The Collinses' 1794 house is an example of colombage, or bricks-between-posts construction. The building technique, examples of which are extremely rare in the United States, was popular in 18th-century Europe. There, native fieldstone, rather than brick, was used to form walls between networks of hand-hewn posts and beams. In St. Bernard Parish, a 465-square-mile swath of land located about 5 miles southeast of New Orleans, colombage was one of the principle building methods. Such walls housed hundreds of the Canary Island families brought there in the late 1700s by the Spanish colonial government to farm the land and protect its Mississippi River shoreline from British invaders.

Today, the Isleños' cultural survival has a lot to do with these sturdy homes, which were ­constructed with sunbaked bricks, lime mortar, cypress heartwood, and clay plaster, says parish historian William de Marigny Hyland. Though damaged, the vast majority of those houses still standing can be restored. "They were built with elements of the local environment, and they were built to withstand the excesses of that environment," Hyland explains. By comparison, thousands of newer houses, framed with less-rot-resistant wood and clad inside with paper-faced drywall (a breeding ground for toxic mold when it gets wet), will have to be torn down or entirely rebuilt.

The parish's old homes used to be surrounded by cypress forests, swamps, and marshes. These wetlands, as well as a string of now decimated barrier islands offshore, were once considered the first line of defense against flooding. That was until 1965, when the United States Army Corps of Engineers completed digging a shipping channel through the parish to provide a shortcut between New Orleans and the Gulf of Mexico. Saltwater flowed from the Gulf into the freshwater habitat, killing some 18,000 acres of marsh and 1,500 acres of cypress swamp in the parish. What remains today is a seldom-used brackish channel called the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet, which has more than tripled in width over the past 41 years due to erosion. Looking out over the waterway, Parish historian Hyland says, "This is what destroyed us."

Just over a year ago, on August 29, 2005, Hurricane Katrina's winds toppled trees and ripped off roofs. Then, a 20-foot tidal wave, caused by a rise in the shipping channel, which locals have dubbed the "hurricane superhighway," lifted structures in the Los Isleños Heritage and Multi-Cultural Park right off their pier foundations and left behind more than 6 feet of stagnant water. It took three weeks for the flooding to recede.

Now, the Islenos' main museum building is damaged beyond repair; a 90-foot water oak fell on the circa-1840 colombage cottage, shearing off its front rooms and exposing decades' worth of rot and termite infestation. And with other buildings in rough shape, the Isleños fear for their heritage. "The Los Isleños complex was important before the hurricane but now it's even more important," says Jerry Estopinal, a high school teacher and the Los Isleños Heritage and Cultural Society historian.

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