Disasters pound LA

BY TRAVIS DUNN | ACADIANA, La. | October 31, 2002

"These are the poorest homes, and those folks got hit with the storm surge."

—Tony Fontenot

Acadiana -- the bayou country of southwestern Louisiana -- hasn't had much luck lately.

First the eight-parish area was hit by Tropical Storm Isidore on Sept. 26.

Although Isidore passed closer to New Orleans, where it caused greater flooding and storm surge damage, it did dump plenty of rain in the bayou as well.

While storm surge from Isidore flooded the streets of New Orleans, it also swamped the homes of impoverished people living in coastal Acadiana, said Tony Fontenot, volunteer coordinator for the Louisiana Conference of United Methodists.

"These are the poorest homes," he said, "and those folks got hit with the storm surge."

Then on Oct. 3, before recovery from Isidore was anywhere close to complete, Acadiana was hit again-this time by Hurricane Lili, which forced more than half a million people to evacuate the southeast U.S. and destroyed more than 5,000 homes. Wind speed was measured at more than 100 mph and topped out at 120 mph at Intracoastal City in Vermilion Parish.

President Bush declared Louisiana a disaster area twice in one week-first for Isidore, then once again for Lili.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) estimated that more than two million meals were distributed to those stricken by the storms, that more than 100,000 people applied for government assistance and that about $90 million in state and federal aid have been approved. Crop damage from the two storms may be as high as $242 million, according to a Louisiana State University estimate, and the disruption of oil production and imports in the Gulf of Mexico spiked gas prices around the country.

Then came Hurricane Kenna, which, after ravaging the Pacific coast of Mexico, degenerated into a storm system that dumped rain all the way into the U.S. Acadiana, where relief workers were still struggling to get people food and shelter, received nearly a week of continuous rain.

"That added to what's already going on," Fontenot said. "We were already saturated."

For Acadiana, the result has been an enormous, muddy mess, the likes of which haven't been seen since the onslaught of Hurricane Andrew in 1992.

State Coordinating Officer Art Jones, of the Louisiana Office for Emergency Preparedness, thinks the combined effect of rain and wind in Acadiana this past month may have caused more damage than Andrew.

Andrew may have been brutal -- it cost insurance companies $19.5 billion -- but, for Acadiana, Jones said the recent weather damage was more widespread and affected more people.

According to Roger Erickson, a meteorologist at the Lake Charles office of the National Weather Service, most of the rainfall received in the area fell after the two major storms, and most came in the last week.

"Basically, we just had a ton of rain," Erickson said. "It rained for about five to seven days in a row."

The total rainfall in Acadiana during October, he said, was between 15 and 25 inches. Normally October is Louisiana's driest month, receiving between three and five inches of rain.

This month's unseasonal gush of rainfall finished up on the morning of Oct. 29. But before the rainclouds drifted away, three tornadoes materialized, killing at least four people and destroying mobile homes in Evangeline and Beauregard Parishes and a school in St. Landry Parish.

Now that the rain has cleared, the chain of disastrous weather seems to be over, Erickson said.

"In the short term," he said, "we're getting a break."

The bad news, however, is that the forces of El Nino are also at work, which could mean more extreme weather ahead.

"We're expecting episodes like this to turn up as we go through the winter," Erickson said.

The main task now, said Jones, is the removal of debris, most of it in the form of felled trees and branches.

Jones estimates that the storms generated nearly a billion cubic yards of debris.

To date, less 100,000 cubic yards have been removed. Since debris removal can cost from $4 to $13 per cubic foot, removing all the trees and trash will cost billions.

FEMA will pick up 75 percent of the removal costs for debris cluttering public land and roadways. State and municipal governments will pick up the rest of the tab.

That, however, still leaves plenty of homes littered with tree branches and junk.

Much of the early cleanup work in Acadiana was done by the Southern Baptist Convention and an Americorps team from St. Louis, Mo., but the work is far from finished.

Peter Van Hook, a Church World Service disaster response and recovery liaison, said cleanup is moving along at a slow pace.

"Most of us are about two weeks behind," he said.

In addition to debris removal, many homes still need to be purged of mud, Van Hook said.

"The biggest need is for teams to come in and do what we call 'mucking out,'" he said. "We need church teams, even for a weekend."

Capt. Barry Lewis, of the Louisiana Salvation Army, said his volunteers have helped by distributing more than 4,000 cleaning kits, which consist of detergents, brooms, mops and buckets.

"It's been quite a test of endurance and perseverance," he said. "We're making great strides. The effects of hurricane Lili will be felt for some time. But there is a sense of life getting back to normal."

In dealing with the damage caused by the multiple storms, relief workers are also trying out a new cooperative strategy.

For the first time, one volunteer group-the American Baptist Men-is coordinating the efforts of all the others.

Buren "Sparky" Sparks, of Belle, W. Va, is the man is charge of the experiment.

FEMA called on Sparks in early October when they realized they were dealing with a complicated series of disasters.

Sparks and three others in his group -- Leonard Howell, the Rev. Harry Drake and West Virginia State Coordinator Fred Duffield -- flew down to Louisiana and inspected the wreckage in 27 parishes.

Sparks,"a retired drug dealer" (of the legal, pharmaceutical variety, he jokingly points out), has been working virtually nonstop since then. Except for Sundays, he didn't have a day off until Oct. 30.

For most of the month, Sparks has been working from his West Virginia home, receiving phone calls and faxes from FEMA and the United Way (UW).

Both FEMA and the UW serve as databases of the areas in need of debris removal, said Dana Brignac, director of the Volunteer Center for the UW of Acadiana.

"We've been taking phone calls since the day after Lili hit," she said.

The information collected by FEMA and UW is then sent to Sparks, who decides where to send particular relief teams.

Returning everything to normal may take up to two years, said Tony Fontenot, who is working with about up to a hundred volunteers under the direction of Sparks.

"We're going to be down here for quite a while," he said.

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