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St. Bernard Parish--Disaster Impact and Needs Assessment

Hurricane Katrina was one of the most intense hurricanes ever recorded during the Atlantic hurricane season. This storm had a massive impact on the people, physical landscape, and economy of the Gulf Coast region, affecting 1.5 million people residing in a 90,000 square mile area from Texas to Alabama. 

St. Bernard Parish was one of the most severely impacted parishes in Louisiana by Hurricane Katrina. One month later, Hurricane Rita’s storm surge inflicted additional damage on the weakened levee system, re-flooding areas of the parish despite making landfall near the Texas-Louisiana border. As a result of the devastating storm surge and extensive flooding, nearly every aspect of life within the parish was affected. Due to the size and scale of the disaster, the long-term impacts from the damage continue to emerge and further information will help define these impacts as they become available. Long-term recovery is underway but has only partially begun as of April 2006. The following information serves as an initial resource to reveal the overall disaster impacts and resulting needs for permanent, long-term recovery of the community. 

Housing and Community Development

Prior to Katrina, there were approximately 25,123[1] occupied housing units in St. Bernard Parish, consisting mostly of single family homes and apartments. Although most of the houses were constructed from the 1940s to the 1980s (23,010 or 85%, according to the 2000 U.S. Census), there were approximately 3,110 new houses or apartments built since 1990[2]. About three-quarters of residents owned their own homes as housing was generally affordable within the parish; in the 20 months before Katrina struck, three quarters of the single family homes sold for less than $100,000, while nearly eighty percent sold for less than $125,000[3].

The entire housing stock of the parish was submerged under storm water (some areas for nearly three weeks) and is heavily damaged. Many homes in the parish are damaged beyond repair and may need to be demolished. Nearly all houses need complete removal of interior floor/wall/ceiling finishes[4]. Most structures outside the hurricane levee protection systems have been entirely destroyed and removed by the storm surge, estimated to be between 20 to 30 feet[5].

Approximately 20,247 of the occupied units within the parish received some level of damage (minor, major, or severe). This number represents over 80% of the pre-disaster housing stock. Nearly 78% (19,686) sustained major or severe damage. By contrast 561 units, or 2% of the existing housing stock, received minor damage[6].

A critical issue related to housing recovery is how to maintain the level of affordability that existed prior to the disaster. Housing costs were modest before the disaster and there will be numerous challenges to building an affordable selection of housing options for residents, and extensive subsidies may be necessary. A series of post-disaster factors exist that may impact the cost of housing: a lack of building materials, certified contractors, increased coast of compliance (measures taken to elevate and flood proof homes), and new building code requirements. Current estimates indicate that post-disaster building costs could range from $80-$100 per square foot, presenting challenges to building houses that are suitable for families at prices that St. Bernard Parish residents can afford[7]. Restoration of an affordable housing stock is fundamental to the short and long-term recovery of St. Bernard Parish.

The damages to St. Bernard Parish’s housing stock were widespread and comprehensive, impacting virtually every available structure and leaving the parish uninhabitable. As a result, Hurricane Katrina’s impacts on housing will be felt for years to come by the citizens of St. Bernard Parish.

Population and Impacts

In response to the storm’s threat, nearly every citizen in the parish was forced to evacuate and less than eight percent have returned (estimated to be 5,612 of 67,419 as of March 2006)[8]. Most of those who have returned to the parish live in trailers, and more permanent solutions need to be implemented.

Although many residents are still displaced, there is still a relatively high level of community involvement in the day-to-day activities within the parish. The St. Bernard Parish Council adopted a resolution establishing the St. Bernard Citizen’s Recovery Committee (CRC) as an ad hoc citizen action committee. The goal of the committee is to advise the St. Bernard Parish Council on the adoption of a long term community recovery plan in response to the devastation caused by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

Flood Recovery Guidance

An Advisory Base Flood Elevation (ABFE) for St. Bernard Parish was issued by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) in April 2006. Assessing flood hazards in St. Bernard Parish and the surrounding areas is challenging due to the existence of numerous flood control facilities. These facilities experienced damage of varying degrees throughout southeastern Louisiana as a result of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) is on an aggressive path to repair and improve the flood control system. The USACE is on schedule to have repairs to damaged areas completed by June 2006, to have all federal levees constructed to authorized heights by September 2007, and to have fully authorized levels of protection and improvements to the system completed by 2010. Although USACE improvements to the flood control system will make St. Bernard Parish safer than it was before the storms, they will not eliminate the potential for flooding. In fact, based on analyses recently completed by the USACE, the flood control system will not meet the standards necessary for providing protection against the 1% annual chance (100-year) flood, which is also referred to as the base flood. The National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) uses the base flood as the standard for floodplain management.

FEMA and the USACE have worked together to develop flood hazard data and formulate recommendations to be considered by State and local governments as they begin to make recovery decisions. For areas in the parish located within the existing levees, FEMA has determined that eventual levee certification is likely. FEMA recommends the following: new construction and substantially damaged homes and businesses within a designated FEMA floodplain should be elevated to either the Base Flood Elevation (BFE) shown on the current effective Flood Insurance Rate Map (FIRM) or at least three feet above the highest adjacent existing ground elevation at the building site, whichever is higher; and new construction and substantially damaged homes and businesses not located in a designated FEMA floodplain should be elevated at least three feet above the highest adjacent existing ground elevation at the building site.

In addition to the recent USACE storm surge modeling, FEMA has also developed these recommendations based on the height and integrity of the levee system expected to be in place by September 2007. Although FEMA is confident in the results of this current assessment, the agency will continue to monitor progress made with regard to levee improvements, findings from other ongoing studies, and enhancements to the agency’s understanding of the probability of flooding in this area, FEMA will adjust the recommended flood elevations as necessary as the agency prepares updated FIRMs for St. Bernard Parish.

A FEMA coastal study of hurricane storm surge flooding and levee flood protection is already underway at the USACE, and FEMA intends to have an updated preliminary Flood Insurance Study (FIS) and updated FIRMs for coastal areas as soon as possible.

Although the information provided is advisory, communities should consider its use for rebuilding in a safe manner. For additional information, community officials, residents, and other interested parties can access the FEMA website for these flood recovery advisories here

Economic and Workforce Development

According to the 2000 U.S. Census, there were approximately 3,498 businesses in St. Bernard prior to the disaster, with approximately 30,000 employees 16 or older. The largest concentrations of workers were in the sales and office occupations or management/professional or related occupations (31% and 24% respectively). The rest of the workforce was almost split equally between construction, material moving or service occupations.

Virtually all businesses in the parish were forced to close as a result of the flooding from the hurricanes and the damage sustained to buildings and utilities. Larger industries have used their own resources to reopen, but few retail businesses have due to a lack of resources to replace damaged equipment. Others are awaiting loans or insurance settlements. The few businesses that have re-opened, mostly banks and small eating establishments, are operating out of mobile trailers because of damage to their buildings. Others, especially professional services like physicians and lawyers have temporarily relocated to other cities to re-establish their practices. Home Depot reopened at the end of February 2006 and remains the only large commercial business open in the parish. As of March 2006, an estimated 110 businesses, less than 10% of the pre-disaster total, have resumed operation. However, more than 500 businesses have notified the St. Bernard Parish website that they would like to return and reopen within the parish.

As of the 2000 U.S. Census, St. Bernard Parish had a pre-disaster unemployment rate of 3.4%, which at the time was lower than state and national levels. Post-disaster unemployment statistics are not currently available on a parish level, but unemployment for the five parish New Orleans metropolitan area now stands at approximately 8.2 percent, up more than 41 percent over pre-disaster levels.

Environmental Management

Given the extensive flooding throughout St. Bernard Parish, the local environment was impacted not only by salt water but chemicals found in the floodwaters. The interior landscape of the parish was impacted by the floodwaters, damaging 100% of bed plantings and approximately 50% of trees and bushes in all public open spaces. The widespread loss of vegetation underscores the physical damage to structures and serves as a reminder of the disaster’s overall impact; every aspect of life within St. Bernard Parish was altered as a result of Hurricane Katrina. 

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality (LDEQ) conducted water and soil samples after the disaster to determine if there were contaminants present that might pose a risk to residents or to the environment. In general, the sediment/soil testing results show little to no health risk in the areas beyond the area contaminated by the Murphy Oil Refinery spill.

During the flooding after Katrina, an oil storage tanker at the Murphy Oil Refinery ruptured and leaked benzene and other toxic chemicals in the Chalmette area of St. Bernard Parish. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Public Health Service, the storm surge lifted and dislodged an above ground oil storage tank, releasing approximately 25,000 barrels of oil. The released oil has impacted approximately 1,800 homes and a yet undetermined number of other structures in adjacent neighborhoods, an area of approximately one square mile. Environmental issues are a significant factor for residents as they decide whether or not to return. An extensive environmental review and assessment is needed to determine the extent of the impact the oil spill had on the surrounding area and how that may impact redevelopment.

Debris Removal

The St. Bernard Parish Council implemented three programs designed to increase debris removal activity and assist residents with recovery: Operation Katrina Demolition, Operation Katrina Debris Removal, and Operation Katrina Home Recovery. These programs have been in place since January 2006[9].

St. Bernard Parish is managing their debris removal from the public rights of way and some residential neighborhoods through an independent contract and estimates that over one million cubic yards of debris have been removed as of April 2006. Residents were asked to sign a Right of Entry for Debris Removal from private property and encouraged to separate electronic debris and household cleaning supplies, fuels, fuel containers, or other hazardous contents from general household debris. As of March 2006, over 1,000 homes have been had contents removed.

Flood Protection and Coastal Restoration

Adequate flood protection was the top priority identified by residents across the state during Louisiana Planning Day, a statewide public input effort that also took place in over a dozen cities housing evacuees nationwide. 

Barrier islands, natural ridges and land bridges in the coastal wetlands – all critical components of St. Bernard’s natural defense system –were severely damaged by Katrina.  Between Fall 2004 (last USGS interpreted map) and mid-October 2006, 19 square miles of coastal wetlands were lost in St. Bernard[10]. Preliminary analysis of satellite imagery by the Louisiana State University Coastal Studies Institute indicated that Hurricanes Katrina and Rita caused heavy damage to the marshes south and east of Lake Borgne in St. Bernard Parish. This land loss potentially reduces St. Bernard Parish’s natural protection from future storms and early indications from the United States Geological Survey National Wetlands Research Center  are that much of the loss may indeed be permanent. Despite these initial observations, it is too early to determine the full extent of marsh damage caused by the storm.  

Other highlights of damages sustained include:

·          Lake Borgne has joined the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet (MR-GO) and expanded the channel hundreds of feet.

·          Central marsh areas, mostly fresh and intermediate marshes from Bayou Bienvenue near Parish Road (Hwy. 47) to the area north of the town of Violet were submerged and in some areas reduced to open water.

·          Central marsh areas in the vicinity of Lake Leary south of the 40 Arpent Levee in lower St. Bernard and also in adjacent Plaquemines Parish were reduced to linear mud flats or shallow ponds by retreating storm water.  This area accounted for a very high percentage of the 19 square miles of coastal wetlands lost post Katrina/Rita.

·          The Biloxi marsh areas, mostly intermediate to brackish marsh, particularly the marsh rims that faced Mississippi Sound and Breton Sound, were reduced to bare mud flats. 

·          The Chandelier Islands, once a significant coastal buffer and the first areas in St. Bernard to experience hurricane surge from the Gulf of Mexico, have been reduced to an area of very small islands rising slightly above a sandy shoal.  Portions of these islands had been restored and planted over the years; however, Hurricane Katrina erased virtually all of these efforts.

Transportation and Infrastructure

The parish infrastructure suffered severe damage from the force and weight of the water, from debris, and from the corresponding cleanup efforts. Until essential services are restored, residents are unable to safely return in any numbers.

Roadways and Bridges

The road system in St. Bernard Parish was flooded and some areas were submerged for approximately three weeks, sustaining an unspecific amount of physical damage. Many of the roadways appear undamaged and thus appear as though no permanent repairs are needed. The physical and structural damages to the roads caused by the flooding have been compounded as heavy military vehicles and debris removal trucks pass through the streets during the recovery effort. The additional stresses, contribute to shortened road life and pavement failures and an in-depth analysis of all parish roadways and bridges should be conducted as the extent of damage has not been fully assessed. The parish government reports that most roads have been cleared of debris and all major bridges are functioning; however, streetlights and stoplights along most streets (including significant sections of major highways) are not operational as of March 2006.

Water Treatment

Hurricane Katrina completely flooded the two St. Bernard Parish water treatment facilities and piping system, including the operations building; damaging records, wiring and controls. Each facility was capable of pumping six (6) million gallons of water per day. Prior to the disaster, the major industrial operations within the parish used 45% of the potable water produced (approximately 5,400,000 gallons). As of March 2006, the parish has restored only one water treatment plant and has restored water service to most of the parish (approximately 85% according to the Sewer and Water Board), but damage to underground pipes and fire hydrants was significant and an extensive analysis will need to be conducted to determine the full extent of the damages. The parish has resumed reading water meters, which will provide information regarding current water usage. It is likely that the one facility in operation lacks the capacity to serve both the returning population and the demands of major industrial users.

In addition to the needs of a returning population, the parish must increase its water capacity to comply with anticipated stricter water quality rules from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Extensive repairs and improvements will be needed to conform to those rules.


The eight (8) sewer treatment plants (in addition to 89 of 92 pumping stations) were severely damaged as a result of the storms and approximately 5 percent of pre-hurricane capacity has been restored as of March 2006, according to the parish Sewage and Water Board. Container trucks are being used to drain the system and transport sewage to the plant for treatment. This temporary operation enables the residents currently living in the parish to have limited sewer treatment service; however, system will not be able to handle a large increase in population without extensive repairs.


The St. Bernard Port, Harbor and Terminal District is the region’s only Mississippi River port that includes and Industrial Park and the services of a deepwater port. More than 50 companies employing more than 1,000 workers operated at the port prior to the disaster. It sustained significant water and wind damage and limited commercial operations have resumed. The Port functioned as a staging area for emergency operations in St. Bernard Parish after the disaster. The Port continues is reconstruction efforts and indicates nearly 95% of all port tenants have expressed interest in returning. 

Prior to Hurricane Katrina, the EPA was working with the parish government to improve water quality standards. The parish issued a $50 million bond in 2004 to make improvements to the sewer and water plants; these improvements were not implemented. The parish is currently considering a plan to consolidate all waste water treatment plant facilities and operations into one renovated plant. This is due to projected redefined land use patterns as the community rebuilds.


Utilities are in the process of being restored and will require extensive repairs to reach pre-disaster levels. The private energy provider has indicated that, as of April 2006, all residents had access to electrical power. Many areas of the parish have natural gas restored. However, there are some areas outside of the levee protection where gas service may not be restored due to extensive damage to the pipe system.

It is estimated that between 25% and 40% of the communication system has reached pre-disaster operability, however over half of the parish is still without land line phone service as of April 2006. Cable internet service, provided by Cox Communications, has yet to be restored to much of St. Bernard Parish[11].

Human Services

With over 91% of its population of 67,419 displaced and most of its housing destroyed, the St. Bernard Parish government faces challenges as it moves forward with recovery. Parish governmental departments are operating with 40% less staff because personnel did not or could not return.  The St. Bernard Parish Assessor indicates that the 2005 property tax assessment was recently completed (March 2005), and estimates a loss of 25% in tax revenue. This could create a potential shortfall for essential community services and government functions. Consequently, parish capacity to guide the recovery efforts, prepare and administer grants and implement recovery projects is limited.


Pre-Katrina, there were seventeen (17) elementary, middle and secondary schools in St. Bernard Parish along with a special education facility educating approximately 8,800 students in total. There were seven (7) private and parochial schools as well, providing an alternative education opportunity for students not attending public school. Two (2) schools, Andrew Jackson High Fundamental Magnet School and St. Claude Heights Elementary School provided day care after school.

All levels of education were affected by Hurricane Katrina. The St. Bernard Parish School System suffered extensive damage to its schools and related facilities. All buildings suffered flooding and were unusable in the aftermath of the storm. In all, fifteen schools and six additional facilities were severely damaged or destroyed. This number includes at least four schools that have been identified for demolition, with the possibility of two more, pending structural assessments.

The Parish School Board opened the St. Bernard Unified School at the site of Chalmette High School November 14, 2005, educating approximately 334 pre-kindergarten through 12th grade students. The School Board estimated a March 2006 enrollment of 2,056 students, with 150 employees returning to work. The second floor of Chalmette High School (which received less severe damage) and mobile trailers are being used to accommodate the current school population.

The School District has identified a preliminary plan for rebuilding damaged school buildings and facilities. This plan acknowledges the challenges of a post-disaster environment of diminished population and limited financial resources, calling for centralized pre and high school areas, and strategically placed K-8 schools based on enrollment demands and neighborhood rebuilding patterns.

Sports and other traditional after school programs are currently being offered and there are plans for a summer program to accommodate current and returning students. Additionally, the school is offering an extended day program with recreational and educational offerings. 

Prior to the storm, Elaine P. Nunez Community College offered a wide range of technical and employment related training programs (e.g. computer science, welding, refrigeration, machinist, as well as allied health, clerical and other occupational fields) to an enrollment of 2,350 students and adult residents of the parish. Despite sustaining significant damage, Spring 2006 classes are being held in temporary facilities and through online course offerings with 750 students enrolled.

Health and Health Care

The storm destroyed Chalmette Medical Center, St. Bernard’s only comprehensive care facility and the owners have stated they will not reopen. The number of available hospital beds decreased from 240 to 0. The hospital staff that once consisted of 150 physicians now consists of three volunteer medical personnel. Likewise, mental health, dental and pharmacy services are no longer available, losing offices and accompanying medical records.

As of April 2006, there are limited medical services available in St. Bernard Parish. The St. Bernard Health Center, a 22,000 square foot prefabricated temporary facility is scheduled to open in May. This health center is financially supported by FEMA and Chalmette Refining and operated by the Franciscan Missionaries of Our Lady health System, and Ascension Health.

It is important to the residents of St. Bernard Parish that there are adequate general medical facilities and complete healthcare options within range before they return. The ability to treat the injuries and illnesses that will appear as the population returns will play a significant role in supporting the pace of the recovery effort. 

Overall devastation to the health care system in neighboring Orleans and Plaquemines Parishes included massive loss of hospital beds, the Gulf Coast’s Level 1 trauma center (Charity Hospital), adult and child psychiatric beds, safety net clinics, private sector physicians, pharmacies, dental services and behavioral health services. It is therefore apparent that access to healthcare presents an immediate challenge to the current and future needs of first responders within the parish and the returning displaced citizenry.

Public Safety

The existing office of the St. Bernard Sheriff’s Department was condemned after the storm and all public safety facilities were damaged by the flooding.  The sheriff’s department reported that there were close to four hundred (400) employees prior to the storm and has experienced a significant reduction in both staff and equipment . Due to limited resources, some departments have had to be consolidated, yet despite these challenges; the sheriff’s department has maintained its regular functions for the community. 

The St. Bernard Parish Fire Department suffered similar personnel and equipment losses and is currently operating out of a damaged building and a temporary station in a group trailer site. As of April 2006, there are approximately one hundred (100) active firefighters and the department has use of 6 fire apparatus, 2 squad units, 1 tanker and 1 mini pump. The United States Forestry Agency is assisting by supplying manpower and vehicles. The Chief of the Fire Department estimates that the department fire fighting capability is currently 45% of pre-Katrina levels. The department received seven (7) mobile homes that they are using as temporary fire stations, strategically placed throughout the parish. A large percentage of equipment for the Sheriff and Fire Departments was destroyed and any delay in replacing these items will hamper the ability to provide adequate protection.  

Prior to Katrina, there were seven (7) ambulances available to the Emergency Medical Service. There are currently four (4) stationed at locations throughout the parish, being operated by volunteers. Although only 57% of normal service has returned, it is sufficient to support the current population at this time. A potential communication challenge exists because there is no functioning 911 emergency system, causing the fire, police and EMS departments to use radios as temporary solution. 
When viewed in conjunction with the severe lack of healthcare service access in the vicinity, limited financial and equipment resources, the lack of a functioning 911 emergency system, and the growing number of returning residents, the public safety of the residents of St. Bernard Parish could be at risk and emergency response entities within the parish will be challenged to meet the needs of the community.


1) U.S. Census Bureau, 2000 Census
2) U.S. Census Bureau (1990 and 2000 annual building permit census)
3) Housing price data from Multiple Listing Service
4) Volunteer, non-profit and student organizations in addition to the parish’s own “Neighbor to Neighbor” house gutting program have attempted to address the severe lack of labor and resources needed to accomplish the task.
5) 2005 Louisiana Hurricane Impact Atlas. Louisiana Geographic Information Center.
6) The Office of the Federal Coordinator for Gulf Coast Rebuilding, in cooperation with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the Small Business Administration (SBA), and the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). Click here for a copy of the full report.
7) The 2000 U.S. Census indicates 8,687 (13.1%) individuals were below the poverty level. This number is slightly higher than the national average of 12.4%.
8) Estimate taken from Interim Recovery Plan for St. Bernard Parish conducted by Taimerica Management Company.
9) For more information regarding these programs, please visit the St. Bernard Parish Government website.
10) USGS, National Wetlands Research Center, February 12, 2006, “Water Area Changes in Southeastern Louisiana after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita”
11) Please click here  or here for the latest information on repairs.
12) The Sheriff’s Department estimated 170 employees as of March 2006.

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