The end of 'Canadaville'

Five years after Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans, many of the more than one million evacuees have settled into new lives, either back in their hometown or in places unlike anything they were used to. Tucked in the bucolic centre of Louisiana, a small group of Katrina victims is getting ready to be uprooted again.

Frank Stronach's social experiment in central Louisiana wraps up

Five years after Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans, many of the more than one million evacuees have settled into new lives, either back in their hometown or in places unlike anything they were used to.

Tucked in bucolic central Louisiana, a small group of Katrina victims is getting ready for another possible uprooting.

Earlean Brooks wishes she could buy her home in Magnaville and desperately doesn't want to leave. ((Amber Hildebrandt/CBC))

The 63 former New Orleanians are citizens of a temporary community dubbed Canadaville, which Canadian auto magnate Frank Stronach, the Magna International founder, set up about 230 kilometres northwest of New Orleans. 

As of Dec. 31, the social experiment comes to its planned end, and residents are worried about what's next.

"I would give my life for this house," Earleen Brooks says of her 800-square-foot trailer. "I just love it."

Coming from the worst-hit part of New Orleans, the Lower Ninth Ward, Brooks moved to Canadaville, officially known as Magnaville, in the fall of 2007.

Though adjusting from bustling city to quiet farm was hard, she now desperately wants to stay in the country.

Away from crime

The 58-year-old Brooks had slept in a lot of temporary homes before arriving in Magnaville. But in rural Louisiana, she found a job at a nursing home and adjusted to the quieter life. She enjoys sitting on her porch without worrying about New Orleans street crime, which claimed her son's life in 2004.

Despite a deep love of the Big Easy, Brooks has no desire to move back. She fears the violence of her old neighbourhood and worries another Katrina-like disaster will happen again.

"I don't like talking about it," she says, choking up when asked about her Katrina ordeal. "We could've been dead and gone."

Inside a home

More than half of Magnaville's 49 mobile homes, with their three bedrooms and two baths, sit empty on the sprawling 920-acre property. Organizers see this as a testament to the project's success helping residents get their lives in order.

Magnaville project manager Shane Carmichael says he sympathizes with residents who want to remain, but the aim is that they move on to the next stage in their lives as Magnaville enters its next chapter.

It's as yet undecided, he says, whether residents will be allowed to stay on and pay rent. He says the company will help each resident when that decision is made. "We'll try to do anything to help them set up shop somewhere in that area, if not in Magnaville," Carmichael said.

"It's tough for people. You grow attached to a place, and you create a home, not just a house. ... But at some point, people have to, you know, move on with their lives and stand on their own two feet. And that was the point."

Farm dream unrealized

Magnaville is on a flat plain deep in the economically depressed region of central Louisiana, on a narrow road that winds past a women's prison. The community is bordered on the east by a levee to keep out the waters of Atchafalaya River and is several kilometres down the road from the farming town of Simmesport.

Each Magnaville resident was expected to perform eight hours of community service a week in exchange for free rent. Stronach's dream for Magnaville was a self-sufficient organic farm, so much of the service related to tending to animals and garden plots.

But dreams of farm profitability were not realized. Farm equipment tangled with grass sits alongside fallow fields. Cinder blocks once used to delineate each household's garden plot are now piled neatly on the edge of a field. Goats purchased in Magnaville's early stages have become pets, with no revenue-generating purpose.

Donating a village

CBC News first reported on the establishment of Magnaville back in 2005.

About 200 chickens and chicks dart around pens and stalls. A mere two or three dozen eggs are sold each week and periodically Jessie Clark, the only on-site farmer — and only non-Katrina evacuee — harvests a few dozen chickens. A trailer was bought to refurbish into a killing site, but this never happened.

Three separate ponds — one with crawfish, another with catfish and a third with a mixture — sit largely undisturbed. Locals are given the opportunity to fish there and occasionally Mr. Jessie, as he's known, fishes for a Magnaville feast.

"I guess they thought it was going to be a little bit different," says Tanya Nelson, a tenant and Carmichael's assistant. "They thought that the crawfish would generate some revenue."

Clark has worked for years on the land now owned by Magna and under two previous owners. He's raised cattle and hogs, grown sugar cane and soybeans.

The 56-year-old farmer used to lease the entire plot. When Magna came, he wasn't allowed to lease any land at first but eventually got to rent 220 acres, where he now grows soybeans.

"I wish they'd rent it all to me," Clark says.

Magnaville staff cut

He's also employed by Magna as the commercial farm manager, one of six employees whose jobs didn't get slashed in the spring of 2009. Six other employees were let go as Magna dealt with the economic downturn. Among the laid-off was the worker who drove residents to Simmesport to buy groceries at the Piggly Wiggly or visit the doctor.

Kevin Gebhart worked alongside aid agencies helping the central Louisiana region after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, which killed 1,900 people in the Gulf states. As the director of the Central Louisiana Hurricane Recovery Center, he was involved in efforts in the first two years to help Magnaville get up and running. It quickly became evident there would be difficulties, he says.

"Everyone expected that they were going to be organic farmers and raise crawfish," Gebhart says. "We quickly saw that those things were never materializing. That led to our curiosity of what exactly this was."

'Stronach's money'

Throughout the discussions about Magnaville and Stronach's plans for it, Gebhart says he heard a common refrain: "'It was his interest. It was his money.' I think that was quoted often when we would raise questions."

The farm has about 200 chickens and chicks, assistant manager Tanya Nelson says. Magnaville sells about two or three dozen eggs to locals each week, and periodically slaughters a few dozen fowl to sell as roasting chickens. ((Amber Hildebrandt/CBC))

He believes the millions of dollars spent on the project could've been put to better use by agencies with the psychology and social work expertise to help Katrina victims get their lives on track, rather than by a corporation with its own interests.

"Frank Stronach's a businessman," Gebhart says. "He was willing to help some folks and get some good coverage."

Magna's startup cost for the project is estimated at up to $10 million. The first year's operating costs ran around $500,000, and subsequent years, as residents departed, cost about $300,000, Carmichael says. At its height, about 200 people lived in Magnaville.

The money was part of Magna International Inc.'s annual goal to give up to two per cent of profits to charitable causes.

Carmichael says the project ran into roadblocks from the former mayor of Simmesport, who fought the project and filed a lawsuit claiming Magnaville wasn't living up to contractual obligations. Magna filed a countersuit, alleging the mayor blocked construction of a community centre and threatened to turn utilities at Magnaville off.

The legal action was dismissed in 2008, but it hurt efforts to make the farm profitable and pursue other investments, Carmichael says.

"That put us behind the eight ball."

Magna had intended to turn the community into the largest organic farm in Louisiana, but it never got off the ground.

"It was a challenge to transform urban people into farmers," Carmichael says. "I'm not saying we weren't successful. We had many residents who picked up the farming bug and started planting their own gardens."

Leap from city too big for critic

It's unclear what the next stage will be for Magnaville. Carmichael would only say the company is talking to potential partners about an economic venture.

Magnaville is the subject of a critical essay by Cedric Johnson, an associate political science professor at New York's Hobart and William Smith colleges.

He takes issue with celebrities like billionaire Stronach and television personality Oprah Winfrey, who partnered with Habitat for Humanity after the hurricane to relocate the urban poor away from city centres.

"What sort of life do these folks lead in a place like Magnaville compared to the kind of urban life they had in New Orleans?" asks Johnson, whose essay will be published in a book.

Residents went from dense social networks with easy access to transportation and services to a remote place where there wasn't even a convenience store within walking distance, he notes.

But Carmichael defends Magna's venture.

"I don't think there's any other company that's stepped up to the plate like they have and said, 'Not only are we going to write a cheque but we're going to be right there beside you as you rebuild your lives.' "

Toughened by Katrina

It wasn't easy for the residents. Sisters Glenda Warren and Shirley Patterson admit they struggled with their new homes at first.

Sisters Glenda Warren and Shirley Patterson have made their 800-square-foot mobile house a home in the past four years. ((Amber Hildebrandt/CBC))

"Coming from the city it was downright boring," said Warren, 58. "I said, 'Lord, what am I going to do?' "

Patterson says she got depressed six months after moving to Magnaville in April 2006.

"I realized then that I didn't have transportation."

The sisters currently don't work. Warren receives disability benefits and Patterson recently had surgery, but typically works as a writer. Patterson's 19-year-old daughter, Ariana, graduated high school last year and is looking for work, possibly at the nearby prison, while also planning to take online courses. Her dream is to buy a car so she can help her mother and aunt get around.

The three decided to take a wait-and-see approach to their future beyond the neatly trimmed grassy fields of Magnaville.

Warren figures, "Going through [Hurricane Katrina], I could take on anything now."