POINTE-AUX-CHÊNES, La.—The closer you get to the marina, the stronger the smell. “Sewer mixed with swamp,” said Christine Verdin, who grew up in the community and serves on the council of the Pointe-au-Chien tribe. “I wish we could bottle this up as perfume and send it to people who haven’t been around and say, ‘You didn’t come to see what it looked like, but now you can smell it.’”
Two weeks after Ida ripped through this unincorporated bayou community of 3,700, 80% of homes are uninhabitable, said Chuckie Verdin, tribal council leader in Pointe-aux-Chênes, where around a third of residents are members of the tribe that includes primarily people of Chitimacha descent. Nobody has power or running water.
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Ms. Verdin and other residents say they feel overlooked by federal, state and parish officials as they wait to hear how much assistance they stand to receive for rebuilding or relocation.
Residents have rebuilt after storms before. But this time, after the most severe damage the community has ever seen, locals want to use stronger materials to break the cycle of hurricane destruction. Many fear, though, they may not get any aid to rebuild given the likelihood of more severe storms in the future, leaving them with little choice but to move away.
“Something has changed,” said Bernice Billiot, 63 years old, a tribe member who was working recently to salvage her garden from the rubble of the house where she had lived for 45 years. “It looks like a bomb went off.”
About 80% of the homes in Pointe-aux-Chênes, La., were left uninhabitable in the wake of Hurricane Ida.
Ida was the worst storm to hit Louisiana since Hurricane Katrina struck exactly 16 years earlier.
Coastal communities such as Pointe-aux-Chênes, which has about 3,700 residents, bore the brunt of Ida’s impact.
Two weeks after Ida, bayou communities remain largely without electricity or running water.
Pointe-aux-Chênes is one of many coastal communities that bore the brunt of Ida’s impact. In broader Terrebonne and Lafourche parishes—the community’s geography spans both—roughly 75% of customers remained without power Saturday, according to
the main utility in the area, and many lacked potable water. In other nearby river parishes, only a marginal number of customers had seen power restored as of Saturday.
By contrast, Entergy reported Thursday that 735,000 of the 902,000 customers who lost power due to Hurricane Ida in Mississippi and Louisiana were back on, including 99% of customers in New Orleans.
On Wednesday, the Louisiana Department of Health reported 11 additional heat-related deaths linked to extended power outages, bringing the death toll from the worst storm to hit the area since Hurricane Katrina in 2005 to 26. The overall death toll is now up to 82, including four in the Southeast and 52 others in the U.S. Northeast, where the storm’s remnants led to widespread flooding and tornadoes.
In Pointe-aux-Chênes on Thursday, workers had yet to arrive to clear the wires scattered like spaghetti across roads. Residents were still trying to salvage their possessions as they decided whether to stay on the land their ancestors have lived on for at least 900 years, or move away.
After Katrina, Point-aux-Chênes residents raised their houses 12 feet off the ground to protect them from flooding. Hurricanes Gustav in 2008 and Isaac in 2012 prompted some to move further up the 10-mile main road, away from the marina, where the water doesn’t get up as high.
Many others didn’t move. Ms. Billiot’s husband makes his living crabbing in the bayou 20 feet from where their house stood. The other 39 homes on her block—only seven of which are still intact—belong to extended family and fellow tribe members who helped raise her six children. “This is home. This is my whole family,” she said.
“None of us have anywhere to go,” said Cherie Matherne, 37, who lives down the road from Ms. Billiot and works as the cultural heritage and resiliency coordinator for the tribe.
Jason Hendon, a 33-year-old computer machinist, grew up in Pointe-aux-Chênes but moved further inland to the nearby city of Houma, La., 12 years ago because he said “something like this was bound to happen eventually.” Ida blew the roofs off the homes of his parents and grandparents.
He said he’s tried to convince his parents—also members of the tribe—to leave for years. This time, he said, they seemed to be listening. “I think people are just getting tired of rebuilding every few years and losing it all again,” he said while standing next to his neighbors’ boat, which had drifted across the street during the storm.
“If they were smart, they would just move out and start over somewhere else,” he said.
For many residents, the choice to stay or go depends on what kind of aid the Federal Emergency Management Agency offers.
Without outside help, “we just don’t have the money to rebuild,” said Freddie Naquin, 70, a retired tugboat captain and lifelong resident who has been living in his house, with half the roof caved in, for the past week. Mr. Naquin says that while he’s waiting to hear from FEMA, he’s worried he’ll be offered a buyout—or money to leave—instead of assistance with rebuilding. If he gets the money, he wants to position his house further back from the road where it would be better protected by trees.
“I don’t want to hear any mention of buyouts or relocation at all,” said Ms. Verdin, standing outside the tribe’s community center wearing a T-shirt with the words “I am Pointe-au-Chien” across the chest. She was referring to a FEMA grant program that allows local governments to buy and demolish homes that have seen repeated flooding, giving residents money to relocate elsewhere. Tens of thousands of such buyouts have taken place in locations including North Carolina and Houston.
One woman browsing a makeshift free store of food and supplies inside the community center asked her friend if she had seen any duct tape. “Why, you trying to tape your house back together?” the friend asked. “That’s not a bad idea,” she joked.
Many locals would rather glue their houses together than take buyouts, Ms. Verdin said, overhearing the conversation.
The decision to offer buyouts is made by the state, a FEMA representative said, using grant money “to reduce future disaster losses.” As of Saturday, according to the representative, FEMA has provided the 25 parishes included in the Louisiana disaster declaration $271 million in direct grants to survivors in more than 242,000 households.
After Hurricane Isaac, in 2012, the state began to relocate the remaining residents of nearby Isle de Jean Charles, another tribal hub where many Pointe-aux-Chênes residents, like Mr. Hendon’s father, were born. Now, there are only a dozen or so homes left on the land. While the buyout was voluntary, many people felt they had no choice but to leave—without outside investments, residents said they couldn’t afford to rebuild themselves. Ms. Verdin and others think their story should be a cautionary tale.
“No one is required to sell their property,” the FEMA representative said. “It is a lengthy process and many factors are taken into consideration before a decision is rendered.”
As she drove around her neighborhood, tribe member Theresa Dardar, 67, pointed out houses that belonged to her nieces, nephews, sister and in-laws, dropping off bags of ice and stopping to chat.
“We’re strong people, we’ll do what we have to do for each other,” said Ms. Dardar. “Officials need to trust us that we know what’s best for ourselves.”
By the next day, Ms. Billiot had already partially replanted her garden. “I’m not giving up,” she said. “It seems hard to imagine right now, but the grass is going to be green again.”
Write to Rachel Wolfe at [email protected]
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