We’re tired from Hurricane Gustav. So tired that we ask, beg, bargain with Hurricane Ike to give us a whole damned minute before possibly pushing us out of our city again for his turn at the Big Easy. We have the luxury, however, of looking forward to and preparing for Ike, while some badly hit by Gustav haven’t even begun to assess damage and clean out their homes after bad wind and storm surge damage. I talk mainly of the residents of Louisiana’s coastal parishes. Many think that southern Louisiana and hurricane damage begin and end at New Orleans while forgetting that communities critical to our seafood and petroleum industries as well as rich cultural variety live in the wetlands southwest of here and that they are at serious risk. Their loss is our loss.
Yesterday, Karen Gadbois, Ariella Cohen, Jacob Brancasi and I traveled through Lafourche and Terrebonne parishes to meet with members of the United Houma Nations and to survey the extent of damage there. Given trees, poles and power lines across main roads and impassable bridges, the following is the best approximation of our route:
Our trip took us a little beyond Point B, where Google Maps’s official roads end, so the rest of our route to Isle de Jean Charles is marked in blue dots. Orange polygon marks where we stopped in Raceland and red polygon is our final destination on Isle de Jean Charles. G indicates Cocodrie, where Gustav made landfall on September 1, 2008. K marks Buras, where Katrina made landfall in August 2005.
Along with the indefatigable Denise Thornton and her colleagues at the Beacon of Hope Resource Center, we drove to Raceland to meet Brenda Dardar Robichaux, the principal chief of the United Houma Nations, and helped fill The Old Store on Highway 1 with much-needed food, clothing and other supplies. Chief Brenda and members of the tribe have quite the responsibility on their hands, one which involves traveling to each and every dwelling in their districts, estimating damage and loss and providing adequate help. Despite all of this work ahead of them after the bashing their community has taken from Gustav, Rita, Katrina and older hurricanes, I was amazed at the energy and positive attitude of the Tribal Council and humbled by their tight-knit support system. While loading shelves and taking pictures of the store and goings-on, I couldn’t help feeling a tinge of envy at the love, camaraderie and sense of family in the air. The destruction of Louisiana’s wetlands by hurricanes and humans will lead to the dissolution of this lovely community and we cannot let that happen. Their loss is our loss, and every bit of aid helps.
Things are bad in Raceland – many are still without power and their homes suffer every manner of wind damage. No FEMA, no Red Cross, just parish officials and volunteer electrical and tree-cutting crews from all over the state and nation. Again, as shocking as things are in Lafourche parish, they get worse south and west into the wetland towns of Terrebonne parish, beyond the proposed protection of the Morganza To The Gulf levee system and not far from where Gustav made landfall.
Downed power lines multiply, trees lie on their sides by the dozens, boats have been ripped out of bayous and lie in front yards and, close to the Gulf, whole homes have been ripped off their foundations while others molder under layers of silt after tens of feet of storm surge ripped through them. We stopped and talked with folks who had recently returned to their homes on the Isle de Jean Charles and soon found that we were the first outsiders many had seen since Gustav.
One family had already cleared out all of their earthly possessions into a muddy pile outside and were hosing down the home’s interior with water pumped out of the bayou via a borrowed generator. Another family was still shocked on having discovered, after their recent return, that the rear of their home was badly damaged with half of their roof nearly sheared of. Yet, they smiled, talked with us cheerfully about all the hurricanes the area had seen, all while being bashful about accepting the ice we had brought them. A large Cajun aunty asked, “Don’t you need this ice for yourselves, babe?” “No, ma’am,” I said, “we have plenty back home. This is for you.” Her nephew, in from Crowley to help, shook his head and laughed, “Home.” Such a malleable yet intense concept, isn’t it?
A good number of the men I talked with on the island work as roughnecks, roustabouts, derrickhands and contractors on offshore oil platforms. They spoke of the irony of working for an industry that destroys their land and ecosystem but offers them a steady paycheck. If they give up working as oilmen and start a petition for the removal of oil-producing infrastructure from their area, how else will they stay economically viable? Everyone agreed that digging their own graves is what feeds them, but their hands are tied.
Earlier in the day, Thomas Dardar, Jr., United Houma Nations member and parliamentarian from Houma District #6, reminded us of Port Fourchon, a scant 25 miles east of where Hurricane Gustav made landfall. As home of the Louisiana Offshore Oil Port and more than 600 oil platforms surrounding the area, Port Fourchon is a major epicenter of US oil & gas activity and accounts for almost 20% of US oil supply. In the wake of Gustav, Houma Today reports that “more than $1 billion worth of oil and gas per day is not reaching U.S. markets because of [Hurricane Gustav] damage.” While this new chant of “Drill, Baby, Drill” sweeps across the right-wing segment of the American population, let those who support increased oil exploration and production in the Gulf not forget this: A mind-boggling amount of time, money, effort, people and natural resources goes into extracting and refining hydrocarbons for public consumption. All of this is at peril with each successive hurricane and the infrastructure that is sought and required for increased oil production. If this country is not willing to pony up for sound levees that will protect the wetlands and the people who live there and work for the oil industry, prepare to kiss your cute slogan goodbye. If you are not willing to fight for the inclusion of these communities in Morganza To The Gulf and greater storm-surge protection, get ready to sell that shiny new Hummer. If independence from foreign oil means screwing over your own nation, reconsider your patriotism and your demand as a citizen. Their loss is our loss, your loss.
The people I met yesterday were something special. They smiled, welcomed us into their homes, were terribly polite, didn’t demand a thing and thanked us for coming. To discover more of the natural beauty of Southern Louisiana, to be immersed in the inimitable Cajun culture, to put faces to those who will be written off as statistics, to hug and to offer ever so little help, to promise to return for shrimp boils when their homes are fixed up, if they are fixed up, to witness that which mainstream media never even saw in the first place to later forget, to acknowledge and yet to fight the futility. This is important, this is being American. When one woman asked us why we were there, I replied, “To help you so you can help me later. We are all in this together.” And I meant it. I really understood what Karen means when she says community is important, for I would trust these folks before FEMA or any corrupt government. Without these connections, we are lost. Their loss is my loss.
* Monetary donations to the United Houma Nation Relief Fund may be sent to 20986 Hwy. 1, Golden Meadow, LA 70357. Brenda Robichaux is working to set up an online donation page.
* Pictures of Pointe Aux Chenes and Isle de Jean Charles from the UHN site
* My photo set
* Karen’s photo set
* Greg reminds us of damage to other Louisiana parishes in Gustav’s path.