BRANCACCIO: Welcome to NOW.
First to what was once a rough-and-ready suburb of New Orleans. Last summer I visited Chalmette, Louisiana. That town has a couple of refineries nearby and it was a story about the safety of these things given threats of terrorism.
During that shoot, I spent some time with a few residents. We sat on patio furniture in the backyard, had some oatmeal cookies and Coke and talked plant safety. Weeks later, Hurricane Katrina hit and that patio furniture and most of the rest of Chalmette got covered in 12 feet of black water.
We've stayed in touch with the Chalmette folks and just the other day we went to see how they're doing. Not well, I'm afraid. The producer is Na Eng.
The devastation stretches mile after mile. Once a bustling community of 32,000 people, Chalmette in St. Bernard Parish is now an eerie wasteland. Mounds of garbage still line the sidewalks… kid's drawings and Mardi Gras beads… relics of happier days.
Before Katrina hit, Chalmette was a working class suburb known for its strong Cajun roots. It sits along the petrochemical corridor that forms the lifeblood of Louisiana's economy. When the main levee at the Shipping Channel overflowed, virtually the entire parish got washed under. As if Katrina's flood waters were not bad enough, the parish was also slammed with a catastrophic oil spill.
It was just a couple months before Katrina hit that I first met local residents Ken Ford and Johnny and Joy Lewis. They had been keeping a close eye on a pair of nearby refineries.
JOHNNY LEWIS: Any time the air is coming from the refineries over your home, it's terrible. Sometimes it's so bad, sir, one night, I was here, I could, I could almost taste it and chew it. That's how bad the smell was in the air.
BRANCACCIO: Even then, they were fiercely loyal to their community.
KEN FORD: I was told, Mr. Ford, the easiest thing for you would be to pick up and move. That would be so simple.
BRANCACCIO: Why don't you move?
KEN FORD: I've been fighting this for so long, that I feel like it's just got to come to an end some day. Somebody's got to realize the truth about what's going on.
BRANCACCIO: Now the very survival of their parish is at stake. We wanted to check in on them and see how they were holding up.
KEN FORK: I was really heartbroken. And being a man, I didn't want to cry, but I did tear up.
BRANCACCIO: Where Ken Ford used to live is now just a shell of a house. Here's what left of it.
KEN FORD: You can see that we had water up to the ceiling, maybe higher than the ceiling, really. And this mold. Before it was even worst than this…
BRANCACCIO: Their new home a 250-square foot trailer provided by FEMA sits in their driveway. They just got their trailer a few weeks ago, but they count themselves among the lucky ones. Families in St. Bernard have requested more than 8,000 trailers, but FEMA has only been able to provide about 2,000.
KEN FORD: I see a lot of my neighbors that - are homeless right now. They-- at least they're in shelters and waiting on trailers. There's a long delay on the trailers. FEMA, for some reason, is very slow.
BRANCACCIO: And what was once an open field of grass before Katrina is now a parking lot of trailer homes that FEMA has just started to set up for returning residents. While Ken Ford knows the community desperately needs these trailers, he worries about the location. It's just behind his house and a few short blocks from an oil refinery.
KEN FORD: They're putting this particular area, without doing any research or without asking the community whatever you think for this area. A lot of time has been devoted to it and we have shown without a doubt that this is a bad area it's toxic.
BRANCACCIO: We spent a day driving with Ken to take a look around and we saw that not a single home in the parish was spared from Katrina's flood waters.
KEN FORD: They say 8% have come back so far. They're saying in five years, they'll hopefully get 50% back.
BRANCACCIO: Ken took us to see Joy Lewis.
JOY LEWIS: Some people are coming back, but the community is gone, Ken. You know that. The community is gone.
BRANCACCIO: This was the first time she was seeing her home since it was fully gutted the day before.
KEN FORD: Joy, when you come back, should you come back - you think you'll be able to take it?
JOY LEWIS: I don't know. I spent forty-fifty years here. I raised my four kids here.
BRANCACCIO: Joy's home was ruined not only by the wind and water, but by a massive oil spill from the nearby Meraux Murphy Refinery.
JOY LEWIS: This is my den… This is where we used to sing karaoke, and these were pictures that were lost… and here you can see my daughter's picture, and the oil spill…
BRANCACCIO: Over a million gallons of thick black crude oil seeped into the yards and living rooms of this community. The extent of the damage is still being assessed. Murphy Oil has acknowledged that nearly 3,000 homes were affected, but the company points out it is taking extraordinary measures to clean it up.
Joy Lewis wonders how deeply the oil may have penetrated.
JOY LEWIS: They're supposed to come here and sanitize it and spray it and all and then take six inches of the top soil off the ground and then replace it. So, you know, how much stayed here. They said it just stayed on the top. That's-- that's not true because my china that I had, it penetrated into this old china and I can't get it out. So what does-- that tells me that it's penetrated in areas I'm not sure of.
BRANCACCIO: Nearly six months after the storm, oil residue still streaks the walls one sign the community has a long way to go before it can finish cleaning up this gigantic mess.
Authorities say the clean up effort is going smoothly enough, considering the circumstances, but environmentalists worry about the benzene and other cancer-causing substances in the crude oil which has soaked into the ground.
Murphy is compensating homeowners for the damage the refinery caused, if they agree not to take part in a class action suit. About 5,400 people have accepted the offer so far, and the company has paid out more than 50 million dollars in settlements.
Joy Lewis settled with the company for the damage to her property, but she says it's the damage to the community that also concerns her.
JOY LEWIS: I think they're trying. You know they really are. They're offering so much per square foot for your house, the damage and all that. And they are cleaning it out. But I still don't think that's enough, you know, because they ruined a whole community. They ruined a whole half a parish, I'll say.
BRANCACCIO: Katrina has turned her world upside down in ways she never could have imagined.
JOY LEWIS: I've lost two houses. I've lost my business. And I also lost my mother. She drowned at the Saint Rita's Home, which I thought was so safe, but I found out it wasn't.
BRANCACCIO: A wheelchair sits outside the now abandoned nursing home. It belonged to Joy's mother, Lorita Morales, who was among the 35 people who died here. Many of them drowned before rescuers could reach them. The state Attorney General has charged the owners with 34 counts of negligent homicide. The owners deny the charges.
After the storm waters receded, authorities were able to recover most of the bodies from the nursing home. But it took over five months for them to locate and identify Joy's mother. After all that time anxiously searching and waiting, Joy will finally be able to bury her mother next week.
Joy Lewis has decided she probably won't be returning to St. Bernard Parish, and that means leaving the home she's lived in nearly her entire life.
JOY LEWIS: I'm kind of scared to come back. But I love Saint Bernard. I always did. And I've been here for 50 years. And I just-- I'm heartbroken. I mean what else can I say? That's how I feel. I'm heartbroken.