© 2024 WOSU Public Media
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Bordelons: The Deaths Since Katrina Were Worse Than The Hurricane


Here's the story of how one family's life has changed since Hurricane Katrina. They are the Bordelons, a family we first met soon after the storm 10 years ago and who we simply had to meet again.

So this is Schnell Drive in Arabi, La. Straight ahead, couple of long blocks moving north to south. We're rolling rather slowly right now to avoid hitting the duck that was just crossing the street.

Arabi in is St. Bernard Parish, just down river from New Orleans. We drove through in the summer sun, passed a man mowing his lawn. The levee at the end of the street was the only side that the local water level is often higher than the ground. Dozens of brick houses, small brick houses, were built here after World War II. Many of them were destroyed after Hurricane Katrina had been torn down. You still see the concrete pads here and there are simply blank expanses of green lawn. In the more than two dozen houses that remain, though, life goes on. That includes the brick house and carport of Colleen Bordelon. We'd sent word we were coming, and she'd left the front door open for us.

Hey, there.

COLLEEN BORDELON: Hey, come on in.

INSKEEP: How are you? Good to see you. Oh, my goodness.

C. BORDELON: Would you like some coffee?

INSKEEP: Oh, goodness, I'd love some.


C. BORDELON: Here, give me a kiss.

INSKEEP: Schnell is the street of Colleen and Donald Bordelon. We first heard of them in 2005. Word was spreading about people who stayed in their house even when water filled the entire first floor. MORNING EDITION talked with the Bordelons a dozen times after the water went down because they had resolved to stay and rebuild.

This was, like, bare back to the studs the last time I saw it.

C. BORDELON: Hi, how you been doing?

INSKEEP: Now the walls are crisp and white. The kitchen is spacious. And the floors are tiled, easier to clean up should the water rise again. On the shelves are pictures of Colleen's husband. Donald died suddenly in 2010. Colleen now lives with her mother-in-law, Donna Bordelon, whose husband also died in recent years.

C. BORDELON: It's different when you don't have anybody that does everything in the house when it's just ladies. But we make it.


INSKEEP: Their house has been in the family for decades. The Bordelons owned it in 1965, when they were flooded out by Hurricane Betsy. The family fixed the house and returned. They even expanded the house. When Katrina brought another flood, the Bordelons retreated to a small, added-on second floor. They kept a boat tied up by the window. They looked down on their neighborhood, covered with water as deep as a lake.

D. BORDELON: When I saw my chairs out there, when I saw myself out floating around, I knew something was wrong down there, huh, Colleen?


D. BORDELON: They were floating. One chair landed on where?

C. BORDELON: But, Rachel and them saw us. They pulled it off the street.

D. BORDELON: They were on top of their carport. They pulled the chair out to sit on it (laughter).

INSKEEP: The Bordelons cooked canned food on a burner and waited for the flood to subside. It left a layer of silt everywhere.

D. BORDELON: Here was like that little potato chip kind of mud. The further you went, like to my brother-in-law's house, the deeper the mud got...


D. BORDELON: ...You know? Like a foot deep. Took a while for it to dry out.

INSKEEP: And as it dried, the Bordelons tore everything out of their soaked house and began restoring.

This is amazing.

D. BORDELON: Some things we were able, you know, to save, like the fireplace in there that my father-in-law built...


D. BORDELON: ...And a couple of things upstairs.

INSKEEP: The Bordelons themselves did much of the work. They renovated the house with two kitchens for two couples. They briefly feared the government would require them to raise the house on stilts against future floods, which they considered impossible. In the end, they were allowed to rebuild on the same level.

C. BORDELON: It was an experience.


D. BORDELON: Did it, done it, don't want to do it again. No, no more.

INSKEEP: (Laughter).

C. BORDELON: No more. No more. I'm too old, too old, too old.

INSKEEP: Colleen and Donna Bordelon say if the house should flood a third time, they will be gone, though it's not really the storms that got them. It's what happened since. All the men in the immediate family have died in recent years. We mentioned that Donald died, and his father died. So did Donald's brother and Donald's son.

C. BORDELON: You know, we've been through a lot. We could have made Katrina, but the deaths were bad.

INSKEEP: The deaths were worse than the storm.

C. BORDELON: Oh, I guess so. But he was happy that he got back in the house, Donald, too.

INSKEEP: Now these two women live alone in the house the men were so determined to keep. The men are in a mausoleum just a few minutes away. We decided to drive out to pay our respects and went to the Bordelon's car.


D. BORDELON: Oh, hush, Jolie, hush, hush.

WARD: Hi, puppy.

INSKEEP: That's our producer, Rachel Ward, saying hello to the dog.

C. BORDELON: We got room back here.

INSKEEP: We drove to the mausoleum that now holds the Bordelon men. We lingered beside the names and dates on the stone until Colleen and Donna decided to go.

C. BORDELON: You ready?

D. BORDELON: Yeah, I've been ready.



INSKEEP: Thank you for coming out on a hot day.


INSKEEP: On the way there and back, we saw St. Bernard Parish 10 years after Katrina. In places, there's a new or renovated house. In other places, we saw green lawns, spaces that make you think.

C. BORDELON: All this was houses along here.

D. BORDELON: Where we see like a empty spot, it was a house.

INSKEEP: We did find life between the green spaces. And tomorrow on MORNING EDITION, we visit some of the other homes on the Bordelon street. On that one short street, we saw vast changes along with intense reminders of the past. Those reminders come easily to the Bordelons.

D. BORDELON: Colleen, did you tell them about the nice lady and man that came by the house?

C. BORDELON: Oh, yeah.

D. BORDELON: You've got to hear this.

INSKEEP: Indeed we did. Remember, Colleen Bordelon was on this program years ago as her home was flooded and then restored as the men in her life struggled and died. People listened and remembered and reached out.

C. BORDELON: A couple used to listen to your show. They happened to decide to come to New Orleans for vacation, and they just had to stop and meet me.

INSKEEP: (Laughter).

D. BORDELON: And brought her a bouquet of flowers. They got a cab out here. They came in and talked to me, and I told them where Colleen was. They went. They took our - our Lord only knows what the cab cost. But I mean, they just had to see if - they just wanted to see if she was OK.

INSKEEP: Oh, my goodness.

D. BORDELON: Isn't that nice?

INSKEEP: The visitors from New York took a photo. The picture shows the husband giving Colleen a hug. They're both smiling. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.