Louisiana's boot has a hole. This footwear-shaped state's southeastern coast is ringed by hurricane levees, except here in Terrebonne Parish, where Houma, the largest city in the region outside metropolitan New Orleans, is an important center of Cajun culture.
For decades, that hole in Louisiana's hurricane defenses -- defenses already proved fallible during hurricanes Katrina and Rita -- has irked leaders of this parish of boom-and-bust oil cycles that also happens to produce one of every five pounds of seafood in the state. But the big storms that bedeviled New Orleans are suddenly seen as an opportunity -- a big opportunity -- for Terrebonne.
During the scramble for post-hurricane money, no place in Louisiana is making a more impassioned plea for help than Terrebonne, which is trying to get its own levee constructed. While others in Louisiana are relying on big-name politicians -- and are now smarting at the caustic reaction in Washington to the $250 billion aid package proposed by the state's congressional delegation -- Terrebonne is pulsing with a popular uprising, complete with a showman's flourishes.
The showman is a wavy-haired Cajun named Martin Folse, a onetime media prodigy who bought his television station, KJUN, 21 years ago when he was 24, who writes country music songs and whose imagination once conjured a B-horror flick: "Nutriaman: Terror in the Swamp." To separate his parish from the much-maligned requests for alligator farm money and sugar cane research that were lumped in with pleas for levee repair and construction, Folse got creative, and moved fast.
There was the rally that drew 3,800 angry, chanting demonstrators from flooded bayou towns to the convention center in this town, a one-hour drive southwest of New Orleans. There were the quickie lyrics and the even quicker recording of an anthem: "There's a movement on the bayou tonight/Down in Point aux Chenes and Island Road to the right/It's time for action/On the bayou tonight." Next comes the bus convoy to Capitol Hill and, perhaps, a jambalaya cookout and rally at the entrance to President Bush's Crawford, Tex., ranch.
"If we don't seize the opportunity now, we may never ever get the chance again," Folse said. "It's time for the feds to quit treating us like a bunch of uneducated stepchildren."
Folse's obsession -- everyone's obsession here, it seems -- is the Morganza to the Gulf of Mexico project, a levee that would loop over 72 miles of lower Terrebonne Parish. The levee is supposed to avert a catastrophe that has yet to happen. Katrina swung east of Houma and Rita swung west of it. Rita still devastated the little Terrebonne Parish bayou towns south of Houma -- places such as Chauvin, Bayou Dularge and Dulac -- but the glancing blow spared Houma, where local emergency officials estimate a direct hit could kill thousands.
The Morganza levee has been a dream for decades. Terrebonne Parish has no hurricane levee, even though Houma, a city of 32,000, anchors a parish of about 100,000 people. Other parishes got levees over the years -- Orleans, Plaquemines and St. Bernard among them -- but Terrebonne has remained naked. Terrebonne has been begging for the levee and has participated in countless studies with federal officials to justify it. Residents have grown more and more angry because they have never been able to seal the deal.
That frustration is being captured in made-for-television moments, confected to assure that Terrebonne's levee is not sliced out of the Louisiana hurricane relief bill currently being assailed in so many quarters. Steve Ellis of Taxpayers for Common Sense, for instance, lampoons Louisiana's post-hurricane lobbying as "the Wild West. We're talking whatever you think of, throw it out there and let's see if it sticks."
At Folse's rally, Cajun shrimp boat captains and housewives sat for hours on camping chairs in dusky humidity outside Houma's civic center, listening to one another scream. They waved signs Folse had printed that read "TFA," short for Time for Action, an activist group he invented on the fly while anchoring the newscast on KJUN the day after Rita. Folse turned into a crusader -- and threw off any pretense of journalistic objectivity -- when one of his producers showed him footage of a man wading through waist-high water. It was the same man Folse's station had filmed doing the same thing during a tropical storm two years earlier.
"We need your help -- not Band-Aids -- we need levees," Ernest Naquin, the 76-year-old commander of a Veterans of Foreign Wars post in the fishing town of Montegut, bellowed into a microphone held by Folse during the rally.
The Ernest Naquins of the world have already begun paying for their levee, even though there's no guarantee they'll get it. Terrebonne Parish started collecting a quarter-cent sales tax to pay for its share of the levee 21/2 years ago. They have banked about $12 million, Levee Board President Tony Alford said proudly. But there's one little problem: Their levee will cost about $1.7 billion. They're only $1.688 billion short.
"We're to a point where it's life and death," Alford said. "But it seems to fall on deaf ears."
What's unique about the Morganza to the Gulf project is that almost everyone seems to say it's needed. The project is essentially a hit, aside from a few objections from environmentalists -- many of which have been addressed by revolutionary "leaky levee" design features that use dozens of gates to let water and marsh creatures flow in and out. Even the Coalition to Restore Coastal Louisiana, a frequent critic of levee proposals, is enthusiastically on board, calling it a possible "harbinger of the future."
"Morganza is a test," said Mark Davis, the coalition's executive director. "We have a chance to do this in a way that has never been done before."
But even though the Morganza project is deep into the design phase, and Davis says it deserves to be the first noncoastal restoration project approved, it could be years before the Byzantine process of completing the design, picking contractors and, finally, construction is finished. Dane Domangue won't wait, and Folse knows there are hundreds of Dane Domangues out there.
The Domangues have lived in Chauvin, down the bayou from Houma, for generations. They were shrimpers and oilmen. Dane Domangue has been both, dumping his oil job when the market collapsed, later dumping his shrimp business when costly laws aimed at protecting turtles were enacted, then jumping back into oil.
"It's kind of late, isn't it?" Domangue said of renewed efforts to build a levee to save his town and the others around it. "I ain't getting mad at God. God is saying, 'Get out of here.' "