As People Move Inland, Learning From Past Migrations

Jun 15, 2017

As Louisiana’s coast continues to disappear, people are moving inland. The state says thousands may be forced to leave their homes -  but where will they go, and how will those places, known as ‘receiver communities,’ change?

For clues, we can look to St. Tammany Parish, where thousands moved after Hurricane Katrina.

It’s a typical Saturday at Mutt’s restaurant in Mandeville. Families laugh together over seafood and bread pudding.

Tom Isbell is here to order something special - french fries with roast beef gravy. It’s simple food. They call it “debris.” To Isbell, it tastes like childhood.

That’s why a lot of people come to this little family restaurant. To remember home, down along the river, 40 miles south, in St. Bernard Parish. About 30,000 people moved to the North Shore after Katrina, bringing their families, and culture, with them.

Chef Lester Nicosia is one of them. “It’s so nice to be behind the counter and see the people coming here,” he says of his restaurant. “Sometimes it’s all St Bernard people. Or it’s a blend of people. So many of us live up here.”

His parents started the original Mutt’s Restaurant in St. Bernard right after World War II. He grew up in the kitchen. It’s one of many institutions that relocated to the north shore – which included restaurants, schools, and even entire neighborhoods.

Mutt's restaurant in Mandeville is a popular lunchtime hangout spot for ex-St. Bernardians.
Credit Tegan Wendland / WWNO

Nicosia is proud the new location has become a gathering place for his people. He loves seeing them smile at the taste of stuffed shrimp or gumbo. But that didn’t come easily. “The first year we moved over here we knew nobody. After the storm we were trying to get our life together…like everybody else in St. Bernard,” he says. “It was a little strange being in this strange place.”

Down in St. Bernard, people knew the Nicosias. Here, he was just another person in the grocery store.

Pat Brister was still a councilwoman then, now she’s St. Tammany parish president. She says it was hard for the locals, too. “Like everybody, I adjusted to the traffic, I adjusted to the long lines at the grocery store,” she says. “But it was scary…it was new, it was traumatic, it was depressing, it worried me. But we made it through.”

The schools were packed. Home prices and rents skyrocketed. Brister says, “Our concern was having the infrastructure to accept all the people that came here - and to have the services available to them.”

That all makes sense to Carrie Beth Lasley, who studied this migration for her Urban Studies degree at the University of New Orleans. Now she’s a geography instructor at Wayne State University in Detroit.

She says this shift to the North Shore is similar to other migrations after disasters, like earthquakes or river floods. When forced to move, people don’t just move across the country. She says they “don’t randomly pick a place.” They choose somewhere they’ve been before, or where they have family. To St. Bernardians, the North Shore was familiar - it’s largely middle class, white and suburban.

But some people didn’t want them there. Mutt’s restaurant even got some nasty comments on Facebook when they opened, saying they should go back to where they came from. But Lasley says that’s normal, “It’s something that you get used to - they’re not horrible people - they weren’t coming in to create a new pseudo-society inside your current society. Over time people settle and it’s okay.”

More people means more money. The parish has used the extra tax revenue to build new roads and improve drainage. The economy is booming. Home sales, building permits and employment are way up, and officials are preparing for even more people to move from the coast. Brister says, “We are preparing for it because we’re getting it every day! We now are over 250,000 people.”

Brister hopes people keep moving to St. Tammany.

Back at Mutt’s, lunchtime is over and families get up from their tables and head out into the sunshine. It took many years for the newcomers at Mutt’s to adapt to their surroundings, but most have found their place. But the state now predicts that thousands on the North Shore will have to move north as the coast washes away. So some families will be forced to do it all over again.

Support for the Coastal Desk comes from the Walton Family Foundation, the Coypu Foundation, the Greater New Orleans Foundation, and local listeners.

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