This town looks as if it is having the biggest yard sale ever. Almost every front yard is adorned with the personal innards of a house set back from the curb, from toilet bowls to mattresses, from sewing machines to sofas. Take it away, one homeowner wrote on his pile of belongings, and you'll get $20.
Four days after Hurricane Rita whipped through this south-central Louisiana town, there's only one thing to do and everyone seems to be busy at it: cleaning the three to four inches of stinky, black marsh mud out of the house, pulling the furnishings out and determining what is salvageable and worth leaving in the hot sun to dry and what should be piled into a heap on the front curb. A special "disaster pickup" is scheduled for Thursday.
This town of 2,200 hasn't flooded in recent memory, so few expected a storm surge that would cover almost the breadth of the half-mile-wide town, 10 miles north of the Gulf of Mexico. But it did.
The water washed up, receded after two days, and left on top of everything a blanket of putrid-smelling, plankton-laden mud from the marshes and bayous south of here.
The Rev. Herbert Bennerfield explained how the flooding happened as he stood in front of a topographical map of Louisiana posted on a door inside the rectory. He's the pastor of Our Lady of the Lake, which on this day might as well be renamed Our Lady of the Marsh Mud. He's wearing his black clerical suit, collar open against the brutal heat, and white mud boots. His secretary, Merza Smith, wearing a distinctly non-secretarial outfit of culottes and a shell top, sweats profusely as she rips up the soggy, muddy carpet in what used to be her office.
"The hurricane is blowing like this and the Gulf pushes into Vermilion Bay, which pushes into the canal [Bayou Carlin], which pushes into the town," he said. "It's simple."
Eighty percent of the town was flooded, the water was estimated to have reached 111/2 feet above sea level. Mayor Carol Broussard knows. His house is eight feet above sea level and he had 31/2 feet of water in his house. All along a swath of southern Vermilion and Iberia parishes, the water upended home appliances and furnishings, thrashing them from one room to the next. The hurricane drowned cows and horses in the fields, blew out walls and windows, and flooded sugar cane fields -- now turning brown from the saltwater. It dislodged marble and granite sarcophagi, which in southern Louisiana are laid to rest above ground because of the high water table.
Dozens of residents who stayed because they were convinced that they could weather the storm were rescued from rooftops by the Coast Guard. Millions of dollars in shrimp and other seafood was destroyed. Hurricane Katrina may have bypassed Delcambre and its neighbors of Erath, Henry and Abbeville, but Rita did not.
"RITA WAS HERE," wrote Edna White's grandson in marsh mud on the front of the house, just beside the front door. Inside, the house looked as if it had been turned upside down, shaken like a cup of dice and set upright again. "It's almost unbelievable that everything was all jumbled and moved by the water," White said.
At least half a dozen crypts from the Roman Catholic cemetery God's Acre were found floating in the middle of town during the height of the surge Saturday morning, and were lassoed by police officers and tied to telephone poles to keep from drifting away. All but one of the crypts for the gaping holes in the cemetery have been found.
"My mother's tomb -- I can't find it," said Police Chief James Broussard, as he sat in a mobile emergency command center parked next door to Our Lady of the Lake. "I've been looking, but I'm going to go out and walk up and down, and look for it again in a little while. I'd recognize it if I saw it. It's got to be here." Broussard no longer has a police station, and the mayor does not have a city hall. The two buildings, along with the fire department, were destroyed by the flood.
Broussard's other departed close relatives are safe and sound, if not a little storm-tossed. "My father's tomb is turned around. It was laying east-west and now it's north-south," he said. "My father-in-law's casket, it popped out [of the cement tomb]. But we put it back in."
Louise Duhon came back to her house along Bayou Carlin -- she and her husband waited out the hurricane in Oklahoma City -- to find her cat safe and everything else waterlogged and coated with marsh mud. Luckily, her family pictures were mounted on the wall above the water line and her photo albums were on top of her bookcases. What she had not found among the jumbled furnishings, but hoped to find intact inside its plastic box, was her 50-year-old husband's baptismal gown, handmade by his mother. "My sons were baptized in it and so was my grandson. I would hate to really lose that," she said.
In the bayou right outside her house, a shrimp boat captain and his crew were boiling shrimp in two large pots sitting atop propane-fueled burners. Their 7,000-pound catch, caught right before Rita hit on Saturday, was about to go bad because the ice they had kept it in melted. The solution to salvaging any of it, explained captain Trung Hoang, was to boil the shrimp in salt, lay it on the boat's roof in the sun for two days and sell it as dried shrimp.
"I move from New Orleans because of Katrina, and so Rita come. The hurricane follow me," he said. And now he had to make the best of a bad situation. "We boil it and dry it. That's all we can do to try to get some money back for the fuel."