Sunday, July 01, 2007

A new life post-Katrina ...

By Becky Bohrer, Associated Press, via the Philadelphia Inquirer:

For New Orleans families displaced by Hurricane Katrina, the streets are quieter 150 miles away, in Simmesport, La.

SIMMESPORT, La. - When her husband first told her about Canadaville, Dawn Charbonneau worried it might be a cult.

A place in the country, built by a Canadian industrialist, where hurricane-displaced families could live rent-free if they followed the rules. It sounded too good to be true.

Yet she was taken with Canadaville, a sprawling property where squirrels scurry in open fields and the songs of birds carry on the breeze. It was a curative tonic for the cramped FEMA trailer park where the Chabonneaus and their three children had lived after Hurricane Katrina.

The slower pace of life, uncrowded nearby schools, and corn-country peace have been good for the children, ages 5 to 13. "They can sleep at night without hearing gunshots," said Dawn Charbonneau, whose family fled both Katrina and the violence of New Orleans about 150 miles away.

Her initial reservations about Canadaville, she says, were long ago put to rest.

Canadaville, with its goats and chickens, gardens and fishing holes, is the brainchild of Frank Stronach, chairman of the Canadian auto-parts maker Magna International. After Katrina hit in August 2005, Magna sheltered hundreds of evacuees at its Palm Meadows thoroughbred-training center in Florida. But Stronach also wanted land in rural Louisiana, outside the hurricane zone, where families could start over.

"It's a hand up, not a handout," Magna spokesman Dan Donovan said.

Stronach bought 900 acres in September 2005, and Canadaville opened three months later. Total initial investment was estimated at $7.5 million.

Officially named Magnaville, the site was dubbed Canadaville as a nod to its benefactors. Canadian and U.S. flags fly side by side at the welcome center. "This is just neighbor helping neighbor," Magnaville president Dennis Mills said.

People can live at Canadaville rent-free for five years if they follow a "charter of conduct." Among other things, they must work or go to school, volunteer at least eight hours a week, participate in the community council, and stay away from drugs, project manager Shane Carmichael said.

There are after-school and tutoring programs for children, computer and job-training classes for adults, and plans to operate an organic farm. While Magna provides housing and other activities, residents do not receive cash payments.

Canadaville's population stands at about 210, mostly black and from New Orleans. More than half the original residents are still here.

Quiet, paved streets with names such as Pelican Place and Honey Bee Road wind past the 49 three-bedroom modular homes. It's a very different life for most of the former urban dwellers.

Eli Bryant sees Canadaville as a blessing, with the laid-back lifestyle and outdoors work he longed for.

For Barbara Stewart, it has been a culture shock: A Wal-Mart several towns away is the nearest major shopping venue.

The influx of Katrina evacuees also was culture shock for nearby Simmesport, a town of 2,200 where outsiders are easily spotted.

That was a big deal when plans for Canadaville were proposed, Carmichael said. Some Simmesport residents worried murderers and rapists would be coming to their town, he said, alluding to reports of violence in New Orleans after Katrina.

So Magna pledged to buy patrol cars for the Simmesport police, pay for three more police officers for five years, and build a sports complex and a recreation center that would double as an evacuation center.

Though there is still some friction between town and Canadaville, Carmichael said he hoped the relationship could mend.

Many in town have welcomed Canadaville residents, and the dollars they spend on groceries and at general stores. Some have hired the newcomers. Jackie Quebedeaux, a convenience-store manager, said it did not matter to her where the Canadaville residents came from, "as long as they're honest, and want to work."


jbv's Competitive Edge 


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