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Familiar faces, but they're in a new place

After St. Bernard Parish was devastated by Katrina, many moved to the same subdivision -- but it's not the same.

September 30, 2007|Miguel Bustillo | Times Staff Writer

MADISONVILLE, LA. — When she stares out her kitchen window here, Sheri Gioe sees Rachel Estopinal, the same neighbor she used to see before, when she lived in St. Bernard Parish.

Her sister lives around the corner, just like before. So do her parents, who still fuss around their home studio, dreaming up extravagant costumes of gilded Egyptian pharaohs and pretty Hawaiian princesses for some of New Orleans' most esteemed Mardi Gras krewes.

Yet Gioe is now a long way from "Da Parish," the parochial place next to New Orleans where she and most everyone she knew spent all their lives before Hurricane Katrina washed them away.

Home is now Madison Farms, a recently built subdivision -- about an hour from her former neighborhood -- on the north shore of Lake Pontchartrain in St. Tammany Parish. Here, 35 of her 38 neighbors are also expatriate St. Bernardians from depleted towns such as Chalmette and Arabi.

Like Gioe and Estopinal, many live near friends and family members again on freshly paved streets and cul-de-sacs that seem like a microcosm of the mass movement of people reshaping Louisiana after the hurricane.

"We call it the migration of the Chalmatians," Gioe, 51, said with a laugh. "Before the storm, my whole life was in a three-mile radius: school, church, work. Living here's not the same. But it does seem familiar. A lady I used to see at church all the time is now my next-door neighbor."

Katrina's 25-foot storm surge breached the levees that were supposed to protect St. Bernard Parish. In a matter of minutes, the low-lying region, home to 67,000 people, was submerged in as much as 12 feet of water.

Only a handful of homes escaped the flood waters and the 1 million gallons of crude that spilled from the Murphy Oil refinery. So when displaced St. Bernardians heard that Randy Varuso, formerly of Arabi, was building brick homes -- 25 feet above sea level -- they quickly snapped up the lots.

Some friends and neighbors were reunited by coincidence. Others made sure they were together again.

Estopinal, 36, and her husband James, 35, who played running back on his high school football team, live kitty-corner from one of his best friends, the quarterback.

Jill Hogan bought her house before her husband even saw it, but he didn't mind: His three closest pals were going to Madison Farms, and that was enough.

T.J. Nye and his wife moved to Madison Farms because their two favorite couples were relocating there. The six friends, all high school sweethearts, have been tight since childhood.

"After you lose everything, you want to be near your friends and family again," said Nye, 27, whose St. Bernard house floated 330 feet from its foundation. "They're all you got."

Together, they're starting over in a strange new land dotted with Shoney's and Applebee's chain restaurants instead of the po' boy shacks and mom-and-pop Italian restaurants they knew -- a semi-rural suburb where their often-thick variation of the New Orleans accent immediately identifies them as newcomers from St. Bernard.

The streets of Madison Farms, with equestrian names such as Secretariat Drive and Seabiscuit Loop, are deserted during the day. But when night falls on the sector of the development dominated by St. Bernardians, people come out to gossip on the streets, much as they did in their more urbanized old neighborhoods. Families walk from block to block, and some cruise around in golf carts to visit friends and relatives.

Two years after Katrina, only about 28,000 people have returned to St. Bernard Parish. Neither of the two hospitals has reopened. Two day-care centers are open, compared with 26 before. The parish government is still being run out of trailers in a parking lot.

"I don't think we'll ever be the same St. Bernard," said Henry "Junior" Rodriguez, the parish president. "But we should be back to 50,000 people in a few years. We're not sure we'll ever get beyond 50,000 again, but we think we'll get that many."

Former St. Bernardians still get nostalgic about Rocky and Carlo's, renowned for its mountains of macaroni and cheese with red gravy slathered on top. They miss the Mardi Gras king cakes at Randazzo's bakery.

But those longings are being satisfied: Nonna Randazzo opened a bakery, Nonna's, just up from the causeway, and Rocky's granddaughter is serving the family favorites at DiChristina's in nearby Covington.

"It will never feel like home again," said Melody LeBlanc, one of Nye's high school friends. LeBlanc, 27, has opened a hair salon with some of the women she worked with in St. Bernard.

"It's just not going to be the same," she said. "But we are young and have the rest of our lives to put things back in order."

Archbishop Hannan High School, where Gioe and Hogan work, has already left St. Bernard Parish for St. Tammany Parish. The Catholic school, operating out of trailers in St. Tammany, is moving into a futuristic building near Madisonville next year. Its classes are in high demand among displaced St. Bernardians.

Hogan, who works in admissions, understands why. Her daughter Melanie, 14, felt like a pariah at a middle school in St. Tammany, where female classmates ridiculed her for being a Katrina refugee. At one point, she and another girl from St. Bernard plotted in the school bathroom to run away.

"They say kids bounce back, but the scars these kids will have with them will last a lifetime," said Hogan, 41, who cries every time she crosses the bridge into St. Bernard Parish. "It's heartbreaking."

Gioe, who answers phones at the school, struggles with the changes too. But she's adapting, she said, thanks to the reminders of her former home.

When she looks out her window in Madison Farms, she can see Estopinal's boys, James and Nathan, whom she nicknamed her "make-believe grandchildren."

She sometimes walks over and hands them Popsicles.

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