Road to Rebuilding

by Mary Tutwiler

Residents of Vermilion and Iberia Parish vow to start anew.

Rural communities in the coastal zone of southwest Louisiana connect by roads that cut across wetlands. The lives of the residents of lower Iberia and Vermilion parishes ' farming cane, rice and crawfish, raising cattle, shrimping, crabbing, fishing ' are as deeply immersed in water as they are ingrained in the land. Storms are not new to these rural residents, but Hurricane Rita pushed water to places never flooded in recent memory. Four days after the storm, sludge-covered roads are now scraped clean, but out in the country, houses still remain largely inaccessible because of a thick layer of mud that coats fields, lawns, driveways and the floors of homes.

South of Bayou Tigre, where a 5-foot storm surge from Vermilion Bay ravaged the countryside, Kathy Louviere sits on an ice chest on a flat bed trailer. She has a small stack of dishes by her feet, a pile of newspapers in her lap. Her fingers coated with a sheer yellow glaze of mud, she is carefully wrapping each plate with newsprint and stacking it in a box. "Three times the hurricane takes me," she says. "Andrew. Lili. Now Rita. We know to run."

Behind her is a blasted trailer, siding peeled back in curls, windows blown out, the contents tossed, tangled and smeared with mud. Her son Wayne Louviere sits on the concrete steps of the trailer. Two grandsons, Ryan and Logan, and Logan's girlfriend, Ariel Scott, are perched here and there, trying to keep out of the mud.

"We're all family," Wayne says, looking at nearby houses surrounding the trailer. "My aunt lives over there." He points to a grid of piers on one side of Highway 330, a rural road that zigzags south into the marshes below Delcambre before turning west toward the hamlets of Boston, Henry and Bancker. His aunt's house is no longer on its footings. The saltwater surge from Vermilion Bay picked it up and washed it into a field on the other side of the highway.

"I had six pigs," Wayne Louviere says. "Where are they?" He adds with a shrug, "You tell me." Every house the extended family lived in is probably a total loss. But despite the threat of future storms, the Louvieres say they will return. "This is what we own," says Wayne. "If you like hunting and fishing, this is where you want to be. It's the area where you're raised. You wake up here, you hear cows."

"There's a disaster everywhere," adds Kathy. "Run from what? An earthquake in California? Tornadoes in the Midwest? We know to get out when there's a hurricane. Then we come home." She looks at the small pile of heirloom china in her lap, "But I'm not collecting stuff any more."

Further down the highway in Boston (pronounced bos-TON), Dale Reaux is scraping the mud out of his yard with a shovel. His house, towering on tall pillars, rises high above nearby dwellings constructed on slabs. A visible water line marks red brick walls at 5 feet, but the leaping waves got as high as 8 feet. Reaux built his house in 2001, and in order to get flood insurance required by Reaux's bank for a loan, he had to build to FEMA requirements that require new construction to be 11 feet above sea level. "By accident, I built about 18 inches higher than that," he says. "I was really mad at my contractor then ' every foot costs more ' but it paid off," Reaux says. "I'm the only one on the road here who didn't get water inside. I just got cow damage," he says with a rueful smile. "Four cows were on my porch."

Reaux's mother-in-law lives 50 yards away, and her low-lying house was engulfed. "I don't know if the house is fixable," says her daughter, Michelle Reaux. "There's an eel inside. There are snakes inside. My mother is going to move in with me."

Michelle Reaux's mother doesn't have flood insurance. The 70-year-old house never flooded before, and after the family finished paying off the mortgage, they dropped expensive flood insurance. It's the case all over southwest Louisiana, where Cajuns experienced what they thought would be the worst hurricane to ever strike the marsh, Hurricane Audrey, in 1957. Audrey devastated Cameron Parish, but the storm surge didn't inundate the communities east of Abbeville the way Rita did.

When the water rushed up from the south last week, it only had three miles to travel through marsh before it washed over Boston. And as the wetlands continue to erode, that distance will become shorter and put rural residents at further risk.

"It's because the shell reefs were dredged," Roland Viator says. The reefs, off the Louisiana coast, broke storm surges the same way barrier islands do. But dredging was big business in southwest Louisiana well into the 1970s. "There was never a history of water on my land," Viator says. "If the coast had been taken care of, we never would have had this."

Viator reddens with anger in the hot sun. He is helping his friends Terry Hebert and Dwight Brassaux round up cattle that are threatened with dehydration from drinking salt water. Brassaux's young daughters, freckle faced and spattered with mud, sit on the ledge of the horse trailer parked in front of Henry Elementary school. His sons, spurs on their boots, will help round up the cattle. But it's noon, and Viator, who owns Circle V meat processing plant south of Abbeville, is barbecuing pork chops for lunch. They eat them country style, bone in, between two slices of white bread.

"My plant is entirely washed out," Viator says. "It's 13 feet above sea level. That's what FEMA wanted. It shouldn't have flooded. Where's FEMA now?" demands Viator.

"Take it easy, Roland," says Hebert.

"I should be retiring," snaps the 66-year-old Viator. "Now I have to start all over again."

The magnitude of destruction seems insurmountable. But inhabitants of these parts have built their lives on self-reliance. When disaster strikes, neighbors and friends are the first responders.

Rudy and Diana Thibodeaux, who are in their 60s, stand next to their car gazing at their house, about 40 yards from the road. But it feels 100 miles away. The liquid mud makes access impossible, and there is a dead cow on their porch. "We're going to try to fix our house," Diana says, her voice quivering. Rudy looks pale. But their resolve returns as their son, Max, rumbles over on a tractor and starts cleaning the driveway with a box scraper. Then his uncle John Langlinais, who lives down the road, stops by. He asks Max, "You think you can pull that cow off that porch with the front end loader?" Max replies, "You got some chains?"

Max Thibodeaux's trailer, just down the way, also took on water. But he has no intention of leaving the land he was born on. "I'm gonna come back from this," he says. "I'm going to build a house one day, right here. Just a little bit higher."