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Last modified: Monday, December 5, 2005

Their Chalmette home in shambles, the Ohler family wearies of camping out

Dec. 5, 2005

The Ohlers' house in Chalmette, like many houses in St. Bernard Parish, suffered severe damage from Hurricane Katrina. Photo by Ashley P. Wilkerson

Print-Quality Photo

Editors: Katrina recovery stories and photographs by IU School of Journalism students also are being distirbuted today and are available for one-time use in newspapers and at media Web sites without charge. Photographs for these stories, along with a general file of other pictures, are available at

The students retain their copyright to the stories and photos. Before publication, please e-mail Professor Carol Polsgrove at to express your understanding that the writers and photographers retain their copyright. The writers and photographers would appreciate having clips of their published work, which can be sent to Carol Polsgrove, School of Journalism, Indiana University, Ernie Pyle Hall, Bloomington, IN 47405. All of the stories can be found at


By Sarah Core

WIGGINS, Miss. -- With the sun bouncing off the water, the 600-acre Flint Creek Reservoir looks like the idyllic setting for a calm, relaxing vacation.

The Ohler family always thought so, too. That's why its members came here in September, when they were told that floodwaters had made St. Bernard's Parish, their lifelong home, inhabitable. But camping out on a permanent basis is taking its toll on the family.

"We used to have real lives," jokes Donna Ohler, 47, showing off her hurricane survival gear, namely a set of rubber shoes called "crocs" that her family has taken to wearing around the Flint Creek Water Park campsite.

A short, spirited blonde woman, Donna was, until recently, an administrative assistant at Children's Hospital in New Orleans. The key phrase is "until recently." Since Aug. 29, when floodwater filled Chalmette, La., a New Orleans suburb located in St. Bernard Parish, nothing has been the same.

St. Bernard Parish rests on a peninsula surrounded by the Mississippi River, which swings around the west and to the south, and to the north by the Forty Arpent Canal, the Bayou Bienvenue and the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet. The MRGO -- called "MisterGo" by the locals -- has created a salt marsh in the northern part of the parish where once a thick cypress swamp existed.

When Hurricane Katrina's eye passed over St. Bernard Parish, some property damage occurred. But it was the broken levees and a 20-foot surge that destroyed the rest of the area with flooding, causing up to 8 feet of water in places like Chalmette, where the watermark on the Ohlers' house is a few inches from the ceiling. The salt water quickly ate into anything wooden, and because the stagnant, oil-filled, muddy water didn't recede for at least three weeks, the whole parish has become a toxic wasteland. For the 70,000 residents who once lived there, going back is sometimes too hard to do.

"I have to maintain my sense of faith and sense of humor to survive this," Donna explains, her warm features serious in the afternoon light filtering down through the thin layer of pine trees. "We were lucky."

For Donna, lucky means that everyone in her family survived, and that she got out of the county with an entire box of belongings. Lucky means that while her once pleasant ranch house back in St. Bernard is coated in thick mud and mold spores as big as the palm of a hand, she has a future.

She and her husband Mike, 50, own land in Picayune, Miss., and plan on building a house there. But it's going to take time, and as the days quickly grow colder and their FEMA camper grows smaller, Donna and her family are still in limbo.

The campsite in Flint Creek Water Park is a beautiful place to visit, and Donna enjoys having her family close by. She and Mike live in a camper given to them by FEMA. Their children, Tara and Ryan, share another two doors down with a family friend, Tim Huff.

But days are tough, because even though the Ohlers own land, contractors cannot be found, and those Donna and Mike have spoken with estimate it will be a year and a half before they can start building.

Donna counts off four other trailers in the area where close friends from their camping group and relatives are staying. Having a St. Bernard Parish group in miniature is comforting, she says, because everyone is going through the same process and understands the pain of losing an entire lifetime of accumulated belongings.

Donna's daughter, Tara, 24, a nurse at Children's Hospital, is less upset about losing material things than about the life she used to lead. She, along with her family, had to relocate two hours away from Louisiana, making it nearly impossible to continue working without sacrificing the comfort of being with her family. When you've lost everything, the only thing left to hold onto is each other.

"I miss the sanity, the money, the security," Tara says. "I miss the kids at work. I fell in love with the kids."

Her brother Ryan, 25, misses his job the most. "Being out of work so long, that's probably the worst part of it," he says. He was a clerk on the Mississippi River, and just a few months away from full health care coverage. Now he and his family spend their days on the phone and Internet calling insurance and credit card companies and pursuing job opportunities, trying to piece together a new life.

"We used to say all the time when we'd come out here camping 'this is the life'," says Tara. "Careful what you wish for," she adds wryly.

"We're regular, everyday people," Donna says. "We need to work." Mike, an operator at Tampa Electric, is the only one still with a job, living every other week for seven days straight in Louisiana. On his off-days he comes back to the Flint Creek campsite or spends time rooting through the growing mold in his house in St. Bernard to find more items.

"It looks like somebody put a bomb off with mud," he says, trying to describe the stricken parish. "There's nothing down there. No food, no electricity." His voice falls off, because words cannot even begin to encompass the full extent of the damage.

"When you're driving through you realize that it's not just your house and your friend's house," explains Tim. "It's the entire city you grew up in."

"To think that we used to live here and woke up every morning and had a normal life," Tara adds, watching a home movie of the destruction of St. Bernard, videotaped in October on a trip back to the parish in an attempt to salvage some personal belongings.

"No matter how many times you go back it's still depressing," adds Tim.

The Ohlers remain hopeful that soon they will be able to get on with their lives. "I'm going to just keep moving forward and make the best of it. That's the deal. Those are the cards," Donna says.

"We're in survival mode," she adds. "And we're going to stay in survival mode. It's just an odd feeling.

Sarah Core is a graduate student in journalism from Washington, Pa.