By Nick BeJeaux
Ten years after Hurricane Katrina made landfall, the thousands displaced by its fury are still rebuilding their lives—in more ways than one.
For the last decade Mark Browning, a Chalmette native and LSU Alum, has been rebuilding his 1971 Corvette Stingray that was inundated by the flood Katrina brought with her. Browning Graduated in 2003 with a chemical engineering degree and currently works as an engineer with Louisiana’s Department of Natural Resources. By the time the storm hit, he was bouncing between New Orleans and Baton Rouge for work.
Chalmette was hit very hard by the storm. On August 29, 2005, a 25-foot storm surge overflowed the Mississippi River-Gulf Outlet Canal, putting many parts of Chalmette under as much as 15 feet of water. Officials deemed many of the buildings unsalvageable. To make matters worse, the surge overturned a large container of oil at a nearby Murphy Oil facility, contaminating the water that had just covered the city.
The people of Chalmette started to rebuild almost immediately after the waters receded. In February 2006, only six months after the flood, the Krewe of the Knights of Nemesis paraded down streets lined with ruined buildings. By 2008, businesses returned, local schools reopened—life started to return to normal. But the scars were still there, and many may never heal; too many people left, never to return. In 2010, the state’s census of the city showed that is population was half of what was recorded in 2000.
Browning’s story is much the same as many Louisianans displaced by Katrina. His parents had lost everything, and his relatives had scattered all over the state. The car, which he bought in 2001, was among the many things at his parent’s home in Chalmette that was destroyed by flooding.
“It was a work in progress when I bought it,” he said. “It was just doing little things here and there to get it into better shape. I almost had all of that done right before the storm hit. The whole car went under water.”
Browning’s insurance company totaled the car, but he decided to buy it back from them to fix it up. He says that 1971 Stingray parts are actually very common, and mixing in modern components should make car better than ever. For example, the original car had no air conditioning, which he now has the opportunity to fix.
“I’m making little modifications here and there that will update some things, but for the most part, it’s going to look very original,” he said.
Browning has little idea when his project will be complete, as costs, work, and life interfere as the often tend to do.
“That’s a hard estimate to make; time and money are my biggest hold ups,” he said. “I’ve been working for the last 10 years – during that time I’ve moved from an apartment to a house and working on replacing many of the other things I lost. I’ve had to buy a lot of tools and parts that were damaged or lost.”
With that said, Browning is roughly halfway through the project.
“The car is in two separate pieces right now,” he said. “The body is off the frame, and I’m very close to wrapping up the frame. My next step, depending how long it takes for me to get the parts, is doing all the rewiring and fixing the body side of it.”
Many people left their homes and everything they owned behind. Some never came back, but Browning was one of the many who hoped to rebuild what they had lost – if not for blue-blooded southern tenacity, then for the love of his first Corvette.
“It was the first Corvette I ever bought, and it’s a 1971 so that’s not exactly something you can find easily on the street,” he said. “I also felt that I could put it back together. The body is fiberglass, so there weren’t going to be as many issues as it would have if it were all-metal. I didn’t want to get rid of it; I didn’t want to see it crushed, or destroyed. It was my first corvette, and I want to hold onto it.”