David Chauvin sat at a picnic table at his Dulac shrimp processing facility searching for an answer to the one question on the minds of everyone from Houma to the bayou communities of Southeastern Louisiana: What happens next?
It was Wednesday afternoon, 10 days since Hurricane Ida laid waste to the region. Many of Chauvin’s workers were now homeless. His own house, a structure that had stood strong for more than three decades, wilted in the face of the Category 4 monster. As he and his wife huddled for safety in a hallway during the worst of the storm, Chauvin said they watched in horror as the winds peeled away his roof.
“I don’t know,” Chauvin, 53, finally said, returning to the question. “It’s almost unimaginable.”
A pickup truck rolled onto his lot. Behind the wheel was an older man with long gray hair, his right shoulder covered in a tattoo of Native American feathers. Several children were slumped in the backseat. After Chauvin greeted him, the man said his trailer was wiped out.
He appeared lost, not knowing what to do or where to go. He was looking to Chauvin for answers, but there were none to give.
As the man drove off, Chauvin shook his head in frustration. “How am I going to tell him what to do when I don’t know myself?”
Resilience is a word often used to describe people like Chauvin, who, for generations, have endured countless natural disasters. This resilience has served them well and ensured the survival of a culture unique to these increasingly endangered fishing villages. But there is now a shell-shocked look stamped on the faces of the survivors, who agree Ida is the worst hurricane they have ever experienced.
Over the past week, elected officials, local law enforcement, the Louisiana National Guard, religious groups and volunteers have attempted to meet their immediate needs — ice, water, food and fuel — but housing remains foremost, Chauvin said. Power and running water will eventually return, but the rebuilding of homes will take time. Weeks for some, months for others. Longer for the truly unfortunate.
In the meantime, many people are living in cars, tents or the remnants of their storm-wrecked houses, he said. On the side of Grand Caillou Road this week, a man sat on the porch of a home missing the entirety of its front face, exposing each room as if it were a dollhouse.
“There’s so many people down here that are homeless,” Chauvin said. “They’re just coming back from evacuating, and they’re coming to find there’s nothing left for them to live in.”
An official estimate of the number of homes damaged or destroyed in Terrebonne Parish, which has a population of about 110,000, is unknown. But the region is undoubtedly facing a housing crisis of previously unheard proportions, said State Rep. Beryl Amedee, R-Houma.
Amedee, who has spent the past 10 days coordinating relief efforts and making daily trips to the hardest hit areas, believes 95% of all structures in the bayou communities were damaged, and the impact gets worse as you move east, she said.
In Dularge, she estimates 40% of homes are uninhabitable, 60% in Dulac, close to 70% in Chauvin and even more in Montague and Point Aux Chenes. If nothing is done, Amedee said, the number of people living below the poverty level will dramatically increase in a community of people already living paycheck to paycheck.
“We are bracing for a catastrophic number of suddenly homeless people,” Amedee said.
In Houma, while the destruction isn’t as severe, it is just as widespread, impacting nearly every structure. Stories of landlords attempting to force people out of these storm-damaged buildings have been widely reported.
Reggie Chaisson, 53, sat in a rocking chair outside of his apartment on Magnolia Street. His hands shook uncontrollably from stress. The exterior wall of his apartment had been ripped away during the storm. Yesterday it rained, soaking the interior.
Chaisson, who has lived in the building for two years now, said a woman, who claimed to work for his landlord, stopped by recently and told him the building was uninhabitable and he had to “get the f--- out” or the police would make him.
He said he asked the woman where he was supposed to go. She said it wasn’t her problem.
“They could pull up right now and hit me with an eviction notice,” Chaisson said, as he struggled to keep from crying.
He now fears he will be homeless again, as he was before moving into the apartment.
Ricardo Hampton, Chaisson’s 42-year-old roommate, said “there is no help here in Houma.”
“We don’t have no place to go. They don’t have no homeless shelters,” Hampton said. “When you’re out, you’re out. Nobody cares.”
The owner of Chaisson’s property, former state representative Damon Baldone, 56, said they are not issuing eviction notices, but when a property is no longer habitable and poses a risk of collapse, they have no choice but to ask people to leave.
Baldone said he owns 525 units in Terrebonne and Lafourche parishes and estimates 95% suffered damage, with at least 30% rendered uninhabitable. He said he sympathizes with Chaisson’s plight, but “there’s only so much we can do when we have so much devastation.”
“I’m not going to have somebody die on my watch because a roof fell in on them.”
As for the woman who threatened Chaisson, Baldone said if true, she would be suspended or terminated.
Several blocks away from Chaisson’s apartment, Joe Goodwin was removing debris from his yard. He’s spent the past several days gutting a section of his house that sustained water damage to keep the encroaching mold at bay.
Goodwin’s parents are temporarily living in an RV next to his home. He said his mom does little things to keep everyone’s spirits up, creating a restaurant-like menu of all the items stored in their freezers and coolers, complete with sides, appetizers and main courses. Last night, they agreed on pork steak, dirty rice, barbecue beans and Hawaiian rolls.
“We’re eating well,” Goodwin, 42, laughed. “We’re Cajuns. We had freezers full of stuff.”
But those moments of comfort are fleeting. Looking around his neighborhood, Goodwin pointed to a tree that had fallen on a neighbor’s home, “cracking the house in half.”
“It’s heartbreaking,” he said, wiping away the tears. “It’s hard to even talk about. I grew up here. I know all the landmarks, and some of the neighborhoods you get lost because it’s unrecognizable. It’s tough.”
Sixteen miles to the south, on Grand Caillou Road in Dulac, Pastor Norbert Billiot, 42, stood watch as volunteers handed out supplies to hundreds of families that pulled up to the Anchor Foursquare Church. The most requested items were water, ice, hot plates of food, diapers, baby formula, feminine hygiene products, cleaning supplies and pet food.
Billiot, who was born in nearby Point Aux Chenes, rode out the storm with his wife Cassandra in their Dulac home, which sits on 10-foot-high pylons. Their house survived, largely intact, Cassandra said, but “the scariest part was watching everybody else’s houses fall apart.”
In the days immediately following the storm, Billiot heard about a Vietnamese family with three children whose camper on shrimper’s row had been thrashed by the storm and was now a “pile of rubbish.” With nowhere to go, they fashioned a shelter out of a tarp, but it provided little protection from the oppressive heat, and none against the swarms of mosquitoes.
The church donated the family a 10-person tent, Billiot said, but that is only a stop-gap measure.
“One guy said it best: Either you rebuild and get better, or you pack up and leave. That’s the two options that we have here,” he said. “And most of them won’t pack up and leave. They’re going to rebuild.”
But to do so, they need help, said Terrebonne Parish Councilman Daniel Babin, and he hopes it comes in the form of the so-called FEMA trailers provided by the thousands to New Orleans homeowners following Hurricane Katrina.
“A FEMA trailer would be in some cases 50 times better than what they were living in before, which is sad,” Babin said of the people in Dulac. “The people down the bayou will find food. They’ll cook something. But they have to have a roof over their head to do that.”
A few miles north of the Anchor Foursquare Church is Ashland South, a small community of several hundred mobile homes. A few had been flipped upside down, others tossed off their blocks, while some no longer resembled houses, reduced to a pile of plywood and tattered insulation.
In front of one house, its sides and roof sheared off by Ida’s winds, was a small makeshift tent built out of a tarp and other random materials. This is where Jayce Marcel, 25, and his wife, Brooke Marcel, 24, now live.
A neighbor allows them to use his generator at night to power an air conditioner. A nearby church feeds them. The rest of the day they bake in the summer heat and humidity, which is especially dangerous for Brooke who suffers from asthma. Both are currently unemployed with a 3-year-old daughter who is temporarily staying with a family member. Neither has a solid plan, or any idea of what the future holds.
Last night, Jayce said they were attacked by a dog left behind by an evacuee.
“I wanted to shoot him, but I spared him,” Jayce said. “I hit him with a stick instead. At least he’s still alive that way, ‘cause, you know, it’s still somebody’s dog.”
He then looked around the remnants of the community he has lived his entire life. “I don’t think a lot of people are going to come back.”