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Hackberry: Population Zero

Times Staff Writer

Roger Thibodeaux gunned the engine but lowered his voice.

“What we’re doing here is illegal,” he said. “But we need to know what’s in there. We need to know what the rest of our lives are going to be like.”

Thibodeaux, 43, and Mike Daigle, 52 -- two grizzled friends who live hard and work hard, one on a drilling rig, the other on a shrimp boat -- had driven as close as they could Sunday afternoon to the region where Hurricane Rita cast a wall of water into Louisiana. Like thousands of others, they pleaded and cajoled, but authorities told them they could not go home.

So Thibodeaux and Daigle fetched an aluminum skiff and dropped it off the side of the road, just beyond sight of a roadblock. Their voices hushed, they turned left over Choupain Road, then left again over the front yard of Judge Broussard’s mama’s house.

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Half an hour later, they made their way to Hackberry, a town of 1,700 people and one coffee shop in southwest Louisiana. They stepped onto the shore, plunging into dark, gooey mud and devastation.

Remarkably, Rita appears to have killed no one in Louisiana. But in several small towns, the massive storm surge that followed the hurricane carted away something most locals thought was more enduring: their way of life.

In Hackberry, all 750 homes were damaged, and most were destroyed. Fish, their cloudy eyes bulging toward the sun, are rotting in the mud. The storm seems to have picked up most houses and let loose their contents like a salt shaker -- soggy checkbooks, potted orange trees, a child’s bedpost with stickers reminding him to brush and floss.

“It was a nice place to live,” Daigle said as he waded down Channel Drive to the home where he and his wife of 32 years raised their two children.

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“Everybody kind of knew everybody here. On a Saturday night, we might go walking and meet people. One night one will cook, and another night somebody else. Sometimes somebody might get a sack or two of crawfish, and we’ll all head over there and have a nice time. Now I don’t see but about four houses that people are going to be able to even live in. How are they ever going to be able to rebuild?”

Neighboring towns did even worse.

To the southeast, Cameron -- a port providing employment to hundreds in the area -- is gone. A historic courthouse that was one of the few structures to survive Hurricane Audrey in 1957 sustained heavy damage.

The tiny town of Holly Beach, a smattering of fish camps and cottages with a population of about 175, appears to have been leveled.

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Officials who flew over in helicopters said they would have no reason to think that a town had ever been there if it hadn’t been for a few telephone poles jutting out of the water.

“As far as we can tell, it’s just flat,” said Barry Badon, the area coordinator for the Cameron Parish Office of Emergency Preparedness. “This is ground zero of this storm, where the wind met the flooding.”

Badon lives in nearby Johnson’s Bayou, southwest of Hackberry. His own home, he said, “is probably not there.”

Still, residents pressed against roadblocks from every direction Sunday, desperate to learn the fate of their homes. Sharon Felice, 58, roared up to a roadblock on Highway 27 about noon, demanding to be allowed to drive into Hackberry.

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Wearing a flowered housedress and slippers, she pleaded with a sheriff’s deputy, who touched her on the arm and told her that the highway -- the only way into and out of town -- was washed out so badly that even some emergency vehicles had been unable to get through.

“We’re not many people, and we’re nobodies, but we’re a community,” she said. “And by God, we want to know what’s going on. My husband’s grave is down there. My daddy’s church -- he was a preacher and he’ll be 87 the 4th of October -- I don’t know what’s happened to that. And my cats. I had to leave them. I know they’re hungry.”

Tears streamed down her face.

“I feel like, how do you say it, like an alien moving into a new country,” she said as a new lake lapped on both sides of the highway and ate away at abandoned, crumbling farmhouses. “But this is my country, my home. Look at it.”

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Some say it will never be the same, even in the areas that can be rebuilt.

Daigle’s son, Marty, 30, grew up assuming that he would be captain of a shrimp boat too. Then he saw how hard his father had to work, pulling long days alone on the 44-foot Southern Comfort, tossing out one 50-foot net at a time in the inland bayous and lakes of southern Louisiana.

Marty, who graduated from Hackberry High School in 1994 among a class of 23, lives in Houston and works for a company that builds elevators.

“It’s sad,” said the son, who had accompanied his father to check on their family home Sunday. “That’s no easy life, and there are no young people getting into it. There’s just one guy I grew up with who does a little fishing.”

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Even if there are still some shrimp boats and some captains to pilot them in coming years, it is unlikely the industry will survive in this region, Mike Daigle said. Even if he has a good day of shrimping -- that’s about 2,500 pounds of shrimp -- there is no place to sell it because the infrastructure of the ports and the markets appears to have been destroyed.

“You’ve got to have some place to bring it in,” he said. “There’s nothing. There won’t be anything down here for a while.”

Still, Daigle pledged to rebuild.

“We haven’t had anything like this for 50 years,” he said. “You’ve got to figure it’ll be another 50 years before it happens again. And I won’t be around for that.”

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So he went home Sunday.

His first stop was his house, a 35-year-old former fish camp that he bought from a cousin more than 20 years ago.

Fiddler crabs had taken up residence in the murky water on his street as he waded in, ducking under bowed power lines and checking the occasional mailbox to see whether there was any mail to bring out for anyone.

“There she is,” he said as he rounded a curve.

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A pile of storm debris teeming with fire ants covered the three steps, and he struggled to get to the door. Inside, the mud had crept in, and part of the ceiling had fallen in. But it was all there.

The stuffed turtle and the toy truck belonging to Tate, his 2-year-old grandson. The picture of Tate taken last Christmas, wearing a Santa suit.

The eight-point buck that Daigle shot a few years ago with a rifle, his wife’s size 7 shoes, the bookshelf with “Where the Red Fern Grows” and “Facts About the Presidents.”

“I think we did OK,” he said. “I’ll get a water hose and drill a few holes in the floor, and I’ll clean it out in no time.”

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He opened the freezer, which had managed to keep the ice cream cold, if no longer frozen. It was a treat after a long, hot journey home, and he took a few spoonfuls.

“I’m going to eat all the strawberries out of it and leave the rest for my wife,” he said with a smile. “That’s what she always does to me.”

Daigle initially thought the town had fared better than he had feared. But armed with a list of houses that neighbors wanted him to check on, he soon learned otherwise. Many are no longer where they used to be.

“See that gray house?” he said. “That used to be on the other side of the road. And right over there, that house used to be on those blocks.”

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He pointed to a spot about 60 feet away, where a forest of small, cinder block posts jutted out from a flooded field.

“Now it’s in that guy’s backyard,” he said.

He stopped at what used to be an intersection. A house appeared to have imploded. Outside the home was a remnant of the family business, a refrigerator trailer painted with the words, “Seafood so fresh you have to slap it.”

“It’s not good,” he said. “Not good at all. I wouldn’t wish this on nobody else.”

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Thibodeaux was waiting for him back at the boat.

“How’d you do?” Daigle asked him.

“OK, I guess,” Thibodeaux said. “Still standing.”

“Yep,” Daigle said. “Me too.”

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