Tuesday’s road trip took us to the community college in Chalmette. I went to Chalmette when I was in college with my girlfriend Angel. Her then boyfriend was from Chalmette, and we’d hang out at his family’s place and eat good food and drink alcohol. I don’t remember much about it except that I remember they were just normal Louisiana people living in cozy, middle-class housing. It was a blast.
That’s the same impression I got today. We took a roundabout way to get to Chalmette. We complained that it appeared that we went in circles. Later we found out that a bridge is still out from Hurricane Katrina, so we went around in circles for a reason. That’s the impression that I got from my day in Chalmette. This area that was covered in 8 ½ feet of water from August until October in 2006 is a mix of thriving and rebuilding with an equal part abandoned and dead history.
The college has a thriving program of Industrial Technology. Their lab has excellent instructors with a lifetime of experience from the plants in the area – a combination of chemical, sugar, and petroleum among others – and they impart their vast experience to young adults aspiring to make decent salaries in a still unrecovered economy. Our host, Annette said the Chalmette area had around 65,000 residents prior to Katrina and now has about 35,000. Many of the old residents did not return. Their homes were under water for so long, and the damage so extensive, that they just had to move on. In fact, after she returned from a long evacuation, she made the choice to move to another area temporarily because it was so difficult to get things done without proper equipment, offices and the inevitable interruptions from funerals and recovery efforts. Eventually she came back when conditions were more tolerable.
Katrina seems like such a distant event to me that it was a bit shocking for me to see an area that is still struggling to get condemned buildings demolished, new ones built and repairs made to existing structures. Modern construction sits in front of temporary trailers which sit in front of one building that is still waiting for repair or tear down. Not only did Katrina ravage it enough to condemn it, but Isaac came along and caused further damage. It sat empty, in serious disrepair, waiting for its eventual sentence. Conversations are still peppered with the acronym FEMA as frequently as I remember a year after Katrina hit. Some classes are held in temporary structures while awaiting budget approvals from the federal agency. Despite the adversity, this year the school just exceeded it’s pre-Katrina student enrollment. Modern classrooms are set up in the gym with a basketball goal hanging unused above the student lab. A local company built a methanol lab on the campus to train students on real-life equipment. They affectionately call it their “meth lab”. Companies bring their new employees here for onsite training because it’s a perfect training ground for workers who have not had practical training on plant equipment. Flexibility has to be the word to describe this determined band of educators that are committed to providing education and skills to a young workforce. They have expertly used every available space to serve their community. It is inspiring to see what they endure to do what is right for their students. Our guide toured us around the facility in a golf cart because the campus is so spread out.
We had lunch at a lovely place today called MeMe’s Bar and Grill. I had a bowl of three-onion soup that was so good I wanted to slap my Momma again. Jennifer remarked that it looked like cheese soup with its golden, creamy consistency, but it wasn’t cheese. I’d call it butter soup. I think I had a whole stick of butter in mine along with some fresh cream and sautéed sweet yellow onions. I wanted to lick the bowl. I followed it up with a spinach salad with fried oysters that was very good, but it would have been hard to top that soup.
On the way out, we were admiring the beautiful landscape marked by bayous, inlets and the coastal waterway. Shrimp boats were moored alongside the highway, and Jennifer I screamed that we needed to turn around so we could take some pictures. I got out in my heels and walked across the muddy lawn to take a picture of a couple of shrimp boats, and I noticed a sunken boat in the water. I imagine that it was a remnant of Katrina still rotting in its watery grave. As I got closer to the shore, I could see another boat, abandoned and falling apart. An old tin building was strewn across the ground as if it had fallen yesterday. It reminded me of what we just saw at the college – evidence of lingering destruction amid a dogged spirit of resurgence. It’s been 8 years since that old b*tch smashed through the South, but she has not left. Her footprints still cling to the muddy soil, and I wonder if she will ever completely be gone. Maybe it’s a good thing. Sometimes it’s easier to fight against an obvious foe who is shaking her finger in your face than it is to fight a battle with no opponent. This area still has a way to go, but, from what I saw today, they will come back. They may not be bigger than ever, but they will be stronger. They have learned to be flexible ….. flexible in the winds of change.