Too many hurricanes threaten La. bayou way of life

Thursday, September 18th 2008, 12:06 pm
By: News 9


Associated Press Writer

JEAN LAFITTE, La. (AP) -- After four big hurricanes in three years, residents of the Cajun towns along the fast-eroding coast of Louisiana are wondering just how much more they can take.

Hurricane Ike's floodwaters slowly gave way Thursday to muddy cleanup, and although the state's share of Ike's damage has been overshadowed by the devastation next door in Texas, the flooding across southern Louisiana was considerable -- tens of thousands of homes and businesses damaged or destroyed.

And that was only the latest stroke. Many of the same areas were inundated by Hurricane Gustav less than two weeks earlier, and rebuilt after Katrina and Rita did widespread damage to the Gulf Coast in 2005.

Acadiana, home of the traditionally French-speaking Cajuns, is a land under siege.

"This community is beaten," said Albert Creppel, the town constable in Jean Lafitte, about 25 miles south of New Orleans. His house, which he had finally repaired nearly three years after Rita, now had two feet of standing water.

"It's too much," he said, shaking his head. "My wife says she doesn't want to come back."

Of course, the cultural and environmental threats to the region are not new.

The cycle of storms and erosion has for decades stripped away the barrier wetlands that protect the inland settlements, while an increasingly homogenized America has been chiseling away at the Cajuns' unique linguistic and cultural traditions for almost as long.

With each storm, the threats grow.

"If it keeps on like this you're losing a whole culture, a whole way of life," said Tracy Kuhns, who lives in the bayou-side town of Barataria and is director of the conservation group Louisiana Bayoukeeper. "It's just going to wash away."

Nearly a week after the storm, state officials were still tallying the damage to the mainly rural coastal parishes, or counties, that lie just above sea level where the Mississippi and other rivers drain through alligator-filled bayous to the Gulf of Mexico.

Some residents were being allowed to visit their homes by boat to inspect the damage. Water had receded in some places, while others remained flooded, particularly in southwest Louisiana, near the Texas border.

"We've got places flooding that never flooded before," said Kuhns. "They need to do something about restoring our wetlands."

Tens of thousands remained without power, but the numbers had dwindled sharply in recent days.

More than 700 people who didn't heed warnings to get out had been rescued from floodwaters since Ike struck on Saturday. Authorities appeared to be winning a battle against collapsing coastal levees that still threatened some areas. At least six deaths in Louisiana were blamed on Ike.

Ike also uprooted the dead. An estimated 200 coffins were unearthed and swirled away by Ike's storm surge in two southwest parishes, forcing coroners to hunt for bodies.

"It's been a nightmare," said Annette Claverie, inside a flooded food store called Herb's in Jean Lafitte.

The town, named for the pirate and hero of the 1815 Battle of New Orleans, is a resilient mix of oil field roughnecks, fishermen and those who like to live by water.

Ike flooded Claverie's store with more than two feet of water, destroying almost everything inside. By midweek, a cooling north wind was blowing water back into Bayou Barataria, but the damage had been done.

"We're just too low," said a tearful Claverie, who also lost her inventory during Gustav for a combined hit of $400,000. "Without our wetlands, which used to be our barrier, we do not have the protection we had in the past."

Over the past century, nearly 2,000 square miles of Louisiana wetlands have disappeared. Hurricanes, unstable soil and canals cut for shipping and oil exploration all have been blamed.

Environmental groups say that by 2050, another one-third of the 250-mile coast is expected to be lost.

"My family's story is the story of coastal Louisiana," said Windell Curole, 57, a biologist and levee board member in Lafourche and Terrebonne parishes. "But the land where we settled is all gone now. We have had to keep moving up, moving away."

Curole, a Cajun who says he was the first family member in seven generations to learn English before French, said wetlands loss is making even minor hurricanes dangerous.

"I first saw it in 1985, when Juan hit," Curole said. "It was a relatively weak hurricane, but it caused extensive flooding 40 to 50 miles in."

The long-term task of fixing the shattered coast is daunting. Wetlands restoration and extension of levee systems appear years distant, and will cost billions of dollars.

Whether the bayou communities can hold on until then is anyone's guess.

The fishing industry has taken the biggest hit, especially since Katrina and Rita. Federal officials this week declared a fisheries disaster, making commercial fishermen in Texas and Louisiana eligible for federal aid and opening the tap for loans for small fishing businesses.

But Claverie worries that Ike will still drive many of them out of business and out of town.

"Each storm knocks a hole in our community," she said. "They buy their groceries from us, and without them, it's a hole in our business."

But Ramona Guidry sounded defiant as she checked the damage to her childood home and began restocking the house for her 77-year-old mother. Standing on the porch as water sloshed across her lawn, Guidry said she will never part with her family home no matter how many hurricanes come.

"This is where I went to school. This is where I grew up," she said. "This is where we want to be."


Associated Press writers Michael Kunzelman in Houma and Mary Foster in New Orleans contributed to this story.

(Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)