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Days After Hurricane Ida, LaPlace Residents Are Desperate For Help

 Melvin Ceaser, 82, said his father planted the live oak tree behind him, which crushed a neighbor’s trailer back when was a child. His home was damaged too, and it’s been in his family for generations.
Melvin Ceaser, 82, said his father planted the live oak tree behind him, which crushed a neighbor’s trailer back when was a child. His home was damaged too, and it’s been in his family for generations.

President Joe Biden toured areas of the state hit hardest by Hurricane Ida on Friday, including the small town of LaPlace, in St. John Parish — about 30 miles northwest of New Orleans.

The city was in the direct path of Hurricane Ida’s most brutal wind and rain. Trees were uprooted, roofs were ripped off, and many residents lost their homes completely.

Melvin Ceaser, 82, laid in his bed as the storm bore down, praying as part of the roof was torn off and the rain poured in. He was stuck in the house for two days until his nephew, Donald Caeser, found him still laying in his bed, hungry and sweating in the heat and humidity.

Melvin Ceaser relies on a walker to get around and wasn’t able to evacuate for the storm. He couldn’t afford to. Donald Ceaser couldn’t afford to leave either, riding the storm out in his pickup truck, where he’s been living for several weeks since his trailer home burned down.

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The Ceasers and their neighbors cleaned up the house, sweeping up wet clothes, photos, and wet sheetrock into a big pile and pushing it into one of the bedrooms. The sun shines straight through the ceiling in the sweltering heat. They say no officials have come to check on them – so Melvin Ceaser continues to live in the wet mess that remains of his family home.

Melvin rolled through the house with his walker, crying as he surveyed the damage. “The whole ceiling came down! The whole bathroom is all torn up!”

They have no way to charge their phones and call for help. Their food has spoiled. They have no tarps for the roof.

“They haven’t brought water, they haven’t brought ice, they haven’t brought nothing,” he said.

Melvin Ceaser is waiting for his daughter to get in from Texas, he said she’s been calling FEMA asking for help, at least trying to get a tarp to cover the roof.

A FEMA spokesperson said that the agency is not sending staff door-to-door in damaged areas. They are working with the Louisiana National Guard, Red Cross and local emergency management agencies to provide supplies such as meals, ice and tarps.

During a press conference Thursday, parish president Jaclyn Hotard acknowledged the extensive damage and the adversity that people in the parish were facing.

“I want to make that assurance known that the team you see here, we are committed to this community, have been and always will be,” said Howard, adding that many of her staff had also lost their homes and properties.

While some areas may see power restored as early as next week, there are no estimates for this parish. Howard says it will take time but help will come.

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Stories like the Ceasers’ are not rare in this area, which has a 16% poverty rate and where more than half of the residents are people of color.

With a population of less than 30,000, LaPlace is located between New Orleans and Baton Rouge in the region known as the “chemical corridor” for its high number of petrochemical plants. Many work for the local plants.

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Many local oil and gas workers attend the Iglesia Pentecostal Providencia Divina church on Highway 61. A simple concrete and corrugated metal building, the church was a gathering place for Spanish-speaking Mexican, Honduran and Dominican families, many of them low-income.

After pausing in-person services for more than a year, the congregation was so happy to start meeting again recently. Now the church is gone.

Pastor Pedro Rivera walked through the flooded floors this week, taking stock of the tree that tore through the wall. The roof was blown off. The floor is covered in water, mud, and scattered furniture.

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“It’s a lot of memories,” said Rivera, who works at the nearby Shell Norco refinery, while he looked at a water-logged Bible on the floor. “We just trust in God. He’s never left us.”

He reads a scripture painted delicately on one of the walls that remains, “Así también aun en este tiempo ha quedado un remanente escogido por gracia.” It’s Romans 11:5, “So then also, in the present time, there has been a remnant according to the election of grace.”

It is with grace that pastor Rivera assesses what has been lost, and the need that remains. “I know we will be back.”

Copyright 2021 WWNO - New Orleans Public Radio

Tegan Wendland is a freelance producer with a background in investigative news reporting. She currently produces the biweekly segment, Northshore Focus.