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After the Floods

Michael May

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David Connor in front of FEMA trailer
(Daniel May)
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It was three years ago that Katrina made landfall in the southeastern corner of Louisiana. Within a day, New Orleans was filling with water. But small towns along the coast were also devastated by Katrina, and by Hurricane Rita, which would follow less than three weeks later. We take a road trip to the hurricane-ravaged bayous along the Southern Louisiana coast to see how the recovery is going.

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Louisiana's Hug-the-Coast highway begins in an industrial tangle of oil refineries on the Texas border, but soon there's nothing but muddy gulf waters and marshy grasslands as far as the eye can see. This is the least populated area of Louisiana. It was also ground zero for Hurricane Rita. I take a ferry across a ship channel, and enter the town of Cameron, Louisiana, which was 90 percent destroyed during the storm. A mural painted on a dock building lists the local attractions: No pollution. No traffic light. No big-city life. No city police. No trains (just boats).

I notice what appears to be a large home set in the middle of a swamp, before I realize it's a house that was flung there and happened to land upright. Nearby, David and Vicky Conner stand by the FEMA trailer they've been living in for the past three years. They evacuated for the storm, and came back to find their yard filled with other people's stuff - and no sign of their mobile home. "Our trailer went that way," says Vicky. "We never could find nothing. It's hard."

This isn't the first time Cameron's been destroyed. Hurricane Audrey in 1957 killed more than 300 people here. This time, everyone evacuated, but half the town still hasn't returned. Inside his trailer, David wonders if he came back too soon. "If I had to do it all over," says David. "I might have stayed away a bit longer, but I would have come back. This is my home. You can't fool me around here."

But here isn't what it used to be. David's a welder and he never used to have trouble supporting his family. But the local contractors that know his work are barely back in business, and outside companies brought outside people. "I used to make $90,000 some years," he says. "Since hurricane, I've been making less than $25,000 a year."

And David didn't have insurance on his mobile home, so that's just gone. The cost of building in Cameron has skyrocketed because of new hurricane regulations. David's tired of living in a 10-foot wide trailer with his wife and two kids.

"I've got a daughter and a son that got no business sleeping together on the couch," he says. "And they can't be sleeping in our bed. We tried that. No. You can't have a relationship like that. You think they're sleeping, but they ain't sleeping and it hurts your heart. It's not our fault, it's not their fault. You see the cage we're in."

But finally things are starting to look up. He got a union job last week. And today, representatives from three separate non-profits are in the yard, coordinating the funds and volunteers it's going to take to build him a new home on 13-foot stilts. "I always thought I didn't need anyone because I was such a good welder," he says. "Now I know that ain't right. Before you can be whole, you need to know that you need everyone. People are going to help you if you let them."

There are no hotels left in Cameron, so I head towards higher ground. Lafayette, also the capitol of Cajun music. I find the only local dancehall open on Sunday night. It's called Wranglers, and Jamie Bergeron and the Kickin' Cajuns are in full effect. The dance floor is crowded with couples doing a sort-of sexy Cajun two-step.

Then, at around 11 PM, the power and the lights go out. No one left. Couples keep dancing in the dark.

I began to get a sense that the Cajun joie de vivre and impending calamity are deeply intertwined. Consider this. The site of the only miracle in the United States sanctioned by the Vatican is just outside Lafayette. Saint John Berchmans appeared to Mary Wilson, and cured her of a fatal illness. But Wilson got sick with another ailment and died within months. That's a Cajun miracle. A blessed moment of comfort followed by another hard turn.

I drive south from Lafayette, along the Atchafalaya basin, a wide swampy expanse full of cypress, oak and sugar cane fields.

The swamp turns to marsh fed by brackish waters. Here bayous stretch like fingers into the gulf. Small houses on stilts line the road, but it was like a ghost town. Everyone's gone shrimping. Eventually I see a man on a boat and stop to talk. The captain's name is Lesley LeBoufe. . .but he goes by Deet.

"We just came in," he says.

"How did you do?" I ask.

"Terrible," he says, shaking his head. "$2600 was the expense; we might have $400 worth of shrimp."

Deet has had a long and complicated relationship with the sea. He was 17 years old in 1969 when Hurricane Camille hit Louisiana, a storm which is often compared to Katrina. He was working on an oilrig and was the last boat to leave. He was alone on deck when the storm caught up with him.

"Believe me, when you're in a 42 lugger with 117 knots of wind, it's no picnic," he says. "Within five minutes, the boat was gone, disintegrated."

Deet ended up floating around in a life jacket for 14 hours. There were waves 75 feet high in the gulf that day. "Lot of things go through your head," he says. "A lot. You couldn't put it in a book as big as this boat. Your whole life passes through you, everything from the first things you remember, and you remember all the things you did. Someone tells me they don't believe in God. Put in that situation, I guarantee you're going to start praying."

He managed to climb onto an oilrig. The next day shrimping season opened and a passing boat picked him up. He says Camille gave him a gift -- a profound respect for life. He never smoked or did drugs. But he didn't give up the one thing you might expect - shrimping on open water. "If you like to do it, you're going to go through a lot of problems to stick with it," he says. "It's a challenge. You don't know what the outcome will be. Some days you're jumping for joy."

Those days are harder to come by. Between high fuel costs and cheap imported shrimp, a little bad luck goes a long way. And so goes the vital shrimp habitat as well. The Mississippi River, now contained by levees, doesn't bring sediment anymore to feed the marsh. Every year the tide takes away as much as 20 square miles of south Louisiana.

As the land goes, so does a way of life. A bit down the road, I meet Paul Silve. He's a member of the Attakapas Indian tribe, which once ruled the gulf coast. After Katrina, Paul and his family left the island where his ancestors have lived for centuries. So they moved into a trailer park in Belle Chasse, a suburb of New Orleans. But a few months ago, their two children insisted they come back. Jean, 9 years old, did not like Belle Chasse.

"It wasn't very fun," she says. "We just sat inside and watched TV."

The whole family is now back on the island, living in a 14 by 30 foot shed.

"It's just where we belong," says Jean. "We didn't belong in Belle Chasse."

"But you're the only here," I ask. "Aren't you lonely?"

"I'm kind of lonely," says Jean. "But I got my parents. I can go outside a lot. I just wanted to come here, and be where I want to be: home."

A Louisiana nonprofit called Southern Mutual Help Association is helping them build a new home. Carolyn says it sometimes feels like the government would rather they move away. "But we're not leaving," she says. "There's no price you can put on this piece of land that would make us sell. You can give us $1 million and we wouldn't take it. I mean, what price do you put on home?"

Outside, clouds were gathering on the horizon, and Paul insisted I head back to dry land. I had to find a room before the storm rolled in.

  • Music Bridge:
    Beams
    Artist: Tape
    CD: Luminarium (Hapna)

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