Ghost Town

Vance and Donna Ciaccio returned to Plaquemines Parish to find no trace of their house. Residents say the place was cursed for a 200-year-old crime.
Vance and Donna Ciaccio returned to Plaquemines Parish to find no trace of their house. Residents say the place was cursed for a 200-year-old crime. (Michel duCille -- The Washington Post)
By Manuel Roig-Franzia
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 21, 2005

DAVANT, La. Directions to Davant are simple: "Go to the end of the world and turn left."

End-of-the-world Louisiana means going down, deep down, past New Orleans and its silent, flooded neighborhoods, through ruined St. Bernard Parish where the oil spilled after Hurricane Katrina, and down even deeper, down into the sinking marshes and bayous of Plaquemines Parish, where Creoles with lyricalFrench names talk matter-of-factly of walking the levee next to ghosts and spirits. Down to Davant.

Except now it's hard to say what is Davant and what isn't Davant. New Orleans filled up with water slowly. Davant was swept away fast, destroying the false sense of security that ever-taller levees gave to the place. Even in battered New Orleans, tones go hushed when conversations turn to Plaquemines (PLACK-uh-min), which takes its name from a Native American word for persimmon. "It's worse down there, bad, bad, bad," they say.

This is where Katrina acted like a tsunami, treating the big "ring levee" that comes to a looping end south of town--bent in the shape of a paper clip--as if it were a child's sand castle. The Mississippi River came roaring through here, frothy and white and mean, up over the levee on one side of town, and the salty marsh water broke through the levee on the other.

Plaquemines is the place where the people who want to resurrect New Orleans, people such as President Bush, who has vowed "to build the levees higher" to protect the Crescent City, might look for lessons, and where people who love the marsh and build the levees want everyone to take note. It was the first line of defense thrown up by human beings against Katrina, and it buckled, unable to withstand a surge that cascaded through fraying marshes that in another era might have slowed the water.

"Plaquemines has been kind of out of the news," Lt. Gen. Carl Strock, commander of the Army Corps of Engineers, said recently. "But clearly, it's an important area, it needs to be brought back up."

All that's left on some blocks in this town of 900, and some of the neighboring communities along the levee, are concrete stoops. That's it. Churches and stores simply vanished and a big chunk of the road that is so important to maintaining Louisiana's rich oil fields is washed away. Sturdy wood frame houses that survived when the wind got strong and the water got high in the past were ground into kindling, reduced to mere smudges of color on the sloping sides of the river levees.

The levee that failed to protect Davant is twice as tall now, local officials say, as it was when Hurricane Camille blasted through the parish in 1969. All that extra dirt and clay had a lulling effect, and the men and women who worked the oil fields out in the marsh, or plied the bayous for oysters, got to thinking Davant was a safe place.

"People felt pretty good with the levee 18, 19 feet high," said John Barthelemy, a parish councilman with droopy eyes and a quick smile. "They'd say, 'Now we have the levees. We don't have to worry about water. We'll just worry about wind.' "

Wind and legends, that is. The Creole boys and girls down here put as much faith in the tales of their grandmothers -- their memeres -- as they do in the Army Corps of Engineers. And the memeres said Plaquemines was fated for doom. As the legend goes, the people of lower Plaquemines took vengeance on a priest in the early 1800s, killing him after he was accused of committing a heinous crime. That act of vigilantism -- passed from generation to generation in scary bedtime stories filled with werewolves called loups-garous and screaming "yi, yi, yi" spirits -- came with consequences, the memeres warned.

"There was something about 'thou shalt not kill,' " Simon Duplessis, 70, said as he looked for pieces of his small private plane on the narrow strip of land that his ancestors have owned since 1820. "Dad said the place was cursed."

Certainly Plaquemines, which now has a population of about 29,000, has suffered. During the great Mississippi River flood of 1927, the wealthy men upstream in New Orleans decided to save their city by blowing up a downstream levee and flooding Plaquemines. For decades, the parish was a corrupt kingdom ruled in dictatorial fashion by Judge Leander Perez, an iconic segregationist whose blunt, inflammatory speeches in the 1950s and '60s made him a national figure in the Southern stand against integration.

The Plaquemines that Judge Perez ruled looks like a cursed place now. Cattle roam untended on deserted streets, and pecan trees -- once tall and majestic -- lie down in the fields, toppled and broken. The lush groves that produced satsumas, sweet oranges coveted each harvest season by Louisianians, have gone brittle and brown, burned crispy by 14 feet of salty water that came through a 200-foot-wide break in the marsh levee.

On the other side is wild Louisiana, part land, part water, a place that was vanishing even before Katrina, and that environmentalists are begging harder than ever for the federal government to restore. "As a child I always used to think, 'What's beyond this?'" said Duplessis, who remembers going for swims in the Mississippi with his father. "The ducks would fly off, and I would always wonder where in the world they would go."

This part of Plaquemines once had a boomtown feel to it. A railroad passed near the Duplessis home, to bring in supplies for the oil rigs and bring out rice and oranges and pecans. The country stores held Friday night dances and showed movies. But the marsh has been dropping steadily -- it has grown more sickly over the years as the Mississippi was trapped in a man-made channel that prevented it from spreading silt. Each year it sinks up to an inch. The lower it goes, the worse the storm surges become, and the more inhospitable the place becomes, even with its bigger levees.

"The ones who are left are pretty much your die-hards," said Gina Meyer, a Plaquemines native who cruised over submerged neighborhoods in an airboat to grab people off rooftops.

Die-hards and, to hear the locals tell it, ghosts. Even Barthelemy, a feet-on-the-ground sort who commandeered school buses to evacuate residents before Katrina struck, talks about the spirits. On the night before the storm, Barthelemy says quite seriously, a good friend of his walked home with a whole pack of ghosts. Barthelemy asked him if he was scared, and the man replied, "What they gonna do? The dead can't hurt me."

Lynell Williams, born and raised in Plaquemines Parish, felt a sense of foreboding around the same time. She says she saw two lines of ghosts--"bright people," she noted, invoking a local colloquialism for whites--marching over the levee. The ghosts were getting out of Davant. That was all she needed to see. She left, too.

Williams, who has been trying to find her house, also can't find her church. Bethlehem African Judea Baptist was strong enough to stick around for 143 years, celebrating an anniversary on the weekend before Katrina arrived. Now the sturdy brick sanctuary has gone missing. All that remains is the sign out front, which seems to invite congregants to a 43rd-anniversary party. The "1" fell off.

"That Katrina, she really pitched a party," Williams said, shifting the blue kerchief on her head and wiping tears on the spot her church once stood. "We just in slow motion. I feel like I'm in a dream."

Up the road another house of worship, St. Thomas, is a skeleton, its windows and doors blown out, its brick frame chipped and scraped, but still standing. Meyer was baptized there, celebrated her First Communion there and was married there, following the same track that the faithful in Davant have gone down since they broke ground for the church in 1844. She'll pray there again, she says, even though it's hard to imagine anyone but the buzzards inhabiting this place for a long, long time.

Out back, there are people crying in the cemetery, walking slowly past headstones that commemorate the French and Creole families that made this place: the Fontenelles and Gravolets and Falgouts. No one should have to see what the weeping men and women in the burial ground are seeing, but they linger there, blinking their eyes, as if refocusing will bring some sense to what lies before them.

The aboveground sarcophagi, which performed so well in storm after storm for decade after decade, couldn't hold on anymore. The lids popped off more than a dozen, and some let their coffins go floating out. A delicately carved wooden casket lies in the middle of the main path, upside down. Mud cakes its sides. And the little white angel figurines that once looked to the heavens from each of the coffin's corners are now staring straight down.

Staff writer Michael Grunwald contributed to this report.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company