Cover Story

Delcambre's Dilemma

by Mary Tutwiler

Following two devastating storms in three years, is it possible — or even practical — for towns like Delcambre to rebuild?

Delcambre’s mayor, Carol Broussard

photo by Terri Fensel

The first thing that hits you is the smell. Sour mud and rotting vegetation combine in a noxious miasma that permeates the air and triggers unwanted memories. The roadsides along Highway 14 in Iberia Parish, heaped with sodden carpet, waterlogged mattresses and crumbling slices of sheetrock reinforce the sensation. Standing in line at the Red Cross truck across the street from Our Lady of the Lake Catholic church in Delcambre for a lunch of smothered chicken and rice, a bottle of water, and a jug of Clorox, Margaret Ruffin seems to shudder in the 85 degree heat. “It’s like a flashback,” she says.

The small coastal towns of Delcambre and Erath, inundated by Hurricane Rita on Sept. 24, 2005, have once again drowned under the storm surge and rising tide pushed into homes and businesses by Hurricane Ike last month. Residents who spent the last three years struggling to settle claims with Louisiana’s flawed Road Home program and had just finished rebuilding their houses find themselves tearing out floors and wallboard just days before the third anniversary of Rita. Many of them were still waiting for a $30,000 allotment from the Road Home to elevate. Those who were able to raise their houses didn’t flood this time around.

Homeowners like Erath resident Ruffin, who had done everything asked of her, who was patiently waiting to elevate, and who flooded once again, are demoralized. “I don’t have any anger left,” sighs Ruffin. “I’m just tired.”

While homeowners resiliently begin the process of rebuilding yet again, there is an undercurrent of doubt about how many more times Louisiana’s coastal towns can afford to flood and come back again. “We’re going to elevate our house as soon as we get the money,” Ruffin says. “I like this community. But if it happens again, I don’t know what I’ll do.” Ruffin and others standing in line for cleaning supplies say the government needs to get its priorities straight. “They’re spending billions of money on disaster relief. If they’d just spend the money to elevate our houses, it would save everyone a lot of money and grief,” she says.

People are in slightly better shape this time in terms of insurance. More residents have flood insurance and can file claims. For those without, FEMA has begun interviewing homeowners once again. The federal agency put a cap of $28,000 on Gustav and Ike based grants for repairs per uninsured home. The most pernicious issue, however, is why it has taken so long for homeowners to receive their elevation funds from Rita.

FEMA spokesman Andrew Thomas says the state’s Road Home program and FEMA are still exploring how to best use the money. “It took a lot of time. That was completely a state decision. FEMA doesn’t tell you how to use the money.” Christina Stephens, spokeswoman for the LRA, admits that the Road Home has been painfully slow. Governor Bobby Jindal handed oversight of the Road Home to the LRA, and both Stephens and Thomas say that most of the kinks were worked out by January 2008, and that the funds flowed more smoothly after that. Unfortunately it wasn’t fast enough or soon enough for a lot of homeowners in Erath and Delcambre. 
Delcambre was the harder hit of the two communities. Bayou Carlin connects Delcambre to inland fishing grounds in Vermilion Bay, about 10 miles to the south, and provides access to the Gulf of Mexico through Southwest Pass. Over the years, to accommodate a burgeoning shrimping industry, where the bayou passes through the town of Delcambre, it was dredged and widened to provide dockage for the fleet. Shrimp processing businesses lined the waterfronts, along with gas and ice houses and a few honky tonk bars and restaurants. Small seafood markets, the Shrimp Festival building, and modest homes, mostly belonging to shrimpers, were located in the streets closest to the canal. The high waters from 1957 Hurricane Audrey, which flattened Cameron Parish, didn’t reach Delcambre. Audrey’s surge was stopped, older locals say, by an old levee along the Intracoastal Canal. Rural residents were caught off guard when Hurricane Rita blasted a storm surge straight up from Vermilion Bay, crossing the Intracoastal, and filling houses in low lying areas with water up to the eaves and sending people scrambling onto their rooftops.

When Ike hit, half of homeowners, according to Erath Alderman John LeBlanc, were still waiting for the Road Home grant to raise their houses above base flood height — 11 feet above sea level in the area.

Delcambre’s homes were flooded twice in three years.

photo by Terri Fensel

Even with the grant, however, some homeowners would be in the same predicament. Delcambre’s Kathy Morgan says the $30,000 allotment is not enough to raise a brick on slab home. “You can’t spend your whole life’s savings to elevate. You’d be 90 years old and have no savings, no retirement.”

Three weeks ago, Ike’s surge reflooded places that had been repaired, like Delcambre’s City Hall, as well as scores of homes and businesses, some which have never recovered from Rita. Carol Broussard, Delcambre’s mayor, estimates Ike flooded 70 percent of his town, less than the 90 percent inundation by Rita. About 600 people abandoned Delcambre after Rita, bringing the town’s population down from 2,300 before the storm to 1,700. Broussard doesn’t have a firm figure yet, but he believes his town will lose another 500 residents due to Ike. If the population drops below 1,000 people, Delcambre will be designated a village rather than a town.

What that means to its residents, says Broussard, is that the tax base may become too low to support basic services like water and sewer and police and fire protection. According to Dan Garrett, general council for the Louisiana Police Jury Association, a village’s only legal obligation is to pay its elected officials — the mayor, board of aldermen and police chief. So if revenues dip, the mayor, a 16-year incumbent who is running for reelection this week, may be faced with hard choices like laying off town employees or increasing the tax rate. “We’re losing businesses,” says Broussard.  “Lil’ Sandwich Shop isn’t reopening. Champagne’s [the town’s only grocery store] never came back. If taxes go up, nobody will be able to live here,” Broussard says. “We have a church. How long will we have a school here? If the school goes, we go.”

School enrollments for the time period after Hurricane Rita until just before Ike hit had barely declined. In 2005, Delcambre High School had a population of 479 students. Early this month, enrollment was 457 students. Iberia Parish Superintendent of Schools Dale Henderson says losing 22 students is not a significant decline. “While a lot of the residents are discouraged, how often can people come back and start over? Moving away is both a practical and emotional issue,” he continues. “Delcambre is a close knit community. You also have to understand that students come from the parish as well, not just from the town.” The high school and elementary school received only inches of water from Hurricane Ike, both schools reopened within about a week. Henderson says the school board is committed to Delcambre’s schools. “As long as we have a good population, we will have school in Delcambre.”

Holding on to the population is the problem. Delcambre’s only industry for many years has been shrimping and processing the catch. Years ago shrimp were bringing in a high price, and shrimpers and processors were able to make a good living. But even before hurricanes Katrina and Rita battered the state’s fleet, shrimpers were battling a flood of imported shrimp from Asia that were priced to undermine Louisiana’s wild-caught crop. Then the price of diesel skyrocketed. “Ten years ago, this boat cost me $5,000 in diesel,” says Preston Doré Jr. His 70-foot boat, the Sea Express 5, is tied up at the Delcambre docks. “Today it costs me $40,000 to fill up, and the price for shrimp is less.”

Doré also owned A-Seafood Express market, and the Bayou Lounge, with its outdoor deck overlooking Bayou Carlin. The Bayou Lounge was one of those end-of-the-road destinations, a place to eat a shrimp poboy, down a beer and drink in the atmosphere of a working port delivering not only the shrimp for tomorrow’s sandwich, but the seafood that would wind up on high-end restaurant menus from Chicago to Washington. Doré, who had taken out an $80,000 loan to fix his shrimp boat after Rita, was denied Road Home money for his restaurant and market because he was in debt, he says. Ike pushed about eight feet of water into the already damaged buildings. Before Ike hit, Doré was hoping to make money shrimping, then fix up his bar and market. “We’ve been living on the boat since February, just getting ready to go back out. We rode out the storm on the boat. Now the bar needs to be bulldozed,” he says.

All summer long, as he and girlfriend Judy Brewer worked on the boat, Doré watched Delcambre’s shrimp fleet being repossessed. “I had friends who lost their boats,” he says. “They had to go get real jobs. Shrimping is about dead.” Brewer, who lived in Mississippi pre-Katrina, had a house in Erath and a business in Delcambre, on Highway 14. “What I didn’t lose in Katrina and he didn’t lose in Rita, we lost in Ike,” she says. What they have left is the Sea Express 5 and a passion for the open water. “I started with a 14-foot boat and worked my way up to this 70-foot boat,” says Doré. “What you gonna do?”

Broussard is equally grim about the future for shrimpers, and in turn for the future of Delcambre. “People can’t make a living shrimping. The processing plants are going under. People here work in the oilfield or offshore. Most are retired shrimpers, now on welfare or social security. Young people are working out of town. There’s nothing for them to do here. No jobs.”

After Rita devastated southwest Louisiana, the Louisiana Recovery Authority brought renowned urban planner Andres Duany to the state to help communities devise plans to salvage and improve their towns. Duany worked with the residents of Delcambre over the course of several weeks in February 2006. He devised a plan that called for the state, using Federal Hazard Mitigation funds, to buy out all the homes and businesses in the eight square blocks along Bayou Carlin that constitute the lowest lying part of Delcambre. Duany envisioned a marina, with dredged canals for docking boats and public facilities built above the 11-foot flood zone. The marina and its surrounding green spaces would also act as drainage for the rest of Delcambre, which is built on higher ground. There was initial resistance to the plan, but by March of that year, Mayor Broussard was convinced it was the way to go. He opened a town meeting that month with a vision of prosperity for the small community, where waterfront shops, boat slips, a new Shrimp Festival building and recreational facilities would draw tourists and boat owners to a community similar to Cypremort Point. He also issued a warning. “If the town doesn’t do something soon,” he told The Independent Weekly in 2006, “with the next storm, this town is over. No government, no police.”

Broussard and Delcambre are now confronting that moment of truth. In October 2006, the town of Delcambre submitted applications to the Louisiana Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Management’s Hazard Mitigation program for 10 buyouts totaling a half million dollars in the canal area as a result of Hurricane Rita. Seventy-five percent will be paid for by the federal government, and the state must pick up the rest of the tab. Delcambre is still waiting for FEMA to cut the check on the buyouts.

The 10 properties in the buyout package will belong to the town of Delcambre, but when and if the remaining property owners in the area identified by Duany want to sell is anybody’s guess. Broussard says there is nearly $3 million in funding from the LRA and Iberia Parish to move the town’s boat ramp further south down the bayou to help with flood protection. Two and a half years since they were drawn, Duany’s plans are still crisp in pristine binders, but the eight square blocks he depicted as Delcambre’s marina look like a post-apocalyptic encampment. A few houses perch on earthern hills. Several more tower above their neighbors, raised on substantial steel or creosote pilings. Some sag on the ground as if they have not been touched since Rita. In between are overgrown grassy lots where houses have been demolished. City Hall has removed itself once again to a trailer parked on the side of the flooded municipal building on Railroad Street.

Broussard never spends any time at his desk. He’s helping a constituent jump her stalled car one minute and the next is handing out hot lunches of red beans and rice to National Guard soldiers who are in charge of distributing ice and water. He also never stops talking. “There’s too many studies being done, but nothing is happening. We’re being studied to death. We need a buffer zone to prevent the water from coming in.” He ticks off a litany of man-made environmental problems that have contributed to his town going under. Dredging of the shell reefs, which at one time provided offshore islets to help break up storm surges. The deterioration of a circa 1940s unauthorized but useful levee along the Intracoastal Canal, built with dredged spoil as the canal was being dug. The loss of coastal wetlands from saltwater intrusion due to oilfield cuts and canals. Subsidence caused by loss of Mississippi River sediment.

The state is ready to move some dirt, says Chris Macaluso, spokesman for the Governor’s Office of Coastal Activities. One project for southwest Louisiana approved in the 2007 federal Water Resources Development Act is the $131 million Acadiana to the Gulf channel, which will deepen a canal from the Port of Iberia to Freshwater Bayou to allow shipping access to the Gulf of Mexico. The Corps’ plan is to put the dredged material on the south bank of the Intracoastal to help provide storm surge protection, which may give some relief to Delcambre, Erath and Abbeville.

A second remedy is still in the study phase. The Chenier Plain/Southwest Coastal Louisiana hurricane and storm project will examine the need and possibility of providing hurricane protection by rebuilding the spoil banks along the Intracoastal all the way to Texas. Hurricanes Gustav and Ike have raised the stakes, and the state is expediting the study. In August of this year, $11 million in state dollars was committed to the project. Then on Sept. 24, the federal government appropriated $740 million for operations and maintenance of hurricane protection systems, debris removal and general flood protection and hurricane recovery efforts. Macaluso says his boss, Garret Graves, head of the coastal activities office, has indicated some of that funding should go toward expediting the southwest Louisiana hurricane protection levee along the Intracoastal Canal.

Meanwhile, Gov. Bobby Jindal is committed to issuing bonds based on future revenue from offshore oil and gas dollars to help pay for coastal restoration and hurricane protection projects. While the state currently receives about $20 million a year in federal offshore money, when new federal revenue sharing legislation kicks in, in 2017, offshore revenues are projected to reach as much as $600 million a year. There are regulations within the Minerals Management Service that forbid the state from bonding the money, as well as adverse conditions in the financial markets, but Macaluso says the state is making progress on the plan.

Whether the hurricane protection projects will be successful or completed in time to help out towns like Delcambre will frame the future for Louisiana’s coastal residents. Broussard meanwhile takes the long view for his town, a vision rife with a cynicism born out of his difficult experiences. “Right now, what’s happening to Delcambre is probably the best thing that can happen to Delcambre. The poor people can’t afford to rebuild. They’ll sell, rich people will come in, build houses on stilts. We’ll build a beautiful waterfront. It’ll look like Cypremort Point. But it won’t be Delcambre anymore.”
A Rainbow over Erath
By Nick Pittman

In the skies above Erath on Sunday after Hurricane Ike, there shone a brilliant rainbow. Against the gray skies that threatened more rain on an already flooded town, a reluctant sun clearly defined every color of ROY G. BIV. Looking at it, I couldn’t help think of the Sunday school tale of Noah and the rainbow. After his 40-day boat ride, Noah received a promise — never again will the world completely flood. Apparently, south Louisiana, wasn’t on the table when the covenant was struck.

In Our Lady of Lourde’s Cemetery in Erath, at least three caskets surfaced in the waters of Hurricane Ike.

photo by Nicole Prejean Pittman

Hurricane Ike’s glancing blow pushed waters from Vermilion Bay up towards Erath. It was unfathomable for the town, which still uses the flood of Hurricane Rita as a reference point in conversation. Once again, families like mine — my in-laws the Dubois, the Heberts, the Bernards — are ripping out sheet rock, bleaching studs, tearing up floors before retiring to relatives’ houses and, possibly, the dreaded FEMA trailer. As debris piles begin to line the streets, the town smells of wet socks left to dry in the dark.

Yet, for the second time, Erath remains stubbornly defiant in the face of the almost certain return of bay waters. After Rita, I laughed as houses in Erath were lifted sky high to escape what everyone — save for politicians and the rainbow — promised would be a once-in-a-lifetime flood. I thought about them being bulls-eye targets for August winds. Now, I look at them and wonder how long will it be before Erath’s ground floor is 12-feet high.

It’s hard to put a finger on which storm was worse. Because of the raising of homes done across town, Ike likely will ring up far less in insurance deductibles and trips to the hardware store. But, the two-foot-tall ring around houses tells a different story. Gauging which flood’s waters crested higher is a matter of inches and a non-issue — a flooded house is a flooded house. The headache of adjusters, hurricane deductibles and rising premiums doesn’t make for a good night’s sleep either.

In a way, Ike casts a far grimmer shadow than Rita. If a Category 2 making landfall 250 miles away flooded here, what does the future hold? After all, Rita hit closer to home with slightly more intense winds. Will the floors come up every three to four years? How long can Erath’s determined spirit last under biennial renovations?

And why did Erath flood again? The answer, I feel, lies in marsh loss, barrier island degradation, and non-action following Rita. We beefed up flood protection in New Orleans after Katrina, but what was done on the rest of Louisiana’s coast?  Where was the outcry for upgrading flood protection here? Where was the non-stop media coverage forcing the issue into the forefront of national news?  Wayne Toups didn’t go on a telethon and declare “George W. Bush doesn’t care about Cajun people.” Maybe that’s the wake-up call we need — not just for Erath, but for all of coastal Louisiana. Today it’s Erath, but with coastal erosion, every year and every storm brings the Gulf closer and closer to those who dismiss it as not their problem.

In a way, Erath is its own worst enemy. The can-do, come-together spirit of Erath lends heavily to its return to the Bay and its retreat from the spotlight. When the town reopened, its residents flooded back in, navigating flooded streets to check on their homes and ready the rebuilding process. In a way, knowing what’s ahead seemed to lessen the blow. Going through it again isn’t pleasant, but at least it’s not an unknown path.

By Monday, my wife’s grandparents house — the site of both our and her parents’ wedding reception — was cut from the water’s highest point down to the freshly ripped out baseboards. The floor of her sister’s house across town came flying out as a team of family went to work. In Erath, family means not only leaving your own ailing home to help, but bringing a loaded ice chest with you.

If CNN, FOX NEWS, MSNBC were on their way, which they weren’t, the story of a town working together to rebuild wouldn’t be as juicy. And just like during Rita, Erath now competes with other more populated areas with bigger stories and more damage to tell. In the wake of Rita, New Orleans dominated the spotlight. Now, the nation turns to Galveston and Houston. Yes, damage was more severe there, but that doesn’t lessen Erath’s grief.

What happened in Erath begs for answers. If this storm put Iberia and Vermilion parishes afloat, there are more tough days ahead. Consider New Orleans in Gustav: a comparable storm hit much closer and the city stayed dry.

Still, in every cleanup effort, it is undeniable the town believes there is a rainbow over Erath. At the other end of the rainbow, there’s another rainbow legend. If someone isn’t there in an green suit waving a four leaf clover — be it Bobby Jindal, Barack Obama, or John McCain — Erath residents might as well lay down chamois instead of carpet.