Cameron Parish had 48 years to put Audrey behind it, 48 years to watch the really big hurricanes, the true monsters, go elsewhere. But Rita's rough assault on this wild, low-slung corner of southwestern Louisiana reminded people here about their vulnerability nearly half a century after Audrey killed 390 people, making it one of the 10 deadliest U.S. hurricanes.
Rita is not believed to have killed anyone here, but it still slashed Cameron with great swaths of extensive damage that was absent in all but a few other spots touched by the storm. It also left the parish in a state of isolation. Cameron was too flooded and windy and treacherous for rescue missions on the day of the storm, too dangerous for the locals to feel comfortable giving the media more than a peek on the day after.
Much of this parish -- the largest in Louisiana, covering 1,300 square miles of some of the United States' best hunting and fishing grounds, and housing the second-largest deposits in the nation's Strategic Petroleum Reserve system -- is impassable, its few small towns and clusters of fishing camps mostly flooded and its roads submerged. Along the roads leading into the parish is a kaleidoscope of half-submerged houses, toppled telephone polls and ruined barns. Nowhere is Rita's destructive force more evident.
"It's an island now," said Cathy Munson, who sneaked into the Cameron Parish town of Hackberry on a Go-Devil boat and discovered the town she grew up in was surrounded by high water.
Munson was 7 when Audrey made landfall in western Cameron Parish in 1957, within miles of the spot where Rita ripped ashore early Saturday morning. "Audrey was nothing compared to this," Munson said.
The difference between the two storms is that this time, Cameron was warned -- this time computer modeling and forecasting methods that did not exist in 1957 gave a heads-up to Cameron Parish. And the parish listened.
Nearly all of the parish's 9,200 residents evacuated before Rita arrived, leaving behind only a few holdouts. When Munson slipped into Hackberry, she went straight for the house of the school secretary, Miss Molly. Miss Molly Reasoner, like all the rest of the people on Munson's list of a dozen or so friends and relatives to check on, was shaken, but alive. Each person told Munson the same thing: They wished they had not stayed.
Their town, still blocked off by police because of concerns that oil spills could ignite into incendiary balls, is one of those grim places in Louisiana now. They bury their dead high in Louisiana, placing coffins inside aboveground sarcophagi to keep them out of the floodwaters. But Rita pushed the water so high that the coffins in Hackberry came floating out anyway. A spokesman for Cameron's emergency operations department politely asked photographers Sunday not to take pictures of the floating coffins, out of respect for the living relatives, when more of the parish opens to the media.
The wildlife seems as restless and confused as the people here. Alligators glide quietly through roadside marshes that were mostly dry before Rita and are entirely wet now. "All his toenails are gonna be red from gripping the bottom of that marsh to hold on," said Mike Daigle, who makes his living pulling shrimp from the choppy waters south of his home in Hackberry.
Daigle and the others from Hackberry, the ones who aren't as good at slipping around roadblocks as Munson and her bayou-loving brothers, can do nothing but envision the wreckage of their town now. The police who block the road don't know when the residents will get back, or when there will be a return of the movie stars, corporate chieftains and high-rollers who flock to the sport guides in a parish that likes to call itself "Louisiana's Outback."
Still, the people of Hackberry come, easing down Highway 27 through Calcasieu Parish and across the bridge over a bayou pronounced SHOE-pig, but spelled Choupique. The highway to their town now hosts a rumor mill like none other. Everyone has a hint, a snippet of information or a tale too tall. "At this point, I think we have two volcanoes and a UFO down there," said Tracey Webb of the parish emergency management department.
Those who can't get in stand in awe alongside their neighbors in Calcasieu Parish, just to the north across the Ellender Bridge, the bridge that Roger Thibodeaux got a day off from school in Hackberry to see dedicated by Edwin Edwards, Louisiana's bon vivant governor at the time. Out on the road that Edwards -- now serving a federal prison term on corruption charges -- opened up for Hackberry, Ernest Westlund plunged his hands into the flooded muck around his now-despicable home. He pulled up a flagpole and struggled to right it.
"I just can't stand to see my flag underwater like that," Westlund said.
Jeff Bergeron, mud-spattered and weary, wished that everyone in Louisiana had the same sense of duty. He, like so many throughout the state, blames Louisiana's long and colorful history of political corruption for squandering the oil revenue of the 1960s and '70s that could have been used on coastal restoration projects to lessen the impact of hurricanes.
"We've got our governor, Edwin Edwards, sitting up there in prison, and everybody laughs about it, everybody thought it was so funny, Louisiana and corruption and graft," said Bergeron, whose submerged house sits about half a mile from the Cameron Parish line. "Well, now we see how serious it is."
Bergeron tried to get to his house by foot. But he turned around fast when he saw something thick and wriggly and dark in the water. He knew it was a water moccasin, and he didn't plan to test it. "That salt water the storm pushed in drives 'em crazy."
Just down the road, an alligator, its scaly head just visible above the waterline, was pushing slowly and steadily through the brown water: It doesn't like salt water, either, and was surely looking for something fresher and better. It was pointing north, out of Cameron Parish.
Ernest Westlund rescues his flagpole from floodwaters in front of his house in Hackberry, in southwestern Louisiana's Cameron Parish.