,000 gallons of oil.

The Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality and the EPA took an air sample near the refinery. Despite the reading of 170 parts per billion of benzene (a chemical known to cause leukemia and cancer), the agencies’ press release said the reading was slight. Even though it’s more than 40 times higher than Louisiana’s health standards.

EPA DEQ Press Release 9.17.05

“Monitoring data directly around the Murphy Oil spill revealed some slightly elevated levels of benzene and toluene that are associated with an oil leak reported at the facility. Long-term exposure of a year or more would be required for health effects to be of concern at levels measured.”

This sort of false assurance is nothing new. These are the same institutions that have been letting people get sick and die from exposure to toxic chemicals for decades along Cancer Alley.

We passed the Catholic Church on the way to the Fords’ house. It is battered and bruised. Ken has taken air samples in the parking lot there before mass. The priest was a good man, sensitive to the environmental cause. He let us hand out event fliers there. On this day, we identified it as a good spot to take a sample. We wanted locations that would resonate with people, places that were community places that people would know and love.

I knelt in the dirt and took a soil sample as Ken took pictures. The church is called Our Lady of Prompt Succour. Ironic for a parish that was abandoned, that had no help until four days after the storm. The first people to show up to help were the Canadian Mounties. The Mounties, like others helped, will forever be revered in this parish. During difficult times so many people took their time and risked their lives to help others.

Driving down Ken’s street was a shock. All of the vegetation is dead. Dead marsh grass – now looking like hay – is everywhere. A neighborhood of green manicured lawns now looks like a barn floor. Cars are displaced with trunks blown open. Debris and trash is everywhere. One house floated off its foundation onto the sidewalk. A boat is on top of a car. The signature black and red x’s are on every front door, notations made by the National Guard to signify they had searched the homes for survivors and bodies. An ominous “2D” is on the house across the street from the Fords. Two dead.

I could not walk around the area without a ventilator. The stench was thick. The Fords’ back porch floated to the driveway. The roof was ripped off their carport. Their van floated several feet. You cannot open the garage because of the way that the contents were tossed and thrown about. We had to break a window to crawl into his garage office. Once the war room from which commands in our environmental battles were given, it now looks like a victim of war.

Mold is everywhere inside. We tried to save some things. Like those photos in the dresser. It had swelled as well as turned upside down. I took an ax to it but found no photos. Mrs. Ford did find a photo intact – a large black and white with the old time coloring – full lips, rouge on the cheeks – when she was about 16. “I never liked that picture,” she said. Funny what survives.

We tried to save the glass coffee table. “Is my crucifix still above the door?” she said. It was, and I pulled it down. It’s what she used to pray to when her husband was at his sickest with cancer.

Memories of our work are throughout that house and outside. Here we had press conferences, there we set up the high technology air monitor (that busted ExxonMobil for dumping sulfur dioxide on the neighborhood). Here was a bucket training, there was a meeting with EPA representatives who never called us back. They didn’t help then and now, though they may be working hard, we aren’t getting sample results and the community is left in the dark.

I cannot imagine what 43 years worth of memories would be like. Those memories are now covered with muck; there is two inches of it near the walls in the living room.

I took a soil sample outside of the Fords’ home. We also decided to take two at the neighborhood elementary school. This is another location that will resonate with people.

At the elementary school I saw an EPA air monitor hanging. EPA personnel showed up when I was there. When I asked how I could get the results, I was told that they might be posted on the web site, but they didn’t know when. When I asked where they were sampling, I was told, “Everywhere.” When I asked specifically where, I was told “All over.” When I asked if I could see the map with their sampling points on it, they mumbled something about not having it, got in their cars and drove away.

The elementary school was a disaster. The playground is covered in thick, smelly, sinking mud. Inside the stench is overpowering, even with a ventilator. The cafeteria is topsy turvy, the hallways still have water. It was a new nice school. It is only half a mile from the refinery. On this day Exxon’s flares were still burning. Still dumping on the community, with nobody there to complain.

I wonder about the people I knew. My database of community contacts isn’t relevant anymore. How do I find Jessica, the 23 year old who had a baby girl in June? She was trained to take air samples. She painted pictures that told of sickness and death from the local refineries. She and her boyfriend didn’t have a car. They bartered goods for a living; she gave painting lessons for cash.

Then there’s Dale the mechanic. On the Friday before we evacuated I got a flat tire. I left it with him to plug and put back on my car. I left ten dollars under my mat to pay him for his work. The last time I spoke with him, Dale told me he was going to ride out the storm. In New Orleans East. Everyone knows that area was devastated. When I got back to my car the ten dollars was still there, my tire nowhere in site. Neither is Dale. My friend Joy Lewis decided to let her mother evacuate with the nursing home because they could better care for her. Joy’s mother was never evacuated, and now she is looking for her mother’s body.

There are so many sad stories. In the midst of it all we will continue to do our work. Helping the community put the pieces together and figure out how to move forward is our role. Community sampling and environmental monitoring – finding out what the real situation is – is a crucial part of that.