Surveying Rita's Damage

Where Bayou Towns Stood, Only Bayou Remains

In Pecan Island, La., some people tried to salvage belongings by taking flatboats to their house and punching through the roof.
In Pecan Island, La., some people tried to salvage belongings by taking flatboats to their house and punching through the roof. "It's hard to believe what water can do," one resident said. (By Sarah L. Voisin -- The Washington Post)
By Manuel Roig-Franzia
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 28, 2005

ABOVE SOUTHERN LOUISIANA, Sept. 27 -- It's gone. Plain gone.

That's what they'll say when they finally get in, when the people who love Louisiana's bayous and marshes get into the towns where hardly anyone can go now.

That's what they'll say when they get to Holly Beach, where a forest of stilts is all that Hurricane Rita left of a resort town that had once stacked houses six-deep up to the sand. That's what they'll say in whole neighborhoods of Cameron and Grand Chenier and Oak Grove and the other little towns where there was much more to life than the hunting and fishing that made these places diamonds to sportsmen; there were also churches and schools and offices and homes.

At its worst, Rita behaved like a viciously effective bulldozer, scraping away everything it met, scraping away places such as Holly Beach. The full scope of the storm's brutality can be comprehended only from the air, and from the air the images are heartbreaking: 200 miles of Louisiana coastal life broken apart or left to steep in the brownest, dankest water imaginable. The destruction stretches from the wobbly levees that flooded New Orleans for a second time, west to the shattered levee that has submerged more than 10,000 homes near Houma; westward along the coast, where the lowest-lying parts of Louisiana were wrecked; and inland to Lake Charles, a major city so battered that each highway exit is blocked to keep residents out.

Row after row of gray foundations -- laid out like tombstones in a monster-size graveyard -- are the only clues that some coastal neighborhoods, some towns, once existed. In other places, subdivisions are ringed by moats, and houses are transformed into islands. Cows push against one another for comfort on tiny patches of dry land in deep bayou-country pastures, stranded three football fields of water away from the high road. Their determined human keepers patrol by horseback, hoping to save a few, while elsewhere the most intrepid residents float flatboats up to their roofs and hack through, hoping to salvage something.

On the ground, the scene is a still life. Most of the bayou towns are empty -- even repair crews cannot get in. And in the places where people have managed to cajole or sneak or power their way in, the plastering that Rita administered is so complete that there is seldom anything to do but stand in awe. They would clean up if there were something there to clean up. But there isn't.

"It's hard to believe what water can do," Jerry Melancon said, standing on the empty ground where his dream pad used to be in Pecan Island, below the expanse of White Lake. "Unbelievable."

Looking down from above, it's clear what functions in Louisiana and what doesn't. The places where the marsh -- run through with brilliant patches of orange amid seas of browns and green -- was allowed to thrive without development are vibrant. The marsh wears a storm well, wrapping water around it like a shawl, guzzling the excess. But the places where people pushed themselves into the marsh -- where houses and businesses sprouted in place of marsh grass and lilies -- are apocalyptic, smashed and eerie zones where the few things left standing are in tatters.

The coastal carnage begins as far east as Houma, in Terrebonne Parish, a town devastated by the loss on a single day earlier this year of six local National Guardsmen in Iraq. Now the town must endure the fallibility of its outer levee, where concrete flood walls that were once atop an earthen mound now lie in deep water, tossed aside like dominoes by storm surge that burst through, forcing the evacuation of a hospital.

To the west, upriver in Vermilion Parish, the little Cajun towns are underwater. Erath and Delcambre -- where chubby boats haul in tubs of sweet Gulf shrimp -- are still filled with the water that subsumed half their houses. In Erath, a police sport-utility vehicle is tipped onto its side in a roadside ditch. If the police couldn't navigate the streets, who could?

At the sunken bottom of the parish, boats glide into the town of Pecan Island. Down below on the soggy soil, Melancon and his friends watch crabs and shrimp flitting through the high water that covers what was open ground behind their houses. "That," said Jackie Abshire, first pointing at the salty water behind his house, then at the Gulf 200 yards away, "used to be over there."

But no place is worse than Cameron, a town of 1,900 clinging to a narrow strip of land between Calcasieu Lake and the Gulf of Mexico. Rita came ashore just west of Cameron, exposing the little town that once advertised its "Cajun cabins" to the most ferocious winds a hurricane carries, the winds in its northeast quadrant.

From above, the town's little amphitheater appears to have transformed into a convertible, its roof stripped off, exposing the bright-red seats where people once sat for school and community events. Cameron had been poised to become a big thing, a really big thing. When Hurricane Katrina pounded the port in New Orleans, the people in Cameron thought their own little port would pick up a lot of the business, which would have meant millions. "Now it's all headed to Texas," said Billy Gibson, an electrical cooperative representative who was one of the few people on the ground there Tuesday.

Gibson let out a laugh, a sad kind of laugh, when the conversation snaked around to getting Cameron lighted again. "There's nothing salvageable here," he said.

Rita abused Cameron's dead as much as its living. The town cemetery is macabre. Coffins float in fetid water, mausoleums are in shards, and human bones lie blanching in the sunlight next to disintegrating burial vestments. Not far away, a church sags beneath a steeple that once pointed to the skies. It points west now, almost accusatorily, to the place where Rita came ashore.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company