|` KATRINA CONNECTION
| KATRINA CONNECTION
| by Phil Moore
NEW ORLEANS -Saint Bernard parish business people since Hurricane Katrina
have proven to be among the heartiest, hungriest, and, perhaps, the boldest. From
the oil refineries to the family-run groceries, they have come back home to one of
the areas hit hardest by the waters that engulfed the New Orleans area - a parish
adjoining the ninth ward, near Brad Pitt's "makeitrightnola" pink tents.
With a height of 13 feet in some parts, the water seemed to have obliterated the
small towns of Arabi, Chalmette, Meraux, & Violet - all the way to Shell Beach,
Louisiana. Heartbroken residents returned - and are still slowly coming back - to a
doomed parish which now seems alive and promising solely because of the spirit
of it's people. There are no pink tents here.
John and Stephanie White moved to "the parish" - as it is called in the New Orleans metro area - in 1987, two years after he
was granted ownership of an uncle's vending/concession business based in Orleans, then in Jefferson parish, specializing in
Mardi Gras snacks & novelties. Born and raised in the city's ninth ward, John saw better cooperation from St Bernard parish
officials, lower permit fees, & more opportunities in the parish.
As their family grew to include three kids - Lee, now 21, Rachel, now 19, and Shawn (as well as three small dogs) - the
couple was able to buy a nice house on Urquhart Street in Chalmette and hire more workers from throughout the metro area
and nationwide as they grew from a small shop on the old St. Bernard Highway to a huge warehouse on Aycock St., with a
wholesale-retail operation, vending at events throughout the country including the Indy 500, Super Bowl, NBA
Championships, and any other major happenings.
When Katrina floodwaters hit, the family was working but safe in Alabama, while their home, like all the rest of St. Bernard,
was underwater. As the national media featured glaring footage of the devastation, residents scattered nationwide knew it
could very well be a death blow for their beloved parish.
Arabi, with it's 'Nawlins charm, Chalmette, the heart of the parish, Meraux with Murphy Oil, along with Violet and other parts
are all closely intertwined communities thanks primarily to conservative leadership, aggressive business, good law
enforcement, and resilient residents. The parish suffered tremendous damage. It is a true lesson in contrast.
The Whites exemplify the courage, strength & resiliency of St. Bernard business people. A Walgreens store at Paris Rd. and
West Judge Perez Drive in Chalmette was one of the first branded franchises to reopen, as well as a McDonald's on Paris Rd.,
the first big-name fast-food franchise to return.
A few miles further down southeast in Meraux reveals a sad scene of perhaps the parishes' largest shopping center in ruins,
while a soon to re-open Super WalMart in Chalmette erected a few months before the flood was used as an emergency center
after the storm.
In August, 2006 the family opened Sports Depot, an official Saints-LSU apparel-novelty shop on Judge Perez Drive in Arabi,
only a few of miles from Brad Pitt's pink tents. John suffers from cellulitis, obesity, high blood pressure, tumors, and other
ailments. Stephanie is a strong wife who stands by her man in business, bad health, hard times, and - at the end of August
2007 - the stunning loss of their younger son, Shawn, at 16 years old due to a car accident in New Orleans.
The small sports shop relies partly on true grit. After vending at events like NCAA championships & Super Bowls, Stephanie
maintains the shop with the confidence and wit of a street salesman. John handles most logistics of planning & ordering,
while Lee handles stock (Rachel has been in California with Stephanie's mom, both evacuated from Jena, LA. by helicopter
after Katrina). But business is not what they expected. Not yet. The Saints would help if they had a winning season.
As for Saints-LSU fans in the parish, "Most of our business comes from the lower ninth ward, upper ninth, New Orleans
East, and Gentilly", Stephanie said, during a recent interview with katrinaconnection.com. Indeed, commerce here, while
predominantly white, has for years relied partly on dollars from the black New Orleans community east of downtown. "Saint
Bernard don't support us", she said, "people go to the Winn-Dixie and get the cheap quality stuff..." (an official store can only
sell official merchandise).
Nevertheless the White team has been through hard times, but still love St. Bernard. Leaving Alabama on Sept. 12 after the
storm they spent over a month sleeping at a Slidell (LA) truck stop, waiting to get back into the parish - she in the car for air
conditioning, John on the ground for space - and tried selling their "Katrina" T-shirts to get motel money.
Soon, the Red Cross helped them with much needed medical care for John (whose cellulitis had grown severe) as well as a
tent they erected at a Lutheran church on Gause Blvd. in Slidell. But, two weeks later, with Hurricane Rita on the way, they
had to leave again, first to the Pensacola, Florida area for two days, then John going North this time and Stephanie with the
kids heading for a friend's home in Mississippi. From there Stephanie & the kids went to Bessner, Alabama. Three weeks
later, at the end of November, 2005, the family finally secured a FEMA-paid motel room.
It wasn't until December that the Whites were able to schedule a January, 2006 meeting with a FEMA inspector at their
destroyed home. A trailer came in March, 2006. John, who is physically disabled but gets around with help, fell inside the
trailer in May of that year, so FEMA sent another, larger trailer two weeks later. They have been "residentially trailer-bound"
Nonetheless, given the difficulties of re-establishing life, rebuilding a home, and reviving a business, St. Bernard, with it's
government, people, & businesses like Sports Depot Saints-LSU shop with it's proprietors are still motivated, destined and
determined to come back stronger and win.
Surely, Brad Pitt is an LSU or a Saints fan...right?
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