Thursday, September 15, 2005

Canadian Mounties reached St. Bernard before troops did

From SF Gate (edited):

The parish that feds overlooked Canadian Mounties reached St. Bernard before troops did
Cecilia M. Vega, Chronicle Staff Writer

St. Bernard Parish, Louisiana -- For five days, the world forgot about St. Bernard Parish.

Just across the Mississippi River from New Orleans and only a 15-minute drive from Bourbon Street, the parish received no U.S. government assistance in the first days after Hurricane Katrina struck.

The 6,000 residents stranded in its mix of marshland, oil refineries, blighted houses and sprawling new subdivisions were left to fend for themselves, including 34 people who died in a nursing home here.

"I guess nobody knew we were here," said St. Bernard Parish Councilwoman Judy Hoffmeister, who on Wednesday recalled being trapped on the roof of a building, awaiting rescue, on the night of the storm. "Why wouldn't somebody say, 'Where's St. Bernard.' "

At first, the only rescuers on hand were the residents and officials of St. Bernard Parish. Two days after Katrina hit, a team of Canadian Mounties from Vancouver showed up to help, and a sprinkling of officials from neighboring parishes paid visits, but it would be days before there was any sign of assistance from the United States government.
"I'm saying, where's the Department of Defense?" said parish Sheriff Jack Stephens. "The Canadians can show up, but the Department of Defense can't get to St. Bernard Parish?"

The military eventually made food drops from helicopters, and locals insisted soldiers leave with a load of evacuees every time they landed.

But 17 days after the storm, the resentment still runs deep.

"It was the worst response to the worst catastrophe ever," said Stephens, sitting in his department's new command post, a floating barge on the Mississippi that deputies commandeered because they had nowhere else to go. "While all of this s -- is going on here, the Louisiana National Guard is right on the other side of the parish border, and they weren't here because they were evacuated."

Around the New Orleans area, the finger-pointing began immediately after Katrina hit. The city's Mayor Ray Nagin blasted federal officials for being slow to respond and questioned whether the delay was because so many of the stranded hurricane victims were black. The president of another neighboring parish cried on national TV and pleaded for help. And on Wednesday, Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco continued the criticism against the Federal Emergency Management Agency, saying it was taking too long to collect the dead.

In St. Bernard, officials hesitate to name names, but their message was clear.

"They were worried about terrorists more than they were about disasters," parish President Henry Rodriguez Jr. said Wednesday.


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