BY BRETT DOWNER
CAMERON — Home after home in hurricane-wrecked Cameron Parish has a spray-painted message out front. Name. Address. Phone number. Insurance company.
The degrees of damage of the homes vary. Beach houses are blown from their posts. Homes are scoured of their brick veneer. Yards still have shreds of plastic and trash snagged in the trees. Some properties are nothing more than slabs with an American flag.
The signs on these properties are painted on scrap plywood, aluminum siding or whatever handy material is nearby. They are nailed on porches, propped against mailboxes and placed atop roadside debris.
Five months after the storm, the graffiti of Hurricane Rita still calls out for help. People are not getting answers.
Five months later, people wait for insurance companies to pay up. They wait for contractors and service people. They do what they can on their own, if even in a small way, to fix their properties. They enlist the skills of their kin.
The national media don’t talk about them. Some of the adjusters won’t settle with them. Leaders in Washington don’t visit them.
The things people here talk about first have to do with Rita — not Mardi Gras, not hunting and fishing, not the six-month anniversary of Hurricane Katrina.
Five months later, Cameron Parish endures Hurricane Rita every day.
HASN’T GOTTEN A PENNY
A white-haired man in a hunting jacket is moving a wheelbarrow on his property. The sky is gray. The wind is stiff.
George LeBouef, 73, shovels oily mud out of the decorative garden behind the site of his home.
Now, though, there is no decorative garden. There is no home, either.
There is a slab, and it has been erased of all but the kitchen flooring. Behind it are the stepping stones that once led to the LeBouefs’ prized garden. The fountain and most of the miniature waterfall are still there.
LeBouefs’ property is an example of the destruction left by Hurricane Rita last Sept. 23-24. Its condition today, five months later, reflects that of properties owned by people who can’t get an insurance settlement or a contractor, or both.
There are a lot people like LeBouef in Cameron Parish, and they do what they can.
“We had about 200 potted plants here,” LeBouef says, pointing to where they stood. “Tropical plants, you name it. It was beautiful. Just beautiful.”
He wipes his face with a wrinkled paper towel.
“I’m putting this back together, no matter what.”
LeBouef built his two-bedroom, two-bath home in 1958. The house followed the federal government’s post-Audrey construction standards. He bends down at the corner of the kitchen and points to the remnants of hurricane brackets, which were designed to permanently grip the walls into place. They held for 47 years.
Today, he and his wife live in a mobile home in Grand Lake. He comes down when he can to fix things.
Next to his slab is a dirt-caked elevation with a concrete entrance. It’s a tornado shelter.
“We went through a tornado here in ’62, so we had it put in,” he says. “I guess it was kind of a security blanket.”
It ended up becoming a storeroom. It’s now filled with mud and Christmas decorations.
Water and wind
LeBouef has seen bad weather and its effects for years.
“I was here for Audrey,” he says. Rita was different from the 1957 hurricane because “the wind came first, then the water,” he says.
“People say this was worse than Audrey. Well, there wasn’t the infrastructure, the development we have today,” he says. Though Audrey had a storm surge comparable to Rita, “there wasn’t the debris (then), because there wasn’t so much stuff.”
“We’ve been through a tragedy,” he says. “It’s hard to come to grips with it.”
He points to two holes in his yard that were left by huge oaks. The trees fell to the southwest.
“I’m convinced this was hit by a tornado,” he says.
Wind damage, in other words.
But LeBouef’s opinion doesn’t count.
“The insurance companies say that if you had water and wind, you didn’t have a claim — because you had water,” he said.
Flood damage, in other words. For LeBouef and lots of others, that’s not covered.
Asked if he and his insurance company have reached agreement, he shakes his head.
But it’s been almost five months now. Gotten any money at all?
Another shake of the head. “None.”
Changing the subject, LeBouef talks about his garden.
He points to a sawed-off cluster of bamboo. He’s certain it will reshoot “and grow 50 feet in three months. It’s furniture bamboo.” He looks over at his collection of decorative yard lions — four of them, painted gold, about three feet high. “Two go by the back door, and two go by the entrance to the garden,” he says.
Though he is in limbo with his insurance and is still shoveling mud out of his waterfall, LeBouef has concerns about recovery that go far beyond his property line. He was a Cameron Parish police juror for 12 years, from 1986 to 2000. For a few moments, he is sounding like one again.
“The re-entry system was a little slow,” he says, shifting his hunting cap. “After Audrey, we came back in two or three days. If you own property, you ought to be able to sit in the rain or in a tent if you want to.”
He’s concerned about the property of his longtime neighbors. Next door was where the mother of South Cameron High football coach Perry LaLande lived. There’s nothing there. Farther down was the home of the Conway LeBleu family; not much left there, either.
He is encouraged by the leadership in Lake Charles, though.
“You have a very, very good mayor up there,” he says. Randy Roach is a former state legislator, and his district included this area. “Randy worked for Cameron Parish very hard. He assisted us on bills, on getting legislation passed. Part of his heart was in Cameron Parish.”
A pickup truck pulls up. Out climbs Jack Taunton, who drove 180 miles downstate to help with hurricane cleanup and demolition.
“I’ve been here since the first of December,” he says. Nearly three months later, there’s still work to do.
Disaster is not new to him. After Hurricane Katrina, “I picked up my stepbrother in Waveland,” he says. Knowing nods are shared about the destruction in that gulfside Mississippi town. “He had nothing else but his slab. It was pitiful.”
LeBouef and Taunton discuss the cleanup, then Taunton goes on his way.
LeBouef reaches for his shovel.
“Well, I’ve kept you long enough,” he says, scooping a shovelful of slick, black mud from the bottom of his backyard fountain.
“It’s just going to be a slow process,” he says, dumping the muck into a wheelbarrow. He is talking about Cameron now, not just his backyard.
“It’ll take years, but it’ll come back. Not in my lifetime, but it’ll come back.”
WRECKAGE; FEW PEOPLE
On the other side of Cameron, the 2300 block of Teal — a street south of the Hug the Coast Highway — once had a row of beach houses facing the Gulf of Mexico. It’s now empty except for sand and a lone FEMA travel trailer.
The only neighbor is three blocks away, clearly visible. Over at 2619 Teal, a spray-painted sign out front of the trailer assures that the “family is OK” and gives a cell-phone number in case you need to call.
Across from the Martin Beach turnoff, the snapshot-worthy cluster of aging oaks is upstaged by the wreckage below. What is photographed instead is a blown-through trailer and the spray-painted message it bears: “Gone With the Wind,” starring “Rita.”
Also under the oaks are a Komfort travel trailer tipped up at a 45-degree angle, some lopsided mobile homes with bulldozing instructions spray-painted on their sides and a rising fog of wintertime mosquitoes. The mess is fit for one of the Rita Dump Sites — that’s what they’re called — that have been set up in Cameron Parish. There’s one nearby, just west of Stingray’s gas pipeline operation.
‘WE DESERVE’ COVERAGE
Constance Beach is even more erased than newspapers describe or TV stations show. Craig Herring of Clear Lake, Texas, who has come to Constance Beach for a good 20 years, is seeing it himself for the first time — five months after the hurricane.
Herring drove in 45 minutes ago. He is parked on the far east side of the beach on the somewhat recognizable Kathy Lane. He climbs out of his SUV with a set of papers and a cigar.
His front-row, ground-level beach house was gone. A cover of bulldozed sand had been flattened into place. Other than in photos, he never saw the remnants of his beach house. He pointed to a sewer pipe and a power connection. That is all that’s left.
Herring works at NASA in Houston. He is the construction supervisor for a contractor at the space agency, so he is involved in structures going up, or coming down, in his daily job. A few years ago, he spent “36 weekends,” he said, renovating his beach house. Last September, his house was lost to the wind. Or the water. That’s the issue.
“We’re fighting with the insurance company,” he said, shoving his sunglasses up onto his forehead. “We had flood coverage on it. It paid. But it had wind coverage on it, too. And they’re trying to deny the claim.
“They sent an engineering firm to see if there was any wind damage. Can you believe it? It’s incredible what people are going through to get the coverage they pay for.”
Herring said he had just heard about the National Weather Service’s finding that during Hurricane Rita, the wind came first, then the storm surge followed. A news story about this finding had been sent to him. He held up the fax. It was a front-page story by the American Press.
He’s convinced that people in Cameron Parish aren’t being treated fairly by insurance companies.
“These are all nice people, and they pay their insurance,” he says. “A lot of these claims aren’t for much money, maybe 60 Gs. To an insurance company, that’s pretty much chump change. We paid on the policy. We just want what we deserve to get on it.”
“If this storm would’ve turned toward Galveston, they wouldn’t be putting up with this,” he says. Insurance companies have access to powerful lawyers and can afford to pay them, he said, but in Cameron Parish “people don’t have the money. The only ones they’re going to pay are the ones who ... complain. You have to raise hell. And that’s sad.
“We probably won’t rebuild,” he says. “I don’t think so.”
Though the house is gone and the site plowed smooth, Herring is leaving Constance Beach for good with at least one recovered item. His barbecue grill was found rusting in soggy sand nearby. Two recovery workers came over to help him pull it out and load it into the back of his SUV.
“It’s a good pit. I’m gonna get it sandblasted,” he says, laughing as he closes the back hatch. “It’s a memento for my next camp.”
SEEN ALONG THE WAY
Along the West Creole Highway, east of Cameron, someone’s aluminum walker is still stuck in the roadside drainage ditch. Nearby, a car is overturned. So is a boat.
Next to Our Lady Star of the Sea Catholic Church, the flattened grass is a debris field bearing two cars smashed against a utility pole, an upended tractor, a girl’s bicycle, a Harmon Kardon receiver and sections of a tile bathroom. The bare trees overhead bloom with flapping remnants of Vizqueen.
In Cameron, landmarks are shredded or gone. Traffic is slowed by road crews. Freshly turned soil points to spots that have been cleaned up or plowed under. Houses are spray-painted with information and, sometimes, commentary.
The parish courthouse — Cameron’s own Gibraltar, having taken two monster hurricanes in the teeth — has polite notes on office doors that indicate they’re open. Downstairs, the work spaces are empty and there are three puddles in the basement.
Aboard the ferry, there’s plenty of room. A few truckers stand in a group and talk. A flashing sign announces that the ferry will close the next day.
Holly Beach remains all but barren and abandoned as it meets the Gulf. It’s “Holly Beach” only because the water tower says so; most of the other reference points are gone.
At Johnson Bayou High, home of the Rebels, the American flag flies with a smaller Confederate flag underneath it. Whole sections of the school are gutted now. The sand, mud and vegetation that Rita had stuffed into children’s classrooms has long been cleared away. The main entrance is taken up by a shipping container that serves as a walk-in supply hut.
THE ROAD BACK NORTH
On a cattle-crossing sign along northbound La. 27, “45 mph” is spray-painted over the silhouette of the cow.
The Sabine National Wildlife Refuge area is empty and silent except for a few egrets and a diving pelican. The sights now are the observation areas, which have collapsed, and, near Hog Island Gully, the appliances that are scattered along the tree line.
The view from the road is deceiving, however. Unseen hurricane debris, obscured or now below the surface, includes tanks, canisters and appliances with hazardous materials in them. It’s unknown just how much is there or what will happen to it. A federally funded study has already warned that the refuge risks being poisoned for years.
In Hackberry, residents and visiting workers are going in and out of Brown’s Grocery at lunchtime. Down the road, the metal roof of the Hackberry Water District building is ripped upward — a jagged tuna-can lid. Throughout the community, blue roofs appear more the norm. North of here, in Calcasieu Parish, blue is a signature roof color. South of here, with all the lost residences on the gulf, there’s often no roof to cover.
A HOSPITAL LOST
At South Cameron Hospital, whole sections of exterior walls are gone. Yellow tape blocks access. Walk around the side, though, and there’s an open-air view of the damage inside — a crazed diorama almost unchanged since the hurricane. A hospital bed hangs out the side of the building. Shredded miniblinds shiver in the wind. A handmade afghan is snagged on the exposed wall studs. Sinks have crashed to the floor. Toilet chairs lean against crooked beds. The clock is stopped at 5:41.
When Rita raged through here, the hospital grounds — still a thick fudge — trapped random souvenirs of Cameron Parish life as they rushed by. The items are still on display, half-stuck in the mud. This soulless rummage sale has lasted for months, and the collection includes a Texas Longhorn mug, a carpet shampooer, a ceiling fan motor, a toilet, the hood of a Poulan riding lawnmower, a Cadillac hubcap, a pair of Touch-Tone telephones and two Mardi Gras necklaces, gold and green. There are a few drinking glasses, too; somebody has placed them neatly on a rusting tray.
There’s a soaked telephone book on the ground. It is stuck open to the page that lists insurance agents.
The people who are working at the hospital campus make do with some fenced-off motor homes, a ventilated olive drab tent and whatever else is available.
LITTLE TO SALVAGE
Next to the hospital is a one-bedroom cottage. It is a wholesale Rita victim. It sags dangerously, and the remnants of the rear windows stare heavenward.
Outside, someone has stacked 12 jars of home preserves atop a microwave. Little else can be salvaged. Other than a few stacks of lumber placed in the front yard, there is a set of Disney children’s books, an afghan, a saucer, a Big Mouth Billy Bass talking fish, a candy bowl, a plastic coat hanger and eight Mardi Gras beads.
One side of the home is gone, offering a dollhouse view of the contents inside. The ceiling is stuck in mid-collapse. The tub and furniture have a gray haze of mud.
Also inside the house is a broken trophy for the America’s Cover Miss competition. It is inscribed “Destiny 2-24-96.”
A STUBBORN OPTIMISM
At Little Florida, the most common features are orphaned lawn mowers — lawn mowers of all conditions are found everywhere, in fact, in Cameron Parish — and beach house damage that makes one wince.
One house, though, has two plywood sheets nailed up, both bearing huge spray-painted messages — still more graffiti inspired by the hurricane.
“WE SURVIVED RITA,” shouts one of the panels.
“& WE’LL BE BACK,” shouts the other.
Sunday, February 26
BY BRETT DOWNER
Posted by American Press at 1:46 AM