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American Indians Continue to Rebuild After Katrina

New America Media, News Report, Amanda Robert Posted: Jan 07, 2006

POINT-AUX-CHENES, La. When the Isle de Jean Charles Indians did not receive any immediate aid from the federal government after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita swept their island, experience had already taught them what they needed to do. They took matters into their own hands and initiated their own cleanup process. They removed ruined mattresses, refrigerators and stoves and started to rebuild their lives once again.

Mary Dardar, a disabled Biloxi-Chitimacha woman who lives alone on the island, has been through all of this before. The wooden bridge across the bayou to her home is still rippled from Hurricane Lilis passing in 2002, and a cluster of deserted houses surrounds her small home.

There are camps around but whoever was living there relocated after Lili because it was too damaged to be livable, said Dardar. Its my home, its going to take a lot more than that to run me off.

Hurricanes Katrina and Rita dumped 40 inches of water into Dardars house, caving in her bathroom ceiling and destroying personal items, clothes and appliances. She said that she lost everything from the ceiling down and will make the repairs on her own.

I have to strip my whole house up walls, insulation, said Dardar. Its a slow process and not something you can do overnight. It takes time, especially when you are living in it.

Fifty-four-year old Andrew Chaisson Jr. has also lived on the island all of his life. A blue tarp covers where his roof was before and the wooden skeleton is all that remains on the left side where tan siding used to be. But thats not the worst of the damage.

In my house, I had almost 44 inches of water. Thats almost four feet, said Chaisson. We had to spray for mold and all that, but I cant work on it every day. I work on oyster fishing, sometimes all day and night.

Like Dardar and some of the other island Indians, Chaisson is continuing to live in his moldy home. After the hurricanes, five houses on the island needed to be completely torn down and rebuilt. Most of the others have been seriously damaged and require renovations.

A lot of us are tired of living in the condition that we live in, said Dardar. It makes you sick.

Three months after Hurricane Rita struck, FEMA trailers had still not been delivered to the island. A FEMA representative in Baton Rouge said that according to her records, four trailers had been delivered to Point-aux-Chenes, but as of early December, Chief Albert Naquin of the Isle de Jean Charles band of the Biloxi-Chitimacha Indians said that none had shown up. Instead, non-profit organizations have stepped in to aid the Indians. Mennonite Disaster Services is one organization that is helping the Indians rebuild their community.

Right after Hurricane Katrina, Mennonites Fred and Sue Kathler opened up a volunteer project location, working out of Live Oak Baptist Church in Point-aux-Chenes. They have gutted homes, repaired roofs and removed the lower part of the interior walls of flooded homes.

We take out the bottom, let it dry, clean the insulation and let that dry, said Fred Kathler, as he demonstrated with recently cleaned panels in the church. We then spray for mold, let it dry, then put the panel back.

Since October, the Kathlers have overseen 66 volunteers and have started 24 clean-up projects in the area.

We have groups from all over, said Sue Kathler. The generosity of people and their time is marvelous because we are never at a lack for volunteers.

The Mennonites goal is to give Island residents safe, dry and healthy places to live temporarily. Other plans in the works would bring volunteers for up to three years to help the Indians solve the long-term problems caused by human and natures destruction of their environment.

According to Naquin, the Isle de Jean Charles did not historically flood. After years of oilfield digging, pipeline canals and hurricanes, the marshes that protect the island gradually became weaker and have now all virtually disappeared.

Every hurricane takes a toll, said Naquin. So now Rita brought a foot of water more than Lili, three years ago. Hurricanes in the 50s, 60s never flooded. We never even flooded until Hurricane Juan in 1985, but Juan put water everywhere.

Looking out over the bayou, Naquin said that land used to separate the water into many different lakes, but now all of the land is gone.

You cant tell the difference between the lakes and the bayou, theres nothing there, he said.

Building rock walls on the barrier islands or levees on the sides of the island could alleviate the flooding. Others of the five tribes in the area have tried these solutions.

Chief Randy Verdun of the Bayou Lafource band of Biloxi-Chitimacha Indians said, Bayou Lafourche was not flooded, fortunately, because we have a levee system and it helped. Grand Caillou/Dulac also has a levee system, but it failed.

In the attempt to save his shrinking island, Naquin has a different idea in mind. He is hoping to team up with the Mennonites to raise all of the Isle de Jean Charles homes up on pilings, 13 feet above sea level.

They will raise houses, scrap houses and build houses, said Naquin. The Mennonites have money, but they want us to match their money. They want $75,000 from each tribe to match their funds.

On Nov. 26, the tribes in the area met with members of the Mennonite Disaster Services to discuss these future plans. Naquin said all of the different tribes will join together to form a non-profit organization so that they can begin to raise money for this endeavor.

We want to form this organization where Indian tribes can deposit money so we can start doing things, said Naquin. There is money available, we just need to put it all in one place where it can help everyone.

Naquins tribe only had $500 to put toward the $75,000 that is needed. He hopes that the rest of the money will be raised through the new organization.

Of these plans involving the Mennonite Disaster Services, Sue Kathler said, All of this is still in the conversation stage, nothing has been developed yet.

If the Isle de Jean Charles Indians cannot come up with the money or if they cannot develop a way to stop their island from flooding, they may have to move from the homeland that their people have lived on for over 200 years. They were already once given the chance to move as a community, but did not accept the offer.

At first I was against the move, because it reminded us of a modern day Trail of Tears, said Naquin. And then I realized what was happening over here. It would probably be better that we could keep our community as a whole if we relocate.

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