Hurricanes batter fishing villages

Mennonites inspect homes rebuilt after Hurricane Rita, consider new response efforts.

BY CHUCK HUSTMYRE | POINTE-AUX-CHENES, La. | September 21, 2008


High winds from Hurricane Gustav destroyed this trailer on Isle de Jean Charles
Credit: DNN/CHUCK HUSTMYRE

This house was one of several MDS rebuilt on Isle de Jean Charles after Hurricane Rita.
Credit: DNN/CHUCK HUSTMYRE

When Hurricane Gustav roared ashore earlier this month and attacked this tiny fishing village, it ripped apart homes, knocked out power, contaminated the water, and dumped a thick layer of foul-smelling black mud and marsh grass on nearly everything.

Just 12 days later, before the power had even been restored, before Pointe-aux-Chenes residents had even had a chance to clean up, Hurricane Ike brushed past on its way to Galveston, Texas and dumped more water and more mud on the already saturated community.

A week after Ike, the power is still out.

Between the two storms, the first Mennonite Disaster Service truckload of relief supplies reached the Pointe-au-Chien native Americans. (The tribe and village disagree over the spelling and translation of the name.)

The Mennonites also came here in the fall of 2005, after Hurricane Rita, six months ahead of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), according to Chuckie Verdin, one of four local tribal chiefs.

Back then, MDS set up camp at the Live Oak Baptist Church in Pointe-aux-Chenes. Mennonite work crews replaced five destroyed homes and helped clean, repair, and rebuild dozens of damaged homes.

"They did a whole bunch of work," Verdin says.

Across the Gulf Coast, MDS has built 65 new homes since Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

A week after Gustav pounded south Louisiana and just four days ahead of Ike, Jerry Klassen and his wife, Doreen, both full-time MDS disaster response coordinators from British Columbia, Canada, crammed themselves into a small plane and flew to Houma, the Terrebonne Parish seat. From there, they drove a van to storm-ravaged Pointe-aux-Chenes, where they picked up Chief Verdin for a tour of the damage.

Their goal was to assess the needs of the residents, evaluate the damage to the MDS built and repaired homes, and take back initial recommendations for changes in construction techniques and building materials to mitigate the damage from future storms.

Following Hurricane Rita, FEMA established a program to raise the houses from ground level to at least 12 feet and set them on pylons. Families could get as much as $30,000 in federal assistance to raise their homes.

"All the houses that were raised came out pretty good, except for roof damage," Verdin explains.

Not everyone took advantage of the program, however. Three years after Rita, many of the homes in flood-prone lower Pointe-aux-Chenes remain on the ground.

The community of Pointe-aux-Chenes sits astride a bayou of the same name that cuts through the marshland of southeast Louisiana. Nearly all of the lower bayou's 300-400 residents are Native Americans from an offshoot of the Biloxi-Chitamacha tribe. Most make their living from commercial fishing. Some work in the oil and gas industry. Most speak French.

Pointe-aux-Chenes sits on less land than it used to.

According to the Louisiana Department of Natural Resources, the state loses about 25 square miles of land each year to coastal erosion. The equivalent of a football field every 38 minutes. Katrina and Rita lopped off more than 200 square miles of hurricane-blunting marshland and turned it into open water.

Twenty years ago, Verdin used to play football and baseball in a field behind the houses that line Bayou Pointe-aux-Chenes. Now that field is a marsh.

There are more floods than there used to be, Verdin says. "We got less land so the water comes more often."

At the Live Oak Baptist Church, where the Mennonites set up their work camp after Hurricane Rita in 2005, the Rev. Tommy Bellon was shoveling and washing black mud out of the church's sanctuary and from his home next door when Jerry Klassen and Chief Chuckie Verdin stopped by to check on him.

Gustav pushed three and a half feet of water inside the church.

"It came so fast from a tidal surge that it just jumped the levee," Verdin says.

On the east side of the bayou, an elevated MDS-built home stood with little damage. Jerry and Doreen Klassen dropped off fresh fruit for the elderly couple who owns the house.

Using a combination of French and English, Verdin chatted for several minutes with the couple, Andrew and Lunise Dardar. He asked how they were doing and if they needed anything. Andrew is confined to a wheelchair. "They speak a little bit of English," Verdin says, "but they understand a lot better in French."

Chief Verdin warned them about the contaminated water. "Don't drink no water," he said. "Don't brush your teeth with that water. Just use it to bath from the neck down."

Klassen and Verdin agreed that the only thing that can help this small community weather future storms is to get all of the houses off the ground.

"If FEMA or the government would get some funds to raise these houses, you would have some damage but it would be a lot better," Verdin says. "You can't keep flooding every three or four years, or, like some people did this year, twice in two weeks. That's too much. Once you get a flood you lose everything."

Although the elevated homes avoided the floodwaters that engulfed their ground level neighbors, few, if any, homes came through unscathed. Gustav's fierce winds peeled off roofs and siding, and the storm surge washed some smaller homes away. Many trailers that had been elevated and set on pylons after Rita were obliterated.

Some of Gustav's worst damage was on Isle de Jean Charles, a finger of land connected to rest of Terrebonne Parish by a low causeway that stretches across the marsh that was nearly washed away by the storm.

Known locally as "the Island," the small community, made up mostly of elderly residents, is home to approximately 70 households and is frequently ravaged by storms.

Albert Naquin serves as chief of the Isle de Jean Charles band of the Biloxi-Chitimacha Indian Tribe and as a parish constable.

Naquin says its time for the entire island community to move. "The first thing I'm going to work on is relocation," Naquin says. "There's 140 acres in north Terrebonne that's waiting for us to go."

Most of the people on the island are too old to work, Naquin explains. Others are handicapped or sick. Only a handful of islanders earn a living as commercial fishermen. For them, the tiny village lacks fuel, stores, or a place to process their catch.

In 2000, Naquin says, the federal government offered to help move the community off the island. About 80 percent of the residents were in support of the move, but inter-tribal politics eventually scuttled the plan.

To move the Isle de Jean Charles tribal band, which the state recognizes but which is fighting for federal recognition as an Indian tribe, would be a lot less expensive for the government in the long run than frequent rebuilding, Naquin argues.

After Gustav and Ike, Naquin says, he believes nearly all the island's residents will be willing to leave.

"I think they're fed up," he says. "I'm fed up. I know we have our culture and our heritage down here, but Mother Nature ain't going to look at that."

MDS has about 150 pieces of portable equipment permanently staged in Mississippi, including a kitchen, showers, a dinning room, a bunkhouse, and plenty of tools, which will allow the Mennonites to establish a self-sufficient work camp in Pointe-aux-Chenes, just like they did after Rita.

"We need to see what the need is and see how we can respond to that," Klassen explains. "It's not driven by us. It's driven by the need. For us, at this stage, it's the human side that we're responding to."


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