This story has been updated (9.3.12).
Honestly, I didn’t know what to expect. I had last been to Plaquemines Parish, Louisiana, six and a half years ago, when I’d come to the Gulf Coast to report for the Unitarian Universalist Association’s website on how funds raised in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina by the UUA and the UU Service Committee were being used. While there, I had visited artists and activists in Tremé who were trying to restore their homes and their cultural base. I spent time in Biloxi, Mississippi, with City Councilman Bill Stallworth and immigration labor activist Vicky Cintra. Best of all, for me, I had gone to Plaquemines Parish to find out what the Rev. Tyronne Edwards and his Zion Travelers Cooperative Center were doing, with UU help, to restore life to one of the poorest and most isolated parts of greater New Orleans.
Now my husband, Ben, and I were in New Orleans again because our daughter, Abby, was beginning her studies at Tulane University. Ben and I had decided to make a road trip of it, so we loaded our Prius with an overstuffed car top box and a bicycle and set out from Lexington, Massachusetts. Abby had heard us talk about Tyronne for years. After I spent time with him during my initial visit, I just couldn’t forget him. Ben had decided to volunteer his contracting and carpentry services in New Orleans, and he naturally called Tyronne, organized a small work crew, and, in March 2007, went down. Ben returned to New Orleans a few months later for another visit and became friends not only with Tyronne but with his wife, Gail (a registered nurse), and Tyronne’s mother, who welcomed him to her home and fed him fabulous lunches each day he worked on her house.
Now we felt that we had roots in this community. Tyronne had understood, after Hurricane Katrina, that the government was unlikely to spend any time or money restoring a poor, out-of-the-way area like Plaquemines Parish. It was, he said, “the last spot of land in Louisiana,” sticking out into the Gulf of Mexico, and all the money and attention were destined to go to New Orleans. So—armed with his background as a community organizer and his deep and abiding faith—he had set out to raise the money to rebuild his town of Phoenix, where only two of the town’s 200 homes had survived the flooding, and to bring it back better than it was before. He’d gotten support from the Gulf Coast Relief Fund and from groups of UUs as well as people from other faith communities. Houses in the town were rebuilt, roads repaired. Now there are gardens in the yards, and there are children playing once again in the town. The homes are beautifully furnished, and there is a real sense of pride in the small, [predominantly?] African American town that was completely submerged in the days and months after Katrina.
Tyronne didn’t rest. He got the Phoenix school reopened and then started working on building a bigger, newer one, which is now under construction. He oversaw the opening of a volunteer fire station and a community center/YWCA and recreation facility (on stilts, to protect it from storm surges) with exercise equipment, a meeting room, professional kitchen, offices, and common spaces. His work has strengthened the community enough that they’re seeing a resurgence of small businesses: a convenience store/grocery, two social halls/restaurants, and a barbershop.
On August 24, 2012, Ben and I were back in Plaquemines Parish, and this time, we’d brought Abby. On the ferry across the Mississippi River from Belle Chasse to Scarsdale, Ben and I wondered how the town had changed since our last visit. We wanted Abby to know something about this part of the area she’d be living in, to get to know the inspiring visionary Ben and I are privileged to call a friend.
When we got to Phoenix, Tyronne immediately put us in his car and started driving. He put down the window and checked in with anyone who was out on the road or sitting in front of their house. One woman had lost her father two weeks ago; Tyronne had an encouraging word for her. Several teens and adults were at the school, unloading refreshments for a school dance that night; he had to check in with them to make sure all was ready. At the YWCA’s community center, Tyronne talked with people on the treadmills and working the weight machines. He knew them all. And in the social hall, he introduced us to everyone at the bar, explaining that we were back in Phoenix “to see all the changes since the storm.”
By the time we got back to the house, where Gail had cooked a fabulous dinner, our heads were spinning. How could all this have happened in six years, when New Orleans neighborhoods are still full of abandoned houses and continue to struggle for life?
Tyronne has always believed that Plaquemines Parish can be the vital, culturally rich community it once was. Not content with all that has happened since Katrina, he’s now working on getting medical facilities built on the east side of the parish. He said that he’s seen too many people in the town who’ve died young for lack of accessible medical care. Five years ago he started a library and a computer center in the restored construction trailer that is the headquarters for the Zion Travelers Cooperative Center. Now he’s establishing libraries in two other locations in the parish. And the work goes on. Schools, businesses, community centers, libraries—these are the things that hold people in communities and make them want to live in a town. Tyronne has worked his connections and made it all happen.
Abby was elated to be there. “This is why I came to New Orleans,” she said. Her interest in sociology, anthropology, and psychology—as well as her curiosity about people and places—made it clear that Plaquemines Parish was an exciting place to be, particularly now. How could you not want to be here, I wondered to myself: Here are the communities that love and faith rebuilt, and they’re growing. The population of Phoenix is now 110 percent of what it was just before Katrina came calling, which is nothing short of a triumph.
As we visited the marina where the shrimp and crab boats are docked, Tyronne explained that the HBO series Treme had filmed there last year, bringing more money and interest to the parish. The levees, he reported, were in better shape to protect the town from storms. And faith—faith had brought the town through so much, lifted the people up in their grimmest days following Katrina. We visited a church down the road from Tyronne’s Zion Travelers Church in Phoenix. His elderly colleague, a Rev. Cross, was preparing for a ceremony marking the church’s 150th anniversary. He was worried about the approach of tropical depression Isaac.
“It will be OK,” Tyronne told him. “Don’t worry—just some rain and wind. We’ll have a good celebration here, and it will be all right.” The older minister nodded his head. “I hope so.”
Tyronne drove back down through the parish toward his home. He stopped to chat with a few men on the side of the levee. “It’s going to be all right,” he told them. “Just a little rain.” On Friday, Ben, Abby, and I hoped Tyronne was right.
Now, on the eve of Katrina’s seventh anniversary, we know that Hurricane Isaac has turned its focus on the Big Easy. The east bank of Plaquemines Parish—where Tyronne, his family, and all the residents that we know live—is under a mandatory evacuation order. On Abby’s first full day at Tulane, she learned how to pack an evacuation bag and is now under lockdown at her dorm on campus.
Nearly seven years to the day after Katrina changed everything, we watch, and wait, and pray that—by faith and determination, and perhaps a little grace—Tyronne Edwards and the good people of Plaquemines Parish will be able to ride out one more challenge to their lives in southern Louisiana.
Update 9.3.12: On Thursday, August 30, I finally heard from Rev. Tyronne Edwards. We’d been sick with worry since Isaac had hit, as we heard that water had overtopped the Plaquemines Parish levees, which had not been fortified in the days and months following Katrina.
Typical of Tyronne, his first question was, “How’s Abby?” After we assured him that she was fine and that the Tulane campus was powerless but otherwise intact, we got more news from him. He, his mother, and wife had evacuated from Phoenix and were staying in New Orleans in a downtown hotel. He was in touch with Plaquemines Parish leaders and those who had stayed behind. The news was grim in some areas, more promising in others.
The levees had overtopped at one end of Plaquemines Parish: The section of the parish running from Braithwaite down to the town of Belair—about eight miles from Phoenix—was badly flooded. Two bodies had been pulled out of a house. The Army Corps of Engineers punched a hole in the back levee to allow some of the water to drain out of the towns more quickly, so that residents could come back and assess damage and try to remove personal possessions from homes.
And yet the report from Phoenix was relatively positive: There was no electrical service, no phone service, and much debris on the roads. But Phoenix had not been flooded out, nor had the towns further down the east side of Plaquemines. In a reversal of fortune, the towns that had survived Katrina seemed to be the ones that sustained the most damage during Isaac; the towns that had been destroyed by Katrina were, this time, facing relatively minor recovery efforts.
As those who know Tyronne Edwards might expect, he had already been in touch with FEMA officials and members of the White House staff, who were preparing for a visit from President Obama this coming week. He said he would be meeting with FEMA staff and helping them tour the area on Sunday. He had hope that, this time, FEMA would recognize that Plaquemines Parish was worth restoring and that federal emergency funds would be forthcoming.
Which is not to say that more help won’t be needed: Homes will have to be gutted, damage assessed, and rebuilding undertaken. Edwards has already begun to form a plan for the effort with the ministers serving the other Baptist churches in Plaquemines. They have agreed to work together to coordinate relief efforts, which they hope will be offered from many faith communities and from government and private sources. But first, there are matters of infrastructure to attend to: “The Pointe à la Hache ferry has to start running again, the phone poles and electrical poles have to be put back, the water drained out,” Tyronne said. “But we’ll do it.” Again.
Photo (top): The Rev. Tyronne Edwards stood atop a levee in Plaquemines Parish, Louisiana, on August 24, 2012, as his community awaited the arrival of Hurricane Isaac (Deborah Weiner).