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Katrina scattered members of Louisiana fishing community

DELACROIX ISLAND, La.—Joe Garcia remembers a day 60 years ago when he joined other kids who flocked to a neighbor's house to see the latest technological miracle: a kitchen pilot light.

"Mrs. Morales lit her stove without a match. Oh man, we couldn't believe it," the 74-year-old Garcia said.

Memories are about all that's left in this coastal area of fishing villages in battered St. Bernard Parish, just east of New Orleans. The villages were at the center of Hurricane Katrina's worst destruction. All homes and businesses were smashed, flooded or simply washed away. Only a handful of the parish's 68,000 residents remain, living in a small number of government-provided trailers.

Most residents here are Islenos, or islanders. They descended from fishermen from the Canary Islands, off Spain, who migrated to Delacroix and other nearby islands more than 200 years ago because of the rich shrimp- and crab-fishing grounds. The Isleno (is-LANE-yo) bond, Garcia and others said, is key to yet another post-hurricane cultural revival, although none could remember coming back from a worse storm.

"I think it'll hang on. It may even strengthen our culture because it's now so close to the bottom of the barrel," Donald Serpas said. "The Islenos are the guts of the parish. We'll come back."

On Aug. 29 when the hurricane hit, Serpas, 64, and seven family members scrambled upstairs in their 120-year-old home when the first storm surge ever to hit their property swamped vehicles and the ground floor. It was three days before they could evacuate by boat.

Janet Estavez, who's fished for shrimp with her husband, David Estavez Sr., for 35 years, sat in the stern of their docked vessel Princess Andi last week and surveyed the wrecked shoreline. She remembered a festive Sunday in August when dozens of flag-festooned fishing boats paraded up and down the inlet during the annual Blessing of the Shrimp Fleet.

While local Roman Catholic clergymen conferred the blessing, she said, gowned Louisiana seafood queens stood in a line nearby, wearing tiaras decorated with silver shrimp, crabs, redfish and sea trout.

"It's a peaceful place, basically crime-free. We say we are in our own little cocoon," Estavez said.

"As far as not coming back, no way," she said, "This is home. We're coming back. It may take awhile."

The couple's boat survived—it was moved before the hurricane to a more protected canal—but was stranded for six weeks by debris blocking a channel. Estavez said the fishing was still good.

As parish president, Junior Rodriguez is the Isleno with perhaps the best fix on a cultural and physical recovery. He's the highest elected local official, akin to a mayor. He's visited the Canary Islands twice, the last time with family members.

"The most that remains out of this thing is memories," he said. "The mementos of a generation are gone. Washed away. But we will return."

Rodriguez now lives in a trailer near the emergency government center in Chalmette. He estimated that 35 percent of the parish's former population will return in about 18 months. In five to 10 years, he said, half the people will be back.

"It's never going to be the same as it was," he said. "Hurricanes have always changed things. We've never had anything of this magnitude. We don't even have dental records to identity people in the parish who died. The water took everything."

Garcia, who remembered the wonder of a kitchen pilot light, grew up amid the Delacroix Island fishing industry, although he later had a career in local government.

During an interview aboard the cruise ship-like European ferry boat Scotia Prince_ brought in by government officials to house area residents, especially emergency personnel—he said the importance of memory couldn't be overestimated.

"It's what holds the people together," he said, before settling back in a chair in a small dining area on the ship docked just south of the tiny village of Violet.

"I can remember when the big blocks of ice to cool the shrimp had to be shaved, and that was work," he said. "You don't know how big a deal it was when crushed ice arrived. That was something."

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): STORMS-ISLANDERS

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