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Old 12-27-2005, 05:03 PM
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Rita: The forgotten storm

I work in this area several days per week. Been to Grand Chenier 1/2 doz times.

B

With Coastline in Ruins, Cajuns Face Prospect of Uprooted Towns

By JERE LONGMAN
Published: December 27, 2005
GRAND CHENIER, La. - Cameron Parish, where generations of Cajuns have hunted ducks and pulled up redfish, lost about 400 people to Hurricane Audrey in 1957. Last fall, when Hurricane Rita destroyed thousands of structures and flattened the coastline, some state officials began to question whether life there was still worth the risk.

Now Louisiana planners are proposing an idea that would have been unimaginable here a few months ago: moving an entire string of seaside towns and villages - and the 4,000 longtime residents who live in them - 15 or 20 miles inland to higher and presumably safer ground.

"If we could get 100 percent participation, which admittedly is extraordinarily difficult, if possible at all, we could conceivably take the entire population of Cameron Parish largely out of harm's way for future events," said Drew Sachs, a consultant to the Louisiana Recovery Authority. He has been asked to develop bold suggestions for rebuilding the state's coastal region in the wake of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

The idea, of course, is already encountering resistance, particularly among younger residents. The tightly knit group of Cajuns who have lived here in unincorporated villages like Cameron, Johnson Bayou, Holly Beach, Creole and Grand Chenier are fiercely independent and self-sufficient. They have resided for generations on inherited family property in the state's southwest corner, 160 miles to the west of New Orleans, living off the land and giving resonance to Louisiana's nickname as the Sportsman's Paradise.

"My grandfather would roll over in his grave if I sold our land," said Clifton Hebert, 44, operations chief of the parish emergency operations center. "He'd haunt me the rest of my life."

But others admit there may be some wisdom in a move, as painful as it would be. Wanita Harrison, a retired biology and chemistry teacher from Grand Chenier, loves the way the marsh fills with pelicans when a cold front pushes through. Her husband, Lee, relishes the splendid rural isolation and the ability to run off to Houston for a week without bothering to lock the house.

With their ruined belongings now piled along Highway 82, however - the piano is somewhere back in the woods - the Harrisons are actually considering the idea. Mrs. Harrison, in fact, says that if she goes north, it will be beyond Cameron Parish.

"It's a good idea to consider moving inland," said Mrs. Harrison, 70. "I love my area, but we have to face reality."

No one died in Hurricane Rita, which struck early on Sept. 24, thanks to a vigorous evacuation plan, but the storm destroyed or rendered structurally unsound about half of the 5,400 parish homes and commercial buildings examined by the Army Corps of Engineers, parish officials said. They caution that many more structures may also have to be condemned. In the lower part of the parish, as few as 20 of 1,000 residences may be inhabitable, according to the most dire estimates. Residents remain scattered.

There is a great fear here, residents say, that the hurricane destroyed not only property but a way of life. Many of the parish's 10,000 residents say they feel both neglected by the federal response and suspicious that outsiders will dictate their future with prohibitive building codes and flood insurance requirements. They worry that even if they want to return to lower portions of the parish, they may not be able to afford it.

What will it cost to elevate houses 11 or 14 or 20 feet off the ground? asked Kenton Bonsall, 35, an equipment operator for the State Wildlife and Fisheries Department, echoing the concerns of many about new elevation requirements being imposed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. How will aging parents and grandparents climb those stairs? Will anyone provide flood and homeowners' insurance? At what cost? What if the hospital is not rebuilt? Or the school? Or the convenience stores? Will he have to drive 50 miles for an aspirin and a gallon of milk and gas?

"I'm afraid that everything I've known to be true is going to change and be gone," Mr. Bonsall said, sitting in a convenience store amid a lightning storm.

Hurricane Rita's storm surge of 17 to 20 feet again made clear just how vulnerable this low-lying parish is to hurricanes. The marshy area below the Intracoastal Waterway has become a ghost land of structural skeletons. Many houses are gone entirely, except for a concrete slab. All that remains of the post office in the village of Cameron is a pile of bricks and a spray-painted address.

Homes and buildings that remain standing seem to have been hollowed like pumpkins by the force of the water. The Hibernia Bank in Cameron is nothing more than a frame and a vault. The gym at Cameron Elementary School has basketball goals with nets but no roof or cinderblock walls.

Referring to Cameron Parish's seven elected officials, known as police jurors, Representative Charles Boustany Jr., the Republican who represents this district in Congress, said: "You can see fatigue in their eyes and concerns about whether or not they will have a community in the future. At the same time, there is a grim determination to get things back together."

James Lee Witt, a director of FEMA in the Clinton administration who is advising Louisiana officials on recovery, has urged the state to think creatively in seeking to reduce the risk of wind damage and storm surge to its most exposed areas.

One possibility, Mr. Witt and his associates say, is that the federal government could buy out private and commercial properties - at pre-Rita market value - along Highway 82, which runs along the Gulf of Mexico in lower Cameron Parish. About 4,000 people live in this area, parish officials said. Conceivably, entire communities, with their churches, businesses, schools and hospitals, could then relocate to better-protected areas in the north-central part of the parish.

Financing would come from the $2.5 billion to $4 billion that Louisiana expects to receive from FEMA in "hazard mitigation" money. State recovery officials stressed that participation in any relocation effort would be voluntary and that oil and gas and fishing enterprises requiring access to the coast could remain in place. Land at the coast could still be used as it is now for farming, hunting and fishing, said Mr. Sachs, an associate of Mr. Witt's who specializes in storm risk reduction.

"We'd be able to keep the community largely intact," Mr. Sachs said in an interview in Baton Rouge. "But they would be located in a part of the state that would be of lesser risk."

There are some precedents for relocating entire communities. The village of Valmeyer, Ill., near St. Louis, was moved several miles from a flood plain to a bluff after it was inundated by the Mississippi River in 1993. The population has grown to 1,100 from 900, and Valmeyer now has a new school, new churches, more modern utilities and increasing property values, said Jeff Berry, a city councilman at the time of the relocation and now a consultant to the village.

"We had weekly meetings, and I think it made the citizens feel like they were part of building the new town," Mr. Berry said. "We knew we'd lose residents if we didn't build quickly, in three or four years. Time was a big element."

Cameron Parish must complete its recovery from Hurricane Rita before it can seriously consider long-term plans for rebuilding, parish officials said. Nearly three months after the hurricane, an evacuation order remains in effect. Only in the last two weeks did a federal program begin for debris removal from private property.

Much of the lower parish seems untouched since the hurricane and persists as a safety hazard, officials said. Houses remain shoved against the highway or tossed into the marsh. Containers of hazardous material wait to be recovered, as if in a toxic Easter egg hunt. Cars are hidden under crushed homes and fallen trees. Plastic is draped in trees like Spanish moss. About 50 of the 300 coffins that floated out of the ground remain unaccounted for, said Theos Duhon, the parish sheriff.

At a community meeting in Grand Lake, many residents said they wanted to be left alone to rebuild as they did after Hurricane Audrey. Many voiced a long-held belief, unconfirmed by anyone, that the federal government preferred to turn the parish into a wildlife refuge.

"The hurricane took a whole culture away," said Kevin Warner, 30, a water company employee from Oak Grove. "They say it's going to be bigger and better. I'll have to see it to believe it."

Others are not waiting around to be bought out by the government. Mona Theriot, 65, who said she floated on creosote posts for 11 hours before being rescued as a teenager during Hurricane Audrey, has sold her property in Hurricane Rita's aftermath. She plans to rebuild with her husband, Daniel, some 30 miles north in Lake Charles.

"We're tired of running," Mrs. Theriot said of frequent storm-related evacuations along the coast.

At Holly Beach, Alma and Raywood Landry sat with their two dogs and a box of fried chicken and surveyed the slab and pilings that remained of their home and several hundred other residences on this shattered beachfront. Their home had burned several years ago and was rebuilt, only to be demolished again by Hurricane Rita, said Mr. Landry, 74. Mrs. Landry, 71, said she would consider a government buyout to move inland.

"This is the second time I've lost everything," she said. "This is a beautiful and quiet place, but I've had enough."

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Old 12-27-2005, 06:10 PM
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Sounds like these people may be starting to face reality. Will New Orleans ever do the same ?
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Old 12-28-2005, 09:32 AM
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Quote:
Originally Posted by PJG56
Sounds like these people may be starting to face reality. Will New Orleans ever do the same ?
NOLA has NEVER faced reality. It was established on a swampy riverbank and has not improved.

I'm going to a meeting in January hosted by Loyola & Tulane Universities and the State of LA entitled, "WORKSHOP TO ESTABLISH PRINCIPLES FOR COASTAL RESTORATION, POST-KATRINA &
RITA"

I suspect there will be heartfelt discussion. It's an open meeting so if you're interested, PM me.

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