Hurricane’s Forgotten Victims

Times Staff Writer

Loretta and Sonny Meaux led a simple but satisfying life from the bounty of the Gulf of Mexico.

They raked oysters and trapped blue crabs and sold their catch out of a shack beside their home. They rented beach cabins to college students on beer-chugging getaways and to adventurous tourists who came to alligator country from as far away as Britain and Germany.

“We worked hard, we lived hard and we laughed hard,” Loretta Meaux said.


That life blew to pieces in September, when Hurricane Rita slammed into the Louisiana coast with 120-mph winds and a 20-foot wall of water. Holly Beach, a sliver of sugar-white sand affectionately known as the “Cajun Riviera,” was all but wiped off the map.

More than four months later, the former community of about 200 residents, roughly halfway between New Orleans and Houston, remains a surreal scape of concrete foundations, aluminum picnic benches and frying pans half buried in sand. Without outside help, all the sweat and muscle the families can muster will never be enough to bring back Holly Beach.

The Meauxs live in a small RV bought with a $16,000 insurance settlement they received for their destroyed home. They collect $98 a week in unemployment. They wonder how they will get back out on the water to earn a living before their meager savings run out. And like many others in Cajun country, they increasingly question whether the rest of America knows, or cares, about the depth of their region’s devastation.

“We’re not looking for no handout, but we need some help over here,” Loretta Meaux, 52, said as she prepared a pot of chicken and sausage gumbo. “All the talk is about Hurricane Katrina and New Orleans. We love and respect New Orleans. But we’re people too.”

On Sept. 24, a little less than a month after Katrina devastated New Orleans, Rita ripped across the southwest Louisiana coastline, battering port towns where generations had made a living in the commercial fishing and oil and gas industries.

A handful of people died as a direct result of Hurricane Rita, and politicians and the national news media quickly shifted their attention back to the calamity caused by Hurricane Katrina, which killed hundreds. But in the east Texas towns and rural Louisiana parishes that Rita mangled, misery still runs deep.

In the three parishes on Louisiana’s southwestern tip -- Cameron, Calcasieu and Vermillion -- roads, bridges, utilities, schools, government buildings and businesses were heavily damaged. Few homes remain standing or habitable.

Rita displaced 184,000 people -- a number that pales compared with the 1 million uprooted by Katrina. Half a million people are seeking federal assistance as a result of Rita; 1.5 million are as a result of Katrina.

Southwest Louisiana is part of Acadiana, home of the Cajun people, who settled in the state’s bayous in 1755 after being expelled from what is now Nova Scotia. The descendants of those original 3,000 Acadian settlers make up about a quarter of Louisiana’s 4.5 million residents.

The livelihood of many Cajun families -- commercial and recreational fishing -- remains in tatters.

“The good news is that there was no loss of life,” said Randy Roach, mayor of Lake Charles, La., a city of about 72,000 people that suffered severe damage. “The bad news is that there was a loss of a way of life.”

Rita’s biggest wallop was just below Lake Charles in Cameron Parish, a region of about 10,000 people where floodwaters carried coffins from their places of burial and where wayward cattle were still clambering out of flooded marshes months later.

The parish, which includes Holly Beach, had experienced an earlier destruction still vivid in the minds of older residents: Hurricane Audrey made landfall here nearly half a century ago, killing more than 400 people.

Most Cameron Parish residents, like many others in coastal Louisiana, have not returned home because they no longer have homes to return to. Houses eerily sit half-sunk in wetlands, miles from where they once were.

“This area’s devastated. It’s just as bad as New Orleans, only the people here ain’t hooting and hollering,” said Republican state Sen. James David Cain, who represents part of southwest Louisiana.

Tensions with the U.S. government run high -- particularly with the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which many residents have criticized as being slow to help.

“We didn’t get no help from nobody -- not from FEMA, EPA or none of those letter people,” said former Holly Beach resident Donald Pugh, who is living at a fish processing plant where the smell is overpowering. “We’re doing this cleanup ourselves.”

FEMA officials defended their recovery aid in the region. They said providing trailers and other assistance was going slower than expected because it had been difficult to restore electricity and other vital services to badly damaged rural areas.

“Obviously, we can’t plug a trailer into a tree. Unfortunately, it has taken a lot longer than we thought to get some services back in there,” FEMA spokeswoman Nicole Andrews said.

John T. Landry, a member of the Louisiana Recovery Authority, a panel established by Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco to oversee the rebuilding of the state, said he shared the frustration of residents who believed the country had forgotten about Hurricane Rita.

But he said he was convinced state officials had gotten the message that the region was in desperate need of help. The state is planning a community planning session in Lake Charles this week, one of several planned for south Louisiana.

“People say we provide help to people in Bangladesh, but here we are, citizens of the United States, and we have been forgotten,” said Landry, who resides in Vermillion Parish.

“When you have people who still don’t have a home months after the storm, and they see 1,000 trailers sitting in an air base in Lake Charles instead of people’s driveways, they get frustrated, and I can understand that,” he added.

During a recent bus tour of the region organized by Louisiana seafood officials, it looked as if the hurricane had just happened. Gnarled oaks that had stood for centuries lay toppled over, knotty roots exposed. Doors and damaged skiffs and fallen telephone poles dotted the flooded marshes, which used to be full of grazing cattle.

But it was an invisible remnant that concerned experts the most: Salt, left behind when storm waters evaporated, is slowly poisoning the land.

“What you’re seeing out there is a dead marsh,” wildlife biologist David Richard said. “Rita not only killed marshes when it hit, it’s going to kill marshes for years to come.”

The town of Cameron, a supply and fishing port that ranked sixth in the nation in volume, was nearly leveled. Rita destroyed fishing docks and boats as well as the warehouses of the middlemen who bought the catch, the icehouses that kept it fresh and the filling stations used to fuel up fishing boats.

Chemical containers from the docks were knocked into waterways, creating a navigational hazard. The Environmental Protection Agency, which is handling the cleanup of the toxic waste, estimated it would take months to collect them.

The handful of fishermen able to return to the water in time for the recent shrimp season reported an exceptionally plentiful catch.

“But when you bring it in, there is nothing. The infrastructure is gone,” said Mike Voisin, a seventh-generation seafood businessman who chairs the Louisiana Oyster Task Force, a state agency.

Rita also devastated Calcasieu Lake, a legendary Louisiana fishing hole, where expert guides earned a paycheck taking tourists to redfish, speckled trout and flounder.

“You’re just up a creek with no paddle,” said Mary Poe, president of the state’s charter boat association. “Quite a few of the captains will not come back. The hardship is just too great.”

By the time the tour rolled into Holly Beach, Loretta Meaux, who took part, was overcome with emotion. All that remained of her home and family businesses were two palm trees.

Before Rita hit, residents of Cameron Parish housed and fed more than 350 Katrina victims. When Rita abruptly shifted course away from Texas and toward Louisiana, they had little time to evacuate.

“The only thing we got out of there was his gun, my photo album and some of our clothes,” Loretta Meaux said.

Sonny Meaux, 62, is old enough to have lived through Hurricane Audrey in 1957 -- and to wonder whether he still has time to rebuild after Rita.

He has been fishing since he was 10, and his leathery face reflects a lifetime out on the water. He said the Small Business Administration offered the family a $288,000 loan, to be repaid over 30 years. But at his age, he said, it made no sense to take on that kind of debt.

“C’mon, partner, people don’t live that long around here,” Sonny Meaux said.

All he wanted was for the government to clean up the debris so he could start fishing again -- and to get out of his way.

“Why have they forgot about us?” he asked. “We ain’t asking for much.”