Cover Story

Mission in the Cove

by Jeremy Alford

When Hurricane Rita hits Mouton Cove, residents and friends of the small Cajun community search for signs of life.

When Rita makes landfall as a Category 3 hurricane at about 2:30 a.m. Saturday morning around Sabine Pass on the extreme southwestern corner of Louisiana, 100-mile-per-hour wind squalls are wreaking havoc on the trees in Carencro's Lexington Heights neighborhood. The tops of majestic water oaks bend at 90-degree angles, and the sound of cracking pecan trees fills the night.

A few hours of restless sleep doesn't stop the howling cacophony. Around 9 a.m., a huge boom resounds through the air; a 100-foot-tall water oak goes down and crashes through the roof of a home; luckily the residents are safe in another part of the house.

Voices coming over a battery-powered radio warn Acadiana residents not to go out on the road unless it is an emergency. In a matter of minutes, the message changes: Volunteers and boats are needed immediately at the courthouse annex building in Abbeville. It's a hauntingly familiar cry, as the state had made a similar distress call during the first week of flooding from Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans.

Search and rescue is now under way in Vermilion Parish.

Using a 2001 Chevrolet Tahoe carrying six gallons of gas strapped to the roof, 12 bottles of water and four sandwiches on ice, a first-aid kit and rope on the backseat, a set of waders, a pile of dry clothes and towels and four laminated maps of the area, I leave Carencro and head toward Abbeville.

There are very few police cars on the roads, and scores of traffic lights are without power. The water grows thicker along the roads further south, and city markers are hard to find, but no sign is needed to find Abbeville.

In the middle of an otherwise sleepy town square, dozens of sportsmen and boat owners line the streets. A dump truck unloads wet and tired people in front of the courthouse. One woman carries a small grocery bag of belongings. Another man massages the back of his head and frowns.

Inside the nearby Vermilion Parish Sheriff's Office, calls come in at a rapid flurry. "There are four people trapped in the attic over here," a voice bellows from a speakerphone. Maj. Ron Sonnier, 40, scribbles the information on a small piece of paper, adding it to a growing list of people in need of rescue. "These calls just keep on coming," he says, abruptly stopping to answer another ringing phone.

Officials know most people have evacuated, but there are also a few "hardheads" ' the term rescue operators have dubbed residents who refused to leave even as Katrina and Rita churned dangerously in the Gulf of Mexico. What might be rumors ' or not ' circulate on the packed streets of the town square. There are 40 people trapped in a residential neighborhood. A woman and her child are sitting on a rooftop. People are refusing to be rescued.

For some time, there appears to be very little direction. Residents stand around. Boats sit motionless. Pleas for assistance roll in. But slowly, as tension mounts and everyone grows restless, people determined to act independently surface, and plans of action sprout up all over the place.

As reporters and photographers scramble to find a ride into the swamped areas and boat owners wait around for instructions, state Sen. Nick Gautreaux, a Democrat from Abbeville, arrives with his own search and rescue team. He frantically tries to get information from local officials, hammering them with a barrage of questions. Then suddenly, in a flash, he turns around and tells everyone to meet in the parking lot of Robie's Grocery, just down the street.

Merely a freshman in the state's upper chamber, Gautreaux is a rambunctious Cajun who learned the political ropes quickly ' how to garner headlines, how to get on the right committee, how to land money for your district. This is another operation he will command and control.

In the grocery's parking lot, about 20 men gather around the state senator. They look stern-faced and weathered. Most are wearing boots and T-shirts, and nearly all have the reddened tans and rough skin that comes from hours spent on the water or in the field.

"Does everyone have chainsaws or hammers?" Gautreaux shouts over the group. "Okay. Look, when you get on a rooftop, pop off the vent. It'll come off. At the least, you can give people some air if you can't get through the roof."

The mood intensifies with that statement. Many of the assembled volunteers had tried to help out after Hurricane Katrina, but state or federal officials turned them back. They aren't going to be denied this time. Gautreaux orders the teams to program a set of numbers on their cell phones. Everyone is instructed to call the Coast Guard to airlift evacuees out.

The goal is to get the airboats in the water first, since they can usually sail over any terrain. Lighter boats were instructed to follow. But the directives are easier to dictate than implement. There are already reports coming from other boaters having difficulty finding access to the flooded neighborhoods. Launching a boat into shallow waters proves impossible for many. But everyone is willing to try.

Thirty-nine-year old Joe Tessier's pick-up truck is the first one on the road, with about a half dozen more trailing behind. After much deliberation, he drives over a few downed power lines and reaches a section of road cut off to further travel due to a demolished bridge. There are two homes to our left and an abandoned farm shed to our right, surrounded entirely by water.

Where to go?

Tessier looks over his shoulder and steers the boat trailer around. "Mouton Cove," he says.

Mouton Cove is a residential settlement of white frame homes and trailers on the outskirts of Abbeville that boasts maybe 500 residents, depending who you ask. It's a blue-collar community with cattle ranchers, a few commercial fishermen and a bevy of oilfield workers. Lafayette pioneer Jean Mouton reportedly bought the 4,250 acres of land from an Attakapas Indian chief in 1802. The price: $50.

Originally known as Anse de Mouton, the Cove is located off highways 82 and 691, just on the edge of the Big Wood. It is home to a few commercial buildings and the Seventh Ward Public School. Mouton Cove, however, is also known for harvesting a trademark of Louisiana culture and commerce.

When New Orleans was swept under the tide of Hurricane Katrina, the market for alligator processing ' meat and hide ' moved to Vermilion Parish, primarily Mouton Cove. But now that designation is uncertain, buried under four to five feet of water like everything else in the area. Hurricane Rita sent a tidal surge through Vermilion Bay into the community. The water is so high that the previously caged baby alligators are probably swimming around the town.

It's also Tessier's neighborhood. His house there is gone, but there will be time to fully inspect the damage. For now, he's focused on search and rescue efforts.

Mouton Cove is about two or three miles away from the launching spot in Abbeville, easily accessible by airboat but a challenge for a flat-bottom like the one Tessier is pulling. There are a series of flooded rice fields that are likely navigable, but they are way off in the distance. I ask Tessier how he plans to get his boat in, and he replies quickly and with confidence.

"Y'all are going to go in through that ditch," he says, pointing to a tiny run of water about five feet in width.

Tessier's nephew, Brennan Billeaud, 23, a Lafayette native, is determined to make the ditch plan work. So is Marc Broussard, 36, a St. Martinville Tiger fan originally from Plaquemines Parish. They set the flat-bottom boat into the ditch and turn it around to face Mouton Cove.

Billeaud and Broussard, who are related by marriage, work the boat through the ditch and into a set of flooded rice fields. Where high patches of land divide the fields, they jump into waste-high water to pull the boat up and over. The second time they do this, something furry tries to crawl up Broussard's side. The water is infested with rats and water moccasins, and spiders scurry atop anything that is remotely dry.

The strenuous process of pulling the boat over these patches is repeated three times until Billeaud apparently grows tired of either the water or the animals. "Y'all hold on," he yells. Broussard drops to the floor of the boat, and Billeaud guns the boat's motor and sends the vessel flying over the last barrier. It hits the water on the other side with a thud, the motor's mud-clogged propeller briefly straining.

The two men eventually find a large drainage canal leading into Mouton Cove, which is a watery shell of its former self. The boat is moving quicker now, and brackish, muddy water slaps their faces. Mailboxes shimmer under the surface, vehicles sit submerged, and fences float by. One dog clutches the top of a chain link fence, running its paws through the metal openings. A horse looks on unamused in a nearby garage, standing chest deep in water.

A brief stop is made at Tessier's home. "Every Easter we come here and boil crawfish and have an Easter egg hunt from here to that fence line," Broussard says of Tessier's property, which is now nothing more than a large body of water. They find temporary refuge in his farming warehouse, situated oddly on a high piece of land, like an island.

Over Broussard's shoulder, a man and a woman appear, trudging through the water and carrying garbage bags. Broussard runs to their side and helps them to higher ground. Water-soaked and looking exhausted, Helen Caffrey, 58, points to the distance, mumbling something about her home. "We lost it," she says, petting a small black puppy clinging to her chest.

After a quick cell phone call, Caffrey and her husband are brought further inland by an airboat. About a dozen others are eventually airlifted out by the Coast Guard, including one man who initially refused to leave. "I almost decided to stay, but they didn't want to," says a barefoot Jude Broussard, 42, motioning to eight family members crammed into his little boat.

But after dropping off his family, Broussard steers his boat back toward his home and disappears.

Heading toward the corner of Highway 82 and Audubon Road the current is rough, shoving debris ' a mattress, a child's play wagon, two ice machines, a refrigerator and propane tanks ' against fence lines and dry ground. Billeaud steers into the J&L Trailer Park.

"Anybody here?" he screams. Broussard also knocks on windows and yells, but no one is found.

Arriving at the intersection, another search and rescue team is already there. Sitting on the edge of an airboat, they recount their day and think about lunch. "They used to make some good sandwiches at that place," says Scott Halphen, 43, of Krotz Springs, pointing to boarded-up and flooded Bon Amis Grocery.

Tessier shows up in a different boat. "Those rice fields are rough, eh? They're the roughest rice fields I ever rode a boat over," he says. Most manage at least a smile.

Halphen offers a ride back to Abbeville in his airboat and motions for the driver to stop not long after taking off. He rescues the dog on top of the fence we saw on our way in. He tries to save a few others in the water, but one dog tries to bite him, and he gives up. "It's not like we didn't make an effort," he says.

He stops later at the farming warehouse to drop off a few people, and there's Tessier again. Tessier smiles as his flooded home is visible in the background and hands out small cups of melted ice cream. "Come on, now," he says. "Y'all drink these up. I can't do nothing with them."

All around there are signs of a wonderful Cajun life ' ducks fly overhead, Tessier's humor produces good-hearted chuckles, and fishing gear bobs in the water. Except the town is submerged. It's not the Mouton Cove people around those parts grew up with, but for now, it's all they have.

Billeaud wades through the water to say goodbye before returning to Abbeville. I ask him if his family land will ever look the same.

"I think it's going to take a long time to get back to normal," he says. "But we will, I hope."

Jeremy Alford is a freelance journalist based in Baton Rouge. Over the past month, he has helped provide team hurricane coverage for The New York Times. He can be reached through his Web site at