La. Cattlemen Struggle 1 Year After Rita

The Associated Press
Saturday, September 23, 2006; 8:00 PM

CAMERON, La. -- Summer rains have brought back the coast's usual lush green grazing land. Life for Louisiana's cattlemen, however, is far from normal.

A year after Hurricane Rita, the cattlemen say they're still struggling, hampered because the storm tore down hundreds of miles of fences essential to contain their cows, bulls and calves. Even if the fences and the farm structures Rita also destroyed get rebuilt, the storm has forever changed a sliver of southwest Louisiana culture.

"It's not going to be like it was, ever again," said Mike Montie, 41, a second-generation cattleman who evacuated his family's cattle north before the storm.

Category 3 Rita struck here last Sept. 24, flattening Cameron and other towns, its salt water turning the lush grass to brown and killing roughly 30,000 cattle, according to the state agriculture department. The region's cattle farmers produce a tiny fraction of the national industry; the animals killed in Rita had little effect on beef prices.

But along with catching shrimp and drilling for oil, the cowboy life is a generations-old facet of southwest Louisiana's mishmash culture. Cowboys who live in and around Cameron used to run into each other at the feed store, tip their cowboy hats back, kick the dirt with their boots, and swap tips and tales about their cows.

With few of their houses still standing, the cattlemen have moved themselves and their remaining animals north.

"Everybody's so scattered out now. That's the thing you miss: seeing people, the gossip at the post office," said Bobby Montie, 67, Mike Montie's father and a lifelong cattleman from the tiny town of Creole.

Some have begun receiving checks from a federal agricultural program that reimburses them for 75 percent of the value of each animal, up to a total of $80,000. Many cattlemen lost far more; the relief money is not nearly enough to restore their herd. The National Cattleman's Beef Association and other groups have also been donating hay, feed and farm supplies.

But until they can restore their barbed-wire fences, the Monties will keep their cattle on leased land, about 25 miles north, they said.

On Saturday, Gov. Kathleen Blanco, the state's two U.S. senators and other officials gathered in coastal Cameron for a concert, party and a staged cattle drive to commemorate Rita's one-year-anniversary and to honor the cattlemen's recovery effort.

The cowboys mostly ignored the politicians' speeches, munching on hamburgers and focusing instead on reconnecting with the friends they don't see much anymore. Several said they expected to continue putting up new fences, but won't move their animals back to the coast anytime soon.

Donnie Rogers, who lost about 100 cattle in Johnson Bayou in the storm, said: "Nobody's really got big plans to start up again until next year."

© 2006 The Associated Press