Hurricane Rita decimated Cameron Parish, but residents say they’re still living in the shadow of Hurricane Katrina.
August 23, 2006
The clouds, like giant dirty cotton balls, tumble in from the Gulf of Mexico, and the rain pours down. On a two-acre patch of land near Sweet Lake in north Cameron Parish, four campers sit in a row. In one of them, 73-year-old J.C. Boudreaux and his 71-year-old wife, Regina, are keeping an eye on their 5-year-old grandson, Michael, who’s keeping his eyes on the children’s program Wonder Pets! on the small television. Occasionally, Michael turns around on the couch and looks out the window to see if it’s still raining. When he gets bored and moves around the camper, the adults move in their seats to let him pass.
The FEMA camper’s main room has a small sofa, a computer desk, a television, a dining table, a kitchenette and a refrigerator. Strands of plastic ivy trim the three small windows. A plastic divider curtain separates the main room from the bathroom and bedroom.
“J.C. sometimes gets down in the dumps,” Regina says. “I say, ‘Hey, everybody’s in the same boat we’re in. You might as well suck it up and smile.’”
“I want to go home,” J.C. says, “but we don’t have a home to go to. It’s not there. You wake up in the morning, and you say ‘I’m tired of the camper. I want to go back.’ But you can’t go back. That’s the problem. It will never be the same, no matter what. If we go back, our neighbors aren’t there. We can’t get gas. We can’t get groceries. No doctors. So we’ll just wait around, and I don’t know how much longer we can wait. We’re getting a little age on us. We can’t wait no 15 or 20 years.”
J.C. and Regina weren’t the only ones in their family who lost their home to Hurricane Rita. Of their seven children, six of them and their families lost their homes. Except for their oldest son who lives in Alabama, all of their children were living in Cameron Parish. Some of them live in the other three campers next to J.C. and Regina’s on land owned by one of their sons.
J.C. was born outside of Gueydan but has lived most of his life in Cameron Parish. In 1948, he starred in Robert Flaherty’s film Louisiana Story, which was nominated for an Academy Award. He later met Regina, a young woman from Creole, at a dance, and they married in 1952. Five years later, the couple was living in Cameron with three children. “Hurricane Audrey came and uprooted us,” J.C. says. “We lost everything we had then.” Regina also lost five members of her family.
When Audrey came ashore on June 27, 1957, J.C. was working on a crew boat for an oil company. He learned about the approaching storm from his employer. “Back then,” J.C. says, “We didn’t have the weather communications like we’ve got now.” J.C. and Regina evacuated to Lake Charles with their children. When they returned, their home had vanished. They weren’t able to buy a new home for another five years, when J.C. took a job with Cameron Telephone where he worked for 30 years.
It’s easy for the older Cameron Parish residents to draw comparisons between Audrey and Rita. Both storms wrecked their lives, and both made landfall near the Texas-Louisiana border. But data from the National Weather Service points out some differences. While Audrey hit land with sustained winds of 145 miles per hour, Rita’s sustained winds were 120 miles per hour, with gusts of up to 150 miles per hour. During Audrey, Cameron experienced a 12-foot storm surge, but Rita hit the city with a surge of 15 to 20 feet. But the major difference was the evacuation for the storms. Most residents heeded the mandatory evacuation during Rita, resulting in less than 10 deaths, but few evacuated for Audrey, and more than 500 people, mostly in Cameron, drowned in the storm surge.
J.C. thinks there was more property damage with Rita than Audrey. Homes that withstood the wrath of Audrey weren’t able to withstand the brute force of Rita. Regina has a hard time even comparing the two storms. “Everybody says Rita was worse,” she says, “but to me, everybody lost everything for Audrey. We lost our home, and everybody else lost their home.”
Nearly 50 years later, the couple finds themselves homeless — again.
And for the second time, their house was nowhere to be found. “Out there where we were,” Regina says, “everything was just gone.”
“The worst weather was coming from the southeast,” J.C. says. “All that stuff went to the northwest. It’s out in the marsh and along the Intracoastal Canal. That’s where the debris is.” Living in Cameron is also part of living with the threat of hurricanes. You can take every precaution and follow every code for building your home, but that’s still no guarantee. Houses next to the Boudreauxs, built 14 feet in the air on pylons, still suffered the same fate as their home. “You can’t go against Mother Nature,” Regina says. “If she’s going to take it, she’s going to take it, regardless of how it’s built.”
But unlike the aftermath of Audrey, the Boudreauxs are contending with FEMA this time around, and the results have been mixed. “It was difficult trying to get things in the right perspective,” Regina says. “One of them called me and said, ‘We have a place for you in a trailer park with your daughter and two kids.’
“I said, ‘No, you don’t.’
“He said, ‘Well, why not? Do you refuse to live with your daughter?’
“I said, ‘No sir, I don’t, but that’s not my daughter.’
“They call you, and they don’t know much of anything. And right now, nothing’s under the name Hurricane Rita. We all go under Hurricane Katrina. If you’re going to find out anything, you have to say Katrina. If you tell them Rita, they’ll say, ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about. We don’t have any records on Rita.’”
J.C. laughs and throws his arms out, gesturing to the small room. “This is all a dream,” he says. “We didn’t have a Rita.” Regina laughs.
The Boudreauxs are growing weary of the name Katrina, particularly the media’s coverage of New Orleans. Regina says, “You hear all these celebrities with Katrina this and Katrina that. They have a Katrina fund and all this stuff. I think our governor almost forgot us.”
“She’s beginning to wake up to the facts over there,” J.C. says. “We do exist. But we didn’t holler enough. We just sucked it up and went back on back to work. People in New Orleans there squawked and howled.”
The Boudreauxs have no solid plans for the future, although J.C.’s considered pulling his camper back to his old home site, a mile away from the Gulf. “We’re in our seventies,” he says. “We’re not going to go back there and build no home. Now we have to go so high, and my wife is handicapped. I’ve cleared my lot, and I can bring the camper there.”
Regina isn’t completely sold on the idea. “At least for a while,” she says. “As long as we have the good Lord’s help, we’ll all make it just fine.”
J.C. drives his 1991 Toyota Tercel down La. Hwy. 27, giving a tour of Rita’s wrath. Driving through the Cameron Prairie National Wildlife Refuge, he points out the fields that are black from saltwater intrusion. A few egrets fly across the sky. After crossing the Intracoastal Waterway, beside the road there’s a mangled refrigerator and the shell of a trailer with the front door ripped off, its windows gone. Miles off in the distance, a lopsided house rests in the marsh. J.C.’s heard there are about 25 houses out in the marsh, and he wonders if one of them is his own. “We didn’t find any parts of either one of our homes in both Audrey and Rita,” he says.
All the electric poles alongside the highway are brand new, a bright brown, not the blackened creosote stained poles found along most Louisiana highways. Cameron was without electricity for four months after Rita. Blackened trees look like twigs sticking up out of the ground.
Pulling into Creole, J.C. points to a barren corner of an intersection. “The bank was right here,” he says. “A store was over here.” Traveling down the highway, there are fragments of houses and roofs alongside the road. A gutted gas station with an Exxon sign says “Boudin Bros.” A smaller sign says “FOR SALE.” J.C. says this intersection had Cameron Parish’s only red light. It’s now a four-way stop. Sacred Heart Catholic Church is still standing but battered. Cameron Memorial Hospital is only a concrete foundation. Campers and trailers are parked in lots with piles of rubble.
In Oak Grove, most of South Cameron High School is gone. Only two walls of the cafeteria and the gym remain, and water pours through their destroyed roofs. A closet left open to the elements displays broken trophies from past victories. Of Cameron Parish’s six schools, three of them, including South Cameron High, were completely destroyed.
Entering Cameron, there’s a dump site adjacent to a park of campers. One house, barely standing, has the name “Freddy Barrios” spray-painted on its side. Pointing to the house, J.C. says, “It’s like my wife says, we’re not the only ones, so why sit around and worry about it.” Another house with blue tarp strapped to its roof is perched 12 feet in the air, its siding ripped off, exposing the wood beneath. Just across the road a new trailer is precariously perched some 20 feet in the air on wooden posts. Concrete statutes of the Virgin Mary and Jesus are propped up next to foundations, campers and trailers. Shredded fabric ripped from pieces of clothing clings to the trees overhead.
There’s no street sign to indicate where he is, but J.C. pulls off onto Vejay Road. There used to be about 17 homes along the road. Now there’s only concrete foundations and one lone camper on the road, next door to where J.C.’s home once stood, where his neighbor John Willis is living.
J.C. pulls up to his property, but he looks around for a second, taking note of the few trees to get his bearings and make sure he’s at the right place. “This is my place here,” he says. “This is home.”
He gets out of the car and looks over the horseshoe driveway to nowhere. His eyes water. He takes off his glasses and rubs his eyes, but he doesn’t cry.
“We had it made,” J.C. says. He and Regina spent 40 years rebuilding their nest, and J.C. points to the thin air, proudly recounting how he built a 10 by 12 glassed-in porch and even added a fireplace to their frame house.
J.C. doesn’t come here often. He says he can’t.
In the town of Cameron, the only vestige of the United Methodist Church is its steel A-frame. The sign for the Family Dollar store is still there, but the building’s gutted. The Masonic lodge, Cameron Elementary, Cameron State Bank, a donut shop and the First Baptist Church are nowhere to be seen, but J.C. points to where they each once stood. There’s a skeleton of a gas station, but there’s no gas to be had in Cameron. Inside of a camper, the Hurricane Café is open for business, and according to the sign out front, it’s serving up fried shrimp.
J.C. pulls into the parking lot of the courthouse. The three-story building was one of the few left standing after Rita, despite taking 9 feet of water on its first floor. In the parking lot there are two long portable buildings. J.C. enters the first one to find his hunting buddy and Clerk of Court Carl Broussard. He walks past four employees in a narrow pathway surrounded with computers, printers, desks, stacks of manila folders, boxes and fax machines to reach Broussard’s desk, which is at the far end of the trailer.
For the past five years Broussard had been diligently digitizing the court records, and luckily, he and his staff were able to save most of the paper records by moving them up to the clerk’s office on the second floor of the courthouse. Since Feb. 1, they have been working out of this trailer.
Broussard was living in Grand Chenier before Rita, 20 miles east of Cameron. He lost his home and everything in it. So did his daughter who lived nearby. “I bought me a camper trailer a couple of weeks after the storm,” he says. “I’m living south of Lake Charles.”
There’s been progress with the clean up, and residents are returning to Cameron Parish, with campers and trailers in tow. But even if he was looking to rebuild his home now, Broussard says contractors have waiting lists for up to three years.
Broussard estimates more than 4,000 homes and dwellings in Cameron Parish were destroyed by Rita, and 2,000 were damaged. It’s difficult to gauge how much of the parish is returning, but one indicator is student enrollment, with 85 percent of South Cameron High School’s students re-enrolling. And the oil industry is back up and running. “If you look at the [Calcasieu] river as you drive in, it looks like nothing ever happened,” Broussard says. “There’s a little bit more progress being made, but I just feel that it was a little slow to start. We had way too much bureaucracy. You had the federal government saying one thing, the state of Louisiana saying another thing, and the parish was kind of caught between a rock and a hard place. The parish didn’t have enough money to clean up all this debris.”
Hurricane Katrina put Cameron Parish in a bad position after Rita. “The whole parish doesn’t have but around 9,600 people,” he says. “That’s a city block in New Orleans. We would be real easy to forget about. Most people here take it upon themselves to clean up a lot of this over here. They’re not used to government handouts. They’re used to going out and getting it on their own.” Even with that determination, Broussard says Cameron Parish is being slighted. He points to the discrepancy in federal funds for cleanup after the two hurricanes, with southeast Louisiana receiving a complete reimbursement and Cameron Parish initially getting stuck with 10 percent of the cleanup costs. It’s just added insult to injury.
From both a personal and professional standpoint, Broussard believes the looming crisis in Louisiana is insurance. “There’s an insurance crisis in every coastal parish in this state,” he says. “Even though the state adopted these wind codes and FEMA had these elevation codes, even though you’re building up to these codes, you usually get a break on your insurance, but that’s not the way it’s happening.” Broussard recently checked on insurance rates for a $200,000 home built to code with coverage of $100,000 on the home’s contents. Estimates he found ranged from $8,500 to $12,000 annually.
“The major insurance companies want to pick what they want to insure,” Broussard says. “I think the state of Louisiana needs to step in and say, ‘Hey if you’re going to insure one, you’re got to take it all.’ They want to pick and choose, and I don’t agree with that. If you’re in Louisiana, you insure everybody. Insurance is a risk. That’s why you buy insurance. It’s a risk on the consumer, and it’s risk on the company. But the way it is now the consumer is getting all the risk, and I don’t believe it’s a level playing field.” Broussard’s house was 2 feet above code, and his insurance company has still not paid him for his loss. Broussard’s secretary, Lynn Griffith, is sitting at her desk 10 feet from her boss’. The bottom of her house was 15 feet above sea level — on a hill and on pylons — but the surge still swept it away.
“A lot of people would have settled for a lot less not to go through this,” Broussard says. “It’s a real problem in Louisiana. We’re a small parish. Most people down here, I think they went through enough. We live in Cameron Parish, and I’m 51 years old. We knew that every hurricane season, this could be the year. We’ve lived with that, but people in California live with earthquakes. How many people live in San Francisco? They don’t make those people leave when they have an earthquake. You live with the risk anywhere you’re living. We knew it was coming. That’s why we had insurance. That’s been the No. 1 problem why there’s not more people here. The insurance companies haven’t paid them, and to reinsure yourself, it’s a problem because the prices have escalated so much.”
On a small television in the corner of the trailer, the radar on The Weather Channel shows a blood-red patch of rain moving in from the Gulf and inundating Cameron. Griffith says it’s been raining steadily for three days. She wishes it would stop, at least for a few hours. She needs to do laundry, and she can’t do it while it’s raining. Her washer and dryer are set up outside of her camper.
Across Hwy. 27 where the Cameron Public Library once stood sits the Cameron bookmobile. It’s Cameron’s branch of the parish library for now. A white tent is set up outside for summer activities. Librarians Beckie Primeaux and Bethany Debarge are the only ones in the vehicle. Business has been slow, but they’ve been loaning more DVDs than usual. It’s the only source of entertainment in town.
Primeaux lives in Creole. She didn’t lose her home, but even with it 10 feet of the ground on pylons there was damage that took a while to repair. “We were able to fix it up, but we just recently moved in,” she says. “Things are just going slowly. To me, there’s more done and money given to the Katrina victims. The checks I’ve gotten from insurance all say Katrina, and even the date of it. We’re not Katrina victims. We didn’t have Katrina damage. It’s frustrating the way that President Bush is giving money just to Katrina. It’s like we don’t exist. That’s very frustrating.”
Before Rita, Debarge was living in a mobile home in Cameron with her husband and two children. “I just don’t know what to do anymore,” she says. “It’s like they put us second.” She tried to get a camper from FEMA and after four months of the runaround, she and her husband went out and bought one. “I’ve got two kids,” she says. “I had to hurry up and do something. It’s just so aggravating. I don’t know who they have working for them, but they don’t know what they’re saying. They said I had 5 feet of water in my home. I lived in a mobile home. There was nothing left. I couldn’t even find it. How was I supposed to have 5 feet of water in my home? Every time we get on this subject it just aggravates me because FEMA did nothing.”
“We’re just trying to make a living and want to be back in our homes,” Primeaux says. “We want them to help us out so we can get back to our lives.”
Pulling out of Cameron and heading back to Sweet Lake, the rain’s still coming down. The windshield wipers of J.C.’s little car are pumping as fast they can, giving a clear view of the road only for a split second at a time. J.C. doesn’t appear to be worried about the visibility. He’s been down this road before. He knows it well, and there’s only one route he can take.
“You just suck it up,” he says, “and go about your business.”