RESERVE TO NORCO (ST. CHARLES PARISH)
We thought the levee trail would be paved the whole way to New Orleans from here, but there was still a good bit of gravel to navigate. As we approached the Bonnet Carré Spillway, we found that the road on the back side was closed to through traffic. I ignored the road closed signs and ran the two mile stretch to the Corps of Engineers station at the far end of the spillway.
Now the road is greatly damaged from the spillway opening earlier this year, and “running” this two miles turned into quite a trek. Full sections of concrete had sunk into the earth, broken off from other concrete walls I had to scale. I truly tested my long jump skills as well, some areas entirely impassable. We were later told this section of road won’t be repaired for some time.
Once at the Corps of Engineers Office, we met Paul “Pops” Leto and Sharon Nieves just inside. Sharon was born in New York but raised in Puerto Rico. She felt that a local voice would be more appropriate for our project, so she invited Pops to share his story. He was born in New Orleans and lived there until age 9. He lives in Jefferson Parish now—in an area of Metairie called Bucktown. He says that it’s just three blocks away from where one of the levees broke during Hurricane Katrina. “Mother Nature, you can’t fool,” says Pops.
Pops is a fisherman and a hunter and knows that when they open the spillway, it can impact a lot of people. According to Pops, the fisherman say it hurts the fishing and the crabbing in the lake. They say they are having a lot of algae blooms from the opening of the Mississippi River, filtering through Lake Pontchartrain and Lake Borgne. But, he continues, “the fisherman are in for a big surprise in the next, maybe less than the next fifty years—they ain’t gonna have no coast.”
Pops feels we have to look back at life before the levees, that the river is the cause of so much of the land around here before the levees existed. Perhaps opening the spillway is circling back to life with no levees, is that what he’s suggesting? I’m not sure. What I am sure of is that Pops feels that the spillway opening cleanses Lake Pontchartrain, despite a host of folks feeling otherwise. He also feels like the complaints of the fisherman are in vain since we are in a time when the industry will soon vanish—“the Gulf of Mexico is gonna be on the other side of Lake Pontchartrain” soon enough, says Pops.
Now to be sure, Pops does not work for the Army Corps of Engineers. He’s retired from working as a construction foreman for Winn Dixie and other companies, and now he spends a lot of his time over here at the Spillway office, at the game reserves, fishing in the marsh. He likes to visit with the folks getting their permits to fish and hunt out in the floodway as well, and he still goes crawfishing with his granddaughters. His wife died six years ago, so it seems like the Spillway and the people in and out have become his family and that’s why he is their “Pops.”
People like Pops, who make their lives in the land and the water every day, all their days, some might say they know more than the professionals. I’d say they know something from deep in the marsh that can help all of us understand the story of what has happened and what is currently coming undone.
Later that day we went back along River Road to the Destrehan Plantation. We pulled up in the parking lot outside the gift shop with a few minutes to spare, taking this time to camp out on a picnic table under a large oak tree and get a quick bite. Our picnicking skills have advanced over these many days—today’s feast including some leftover jambalaya, sausage, cheese from the event in Baton Rouge, tortilla chips and some spicy salsa that has been riding along in our cooler for the past couple of weeks. We went into the gift shop and met with Tracy and Paula (husband and wife), Executive Director and Manager of the site.
Also there to join us were some of Paula’s mother Josie and her sister Sadie and brother Sal. We all went to a back room to gather in a circle for a conversation and went around the room for introductions. Most everyone there, excepting Tom and I of course, were from Norco. Although Tracy is from Kenner, just a few miles down the road and actually our next stop on the Relay. His grandparents lived right on the river with their house backing up on the levee, and now he’s moved just up the River Road to Munce where he lives along the levee again, he said.
Paula’s family are the DiGirardeaus hailing from Gibolina, Sicily near Palermo. They had a big family association with their neighborhood growing up in Norco. Apparently “mom wished someone would move away so she could visit,” they said. But Tracy said this was typical not just of the DiGirardeaus, but of many families thanks to the refineries keeping so many people employed over the years.
The Destrehan Plantation, where we were meeting, was actually itself once used as a refinery. The property and the house were first Pan Am which became Amoco which is now BP. Until 1958 there was a refinery operating on the property utilizing the house and some of the other original buildings, but after it closed it sat idle for 10 years. Then the River Road Historical Society was created in 1968 and after Amoco donated the house along with 3.5 acres to the Society followed by a three year renovation process, the Society began doing tours. Now and for the past fifty years, Destrehan has grown to thirty acres with many more buildings as part of the mission to recover other buildings from River Road plantations and bring them to Destrehan, restore them, and open them to the public.
The River Road is still an integral part of life in Norco and throughout the River Parishes. The road and the levees define the community—past and present. People used to be more connected to the river, Sal said. Everyone had shrimp boxes to catch river shrimp, but everyone was also scared of the river. Sal remembers people walking the levee during high water with guns to prevent someone from breaching a levee, to protect land on the opposite side of the river.
FDR visited Norco for the spillway opening—an event that was remembered by all even though they were quite young. The spillway was a new deal project completed in the late 30s. It’s gone unchanged, untouched really since then, such that it is on the National Register of Historic Places.
As for life in Norco and St. Charles Parish today, Paula and Tracy testified that they’ve got the best school system in the state and there’s not much crime—kids can go out on the streets. Not only that, but people who move away always come back. Paula isn’t even lured in by proximity to New Orleans. In fact, she stops short of the Big Easy and shops only in Metairie and Kenner.
These folks have lots of stories, stories of skiing in the spillway, alligators, persimmons and maypops (and I’m not sure what that is?!), squatters in the spillway—Murphy the squatter!, cows! cows! and more cows! in the spillway as well, parachuting home from the war, and a high school homecoming queen some eighty years later lauded on the football field once again… the stories. I just can’t fit them all in, but I’m thankful for having heard them all. Hoping we’ve shared enough….