The first thing that strikes one upon entering the hurricane zone is the odor. A stink upon the world and everything in it. Even a blind man would know there is a problem. The houses are filled with mold and mildew, the fields with rotting vegetation and the marsh lands, normally full of wild life, are curiously silent, the water nearly black and the smell the worst of all.
We began our visit in south Vermilion parish. The region was inundated by the storm surge and the towns of Delcambre, Erath and Henry were devastated. Never in the memory of man has salt water from the Gulf penetrated so far inland. In spite of the evacuation order, many people remained in their homes, convinced that they were out of danger. Once the water began to rise, they were completely isolated. Hundreds had to be rescued from their roofs by a make shift flotilla of sheriff deputies and volunteers, their mission complicated by the fact that their flat bottom boats continually ran into submerged objects, fence posts and farm equipment. Others residents were stranded in their cars, caught by the raging water unprepared, and had to been picked from the roofs of their vehicles or from the trees in which they were cast.
Miraculously there were no human casualties, but the salt water flood killed thousands of cattle and countless numbers of wild animals. The region will be years recovering. For farmers and cattlemen, the inundation of pastureland and fields represents a catastrophic loss. Luckily the first rice crop had been harvested. There will be no second crop, nor a crawfish crop this year. It will take months or even years of rain to wash the salt from the fields. The sugar cane crop is ruined and the recuperation of the cane fields complicated by the huge amount of detritus scattered hurdy gurdy. Refrigerators, trees, entire houses will have to be removed, a task impossible for tractors. . Much farm machinery was lost as well, ruined by the salt water. And no work can be done by hand until the winter chill brings on the hibernation of the poisonous snakes which lie under the reeds
In a mobile trailer, the mayor of Delcambre works to keep hope alive in his small community. He tries hard to convey a feeling of confidence, but deep in his steel blue eyes there is a hint of fear, the fear of losing his town. “Better wind damage than a storm surge,” he repeats. We follow him outside to the old city hall, a line drawn chest high on the wall to mark the height of the flood. In the street, four steel drawers full of paper folders lie drying in the sun, the only municipal records to have survived. The Red Cross trailer serves three meals a day in front of the church. The residents of the town will come to eat. They are hungry explains the mayor. But they are too proud to accept the clothes that have arrived by the truckload, afraid of what their neighbors would say. They come during the day to clean out their houses returning to wherever they sleep at night, once the light begins to fade. Lining the street in front of each house is a huge pile of refuse, carpet, furniture, appliances, all unsalvageable, whole piles rotting in the sun, each one containing everything that the residents owned.
In the surrounding countryside, the scene is repeated. In front of each house lies a huge jumble of stuff, the entire contents of the ruined homes waiting for someone to come and pick it up. We travel the country road toward Bayou Tigre, the hardest hit neighborhood in the area. Entire houses are laying yards, in some cases hundreds of yards off of their foundations. The fields are brown, the late summer grass rotting. Some fields are completely stripped of any vestiges of vegetation, the earth a drab grey color and cracked like the desert. The sugar cane, normally ten feet high and bright green, is laying on its side, its lush color faded to brown. The edge of the storm surge can be clearly seen, a line of detritus with green to the north and brown to the south. On one side life and on the other, death.
We arrive early in the morning at the court house of Vermilion parish in Abbeville. There to meet us is Daly Broussard, farm bureau chief for the parish. He introduces us to the sheriff and to the commander of the national guard. But the most interesting meeting of the morning is when Daly introduces us to a small group of men sitting under the veranda of the courthouse. They are timid, talking amongst themselves, men in their 50s and above. They seem to be part of the local decor, local yokels with nothing to do but hang around the town square. They joke and laugh. Theses are some of the farmers who have suffered the most. Normally they would be out in the fields or busy with some project, but the hurricane has put their lives on hold and they sit waiting on the courthouse steps for some bit of information, looking like a pack of stray dogs not knowing what to do with themselves. These are not men who are in the habit of asking for help. They are not comfortable with their new status as hurricane victims. Helplessness shows in their faces. Since the hurricane, the world, and their place in it have changed.
The cattlemen and farmers of southwest Louisiana are a special breed, proud and independent. Since the arrival of the first Acadian exiles in the territory nearly 250 years ago, a tradition of self reliance is an fundamental aspect of the local culture. Before the Civil War, the residents of the prairies, unlike their cousins along the rivers and bayous, did not own slaves. Slaves would have only been a bother to cattlemen who could tend their herds with the help of their families. Unlike the plantation country, the prairies never knew the fabulous antebellum homes of the sugar and cotton aristocracy. Out here, a man’s wealth was measured by his herd, Descendants of those early cattlemen, like the men on the courthouse steps are fiercely independent and very proud, and uncomfortable with having to rely on others for help.
Daly introduces us to Pat Ménard, age 66, who agrees to show us his farm. In a metal shed ripped open as though by a giant can opener, Mr. Ménard shows us his rice combines and tractors, $150,000 of farm machinery completely ruined. His crawfish ponds are dry, the earth scorched and crackled. He, like most of the local farmers, had no flood insurance and is facing a total loss. We ask him what he intends to do. Speaking French with the rich accent of south Louisiana, Mr. Ménard replies, “At my age it will be hard to start over, it took all of my life to build up my farm, but what choice do I have?” Fortunately the first rice crop was good and at least he will have that money to help him along. His herd was relatively small, less than 50 head. He was able to save a dozen cattle but was forced to sell them at distressed prices not having enough hay to keep them alive.
We accompany Mr. Ménard to his home in the nearby village of Henry. A Red Cross truck is serving hot meals in front of the church. The three workers, all ladies are cheerful. We refuse their offer of food, choosing instead to eat the sandwiches that we brought along. Under the porch of the Catholic church, we eat silently, the only people in town apart from the Red Cross volunteers. The church benches are all outside, drying in the sun, the water line visible above the seat. They are ruined and will not be salvaged. The church itself will likely be abandoned, as will the school and most of the town. The houses, like that of Mr. Ménard, will be bulldozed.
We accompany him to his home. From the outside, the house seems normal enough, a modest brick bungalow. The yard is a mess, but the structure seems sound enough. The interior of the house however, is a vision of the apocalypse. Everything is lying in the greatest disorder, furniture, appliances, canned goods, photos, clothes, all covered with dried mud. The carpet is still wet with inches of thick black smelly mud. The smell is overwhelming. Mildew climbs the wall. “My wife can’t come back,” says Mr. Ménard, “All she does is cry.” Like most of the people here, they will move out, leaving behind the memories of a lifetime and the sad souvenir of this storm.
Once we finish our lunch, we head south. Ron Gaspard, friend and cameraman, leads us on a visit of his home town, Forked Island. We leave the main road, Hiway 82, and head into the village. Everything is quiet, the sun is shining, but the atmosphere is very strange. In all of the yards, the grass has disappeared, giving place to naked earth, grey and crackled. In front of each house is the ubiquitous pile of garbage, rotting in the sun. Ron escorts us up to a house about one hundred yards back from the road. There are two old Cajun men under the car porch, sitting up like two turtles. One of them, aged 76, spent the hurricane in a tree. Fleeing his house when the water began to rise, his pick up truck was swamped and he was forced to swim. For 24 hours he was stuck in a tree, surrounded by floodwater. Somehow he survived the hurricane winds until a rescue boat found him. “I’m too good to die,” he chuckles. Most of the fauna, however, was not so lucky.
According to the first witnesses to return after the hurricane, the entire area was infested with the corpses of dead animals: mink, muskrat, raccoon, deer, cattle, rabbits, nutrea, all swept up and killed by the surge. Not to speak of the alligators and snakes. The water moccasins pose a continuing danger. Angered by the intrusion of salt water, they are everywhere, in any nook and cranny, underneath the broken reeds, hiding from the sun. Extreme care must be used while simply walking about.
We continued our journey, crossing the Intracoastal Canal headed toward Pecan Island. From the top of the bridge, the scene was one of desolation. To the north, the detritus line of the surge was visible, going up as far as Hiway 14. The disappearance of the levee contributed to the destruction. During Hurricane Audry (1957) the storm surge was probably as strong as that of Rita, but back then, the recently dredged canal offered a wall of protection. Over the last 50 years, the levee has been washed away by the continual wave action of the tugboats and barges which ply the canal. When the storm surge from Hurricane Rita arrived, there was nothing to prevent it from rolling miles inland.
Approaching Pecan Island, we encounter our first military check point: young soldiers, weapons at the ready, looking very serious. They ask me several questions and note my license plate number and the number of my driver’s license. Once the formalities finished, however, they relax, and we have a short conversation, joking under the crystal clear sky. They must be much more at ease here at home than they were in Iraq.
In Pecan Island, the nature of the destruction changes. Only a few miles from the actual coast, the town received the full force of the storm. Many houses are tossed about as though by a gigantic and evil child. Many others have simply disappeared, the foundation pillars are the only evidence that they ever existed at all. The amount of detritus is astounding and the army engineers are piling it up and hauling it off, work rendered hazardous because of the snakes.
Pecan Island is but a ribbon, the houses lining both sides of Hiway 82, the only street in town. It is built on a chenier ridge rising only a few meters above the surrounding marsh. There are many hunting camps, the area known as a hunter’s paradise. Today, however, it looks more like hell. I wonder what the water fowl, millions of ducks and geese, will do this winter once they arrive to find their feeding ground completely destroyed by salt intrusion.
To the west of Pecan Island lies the Rockefeller Wildlife Refuge. For miles and miles, there is nothing but marshland stretching in all directions. The smell has become much stronger. The water is black. We see a few nutrea rats, about the size of a big cat, climbing out onto the road, in a pitiful state, head down, their normal brown color turned to black. Normally the marsh would be alive with birds, but we see only a few moorhens and a flock of grackles. I am surprised to see brand new electricity poles, installed, evidently since the storm. The older poles are still in place, bent over, some nearly touching the road.
The farther west we travel, the worse the destruction becomes. The Wildlife Refuge headquarters is a shambles. The Smith Ranch house, a beautiful raised cottage in the Louisiana style, survived well. Built on pillars twenty feet off of the ground, the house offered little resistance to the storm surge. The out buildings and fences, however, are gone. The scene is all the more desolate because the cattle have disappeared. Normally there would have been hundreds of black angus grazing near the road. Today, not a single cow is to be seen. Were they moved to safety or destroyed in the storm?
It’s in Grand Chenier that we see the worse. Of the small town, only the water tower and part of the church remain. There is not a single house standing. The foundations bear mute witness to their existence, brick steps leading up to nothing. Out in the field are the scattered the remains, strewn about in great disorder, here a refrigerator, there a television set. Around several trees, the frames of mobile homes are knotted like neckties. Although stripped of their leaves, the live oaks (quercus virginiana) remain, throwing their shade upon the empty yards. Palm trees also survived which is surprising given their shallow roots. I walk through the ruins and begin to cry.
Cameron is worse still. Downtown, the bank, the fire station, the wharf, are nothing but ruins. The steel frames of the buildings are still in place, but nothing else remains. The only building to have survived is the courthouse. It was built after Hurricane Audry and was designed to resist an atom bomb or a tidal wave. Its white shape can be glimpsed through the desolation from just about anywhere in town. We stop the car and walk around. Here and there are vestiges of the life as it used to be: a bathtub, a ceiling fan, a tool set, a little girl’s doll. Out in the field, a stray cow approaches, drawn to us, thinking, perhaps that we will save her. She eats the few remaining leaves on an oak tree, something she would never have done a few weeks ago. Without pasture or fresh water, she will not last more than a week. Unable to help her, we leave. As we walk back to the car, the setting sun just above the horizon, I begin to cry. I have been crying a lot this year.
ZACHARY RICHARD is one of Louisiana’s most acclaimed musicians. He is an environmentalist, human rights activist and defender of the Acadian culture and language. Called the Cajun Mick Jagger for his unique blend of rock and old-time Cajun music, Richard’s cds include: Snake Bite Love, Cap Enragé and Silver Jubilee: the Best of ZACHARY RICHARD. This journal appears on his website.