by Ron Thibodeaux
Erath is a small town surrounded by sugarcane fields and Cajun character.
At a time when Acadiana’s native tongue is dying out with the older generation that grew up before the age of television, Erath boasts a disproportionate share of Cajun French speakers, attesting to Vermilion Parish’s description as “the most Cajun place on Earth.” Even the stop signs are bilingual, offering motorists the optional directive to “arret.”
The houses are small and quaint, with chickens running around some of the yards. Residents stage a five-day festival every summer to celebrate the 4th of July, replete with pageants, concerts, fireworks and spirited water fights between local fire departments. The town’s most famous resident is the irrepressible musician D.L. Menard, whose up-tempo drinking song “The Back Door” rivals the classic waltz “Jolie Blon” for honors as the “Cajun national anthem.”
For all its Mayberry-on-the-bayou charm, Erath might best pinpoint its heartbeat just down the street from the Acadian Museum, the library and City Hall, at 202 South Kibbe Street. Nothing defines Erath like Champagne’s Supermarket.
It’s where the Girl Scouts set up to sell cookies every winter, where the youth football league conducts its registration every August. It’s the business that donated and maintains the big Erath High School message sign in the middle of town. Employees treat customers like family, just like the way the owners treat the employees. If you live in Erath, Champagne’s Supermarket is the place where everybody knows your name.
When Hurricane Rita flooded 90 percent of the homes and businesses in town, Champagne’s Supermarket was wiped out, like just about everyone and every place else. The store took on two feet of water, and everything was ruined. Erath was in for a long slog, and so were the members of the Champagne’s team, many of whom lost their homes as well as their jobs to the flood. In the difficult months that followed, the fate of the devastated town of Erath would prove to be inextricably tied to that of its iconic local supermarket. That relationship placed a substantial sense of responsibility on the shoulders of store manager Ricky Luquette.
It isn’t much of a stretch to say that Luquette has been working at Champagne’s Supermarket all his life. It was back in January of 1968 that the store was opened by his uncle, Lester Champagne, and a few other family members. Luquette went to work there a month later, stocking shelves, making deliveries on his bicycle and keeping the place tidy. He was 12 years old.
Champagne’s was founded as a family business and always operated that way. Over time, Luquette found himself working alongside his cousins — Uncle Lester’s boys. Employees who weren’t related came to feel a familial bond, too: it wasn’t unusual for cashiers and butchers and other employees to go to work for the supermarket and stay on for 20 years or more.
Years went by and the business grew. In 1984, the family opened a second store in the neighboring town of Delcambre — it rhymes with “welcome” — straddling the Vermilion/Iberia parish line three miles to the east along Louisiana Highway 14. Like the original location in Erath, the Delcambre supermarket was embraced by locals who appreciated the convenience of grocery shopping close to home and, by extension, the validation the store provided to the small community as a place worthy of having its own local institutions. The family opened a convenience store at a busy intersection on the outskirts of Delcambre in 1998, offering the usual array of gasoline, beer, snacks, lottery tickets and — a must for any small store hoping to be successful in Cajun country — hot food.
Luquette’s responsibilities grew as well. His uncle, who he always called “Mr. Lester” at the store as a sign of respect, eventually was sufficiently impressed with his hard work, trustworthiness and business sense to promote him to vice president and general manager, in charge of operations at all three stores.
All was well … until Sept. 24, 2005.
Luquette lived in Henry, a 10-minute drive south from the Erath store past the cane fields and the sprawling natural gas pipeline junction known as the Henry Hub. As Hurricane Rita approached south Louisiana, he sent his family to bunk with friends in Abbeville. He stayed at home, on alert for emergency situations that might arise at any of the stores, all of which had been shut down in advance of the storm’s arrival to allow employees to evacuate or take necessary precautions for themselves, their families and their homes. Lester had remained at his own home, near the Erath supermarket.
The eye of the storm pushed past the Louisiana coast during the night, well offshore but still strong enough to rattle Vermilion Parish. Luquette’s cell phone rang early on that Saturday morning. It was Delcambre’s chief of police, James Broussard, with ominous news.
“Rick, water is coming into the store,” Broussard told him.
Luquette promptly called his uncle and relayed the report.
“What?” a wide-awake but surprised Champagne replied. “It’s still high and dry here in Erath.”
Luquette dressed hurriedly, drove over to Erath to pick up Champagne and then sped across to Delcambre, all in a span of 20 minutes. Highway 14 sits higher than the land along either side of it, so it was still passable as floodwater from Rita’s storm surge began sweeping across the landscape. He stopped his vehicle in front of the Delcambre supermarket, and they got out for a closer look. What they saw was shocking.
“We already had two foot of water inside the Delcambre store. The water was just rushing in,” Luquette recalled later. “There was nothing you could do. My heart sank.”
Once the storm surge riding Rita’s leading edge had reached Vermilion Bay, it pushed up Bayou Carlin and spilled over into downtown Delcambre from the bayouside docks which for decades had served the town’s fleet of shrimping trawlers. For anyone who had not evacuated, there was nothing to do about the rising water except try to get away from it. Rita was on its way to flooding 90 percent of the town.
Their convenience store, several blocks farther away from the bayou, was still dry for the moment. Within a few hours, though, the flooding reached that area, and there was no keeping the water out of that building, either.
Luquette and Champagne returned to their flagship store on the street named for the “father of Erath,” Dr. Joseph Kibbe, a graduate of Tulane University in New Orleans who established a medical practice, a pharmacy and a post office in the town once the Southern Pacific Railroad came through in 1893. Dejected, they resigned themselves to the wrath that Mother Nature seemed determine to unleash on southern Vermilion Parish that day.
It wouldn’t be the first time. Erath had endured significant flooding before, most notably in 1984, when a storm inundated half the town; the railroad tracks running east-to-west through Erath were sufficiently elevated to serve as a levee, keeping floodwaters out of the southern part of the town where most of the businesses, the high school and the Catholic church are located. Erath had been battered by hurricanes before, too — Audrey in 1957, Andrew in 1992 and, unforgettably, Hilda in 1964. Not otherwise remembered as one of the major hurricanes to strike Louisiana in modern times, Hilda killed eight people in Erath, in one tragic moment.
On the afternoon of Oct. 3, 1964, just hours before Hurricane Hilda made landfall at Marsh Island, on the far side of Vermilion Bay, several volunteers had gathered in the Civil Defense office at City Hall to monitor citizens’ band and ham radio transmissions. Outside, the town’s water tower was buffeted by increasingly harsh winds as the eye of the storm took dead aim on Vermilion Parish. In one fateful instant, either from a hurricane-force wind burst or a tornado spawned by the storm — no one knows for sure — the legs of the water tower buckled, and the 10,000-gallon water tank crashed onto City Hall, crushing the red brick building.
Five men standing around the front door of the building were pushed away to relative safety by the wall of water from the ruptured tank. Seventeen-year-old Civil Defense volunteer Martial Broussard survived the impact but was trapped by a metal beam and other debris for almost an hour until he could be rescued. Eight others died in the wreckage of the Civil Defense office: Scotty Bernard, 19, a student at the University of Southwestern Louisiana; Otto “Cowboy” Bourque, 53, a city policeman; brothers Duffy Broussard, 28, an appliance store worker, and Vernice Broussard, 20, a hardware store employee who had been Bernard’s classmate in the Erath High School class of 1963; Camile Brown, 50, a former sheriff’s deputy and City Council member; Felix Dubois, 53, a farmer; Clifton J. Dugas, 33, a construction worker; and Eutis “Noo Noo” Menard, 53, the janitor at Erath High School.
With the community in shock from the tragedy, a single funeral service for all eight victims was held two days later at Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church. In the coming months, at the site of the demolished City Hall, the town built a new one, circular in shape to better withstand hurricane-force winds. The building was dedicated to the men who died there during Hurricane Hilda.
Forty-one years later, Ricky Luquette found himself at that spot, staring down the effects of Hurricane Rita, as the counter-clockwise whiplash effect around the center of the massive storm sent an unexpected post-landfall storm surge into lower Vermilion Parish.
Luquette and his son Kyle were members of the Henry Volunteer Fire Department. As the water rose throughout the day across the parish, eventually swamping Erath, they joined in search-and-rescue operations through the town and into surrounding rural areas. In some cases, residents had ignored authorities’ warning to evacuate. Others had indeed moved inland but drove back home after the storm passed; they were caught by surprise as the water started rising around them even as the weather was improving. While his son and nephew joined other firefighters and police officers heading out in boats — launched from the lone traffic light at the center of town — to pluck frantic residents from flooding homes and, later, rooftops and trees, Luquette hung back at City Hall, assisting the victims as they were brought to safety.
“We rescued people until dark,” he recalled. “After that the National Guard got out of here, the police department got out of here. The only ones that actually stayed were the people that were manning City Hall. I decided I would go ahead and sleep over here in town, instead of going back to meet my wife in Abbeville. I figured I had more to lose, I guess. We had already lost two businesses and I can’t afford to lose anything else. You heard of the looting that went on in New Orleans? We didn’t think we were going to have that problem in Erath — and we didn’t — but I didn’t want to take that chance of anything like that happening. We spent the night inside City Hall; we were just a handful.”
Throughout the night, calls came in to City Hall from the parish’s 911 switchboard about frantic, stranded residents surrounded by floodwaters in the darkness. With no street lights due to the storm-induced power outage and streets covered in water in the dark, Erath authorities — who had tried to rescue those very callers while it was still daylight — stayed put during the night.
“We got all kinds of phone calls throughout the night, from 911, asking us to go rescue people. I called them back,” Luquette said. “I said, ‘We’re not going.’ They said, ‘You have to.’ I said, ‘No, we don’t. Everybody who’s calling you now for us to go rescue, we had somebody there at one of those houses throughout the day. They refused to be rescued then — we’re not risking anybody’s life now.’”
For small-town firefighters, law enforcement officers and other first-responders who had lived in the same Vermilion Parish communities all their lives, the Rita experience was unprecedented.
“You’ve never had anything like this before,” Luquette said. “As far as being prepared, nobody was prepared for this. Not even OEP (the parish Office of Emergency Preparedness) was prepared for this. The fire departments, everybody did their share as far as search and rescue.” And when the water went down, firefighters in Henry and many other communities found that their fire trucks, firefighting equipment and in some cases entire fire stations had been destroyed by the storm.
Positioned half a block from City Hall at virtually the highest point in Erath, 10 miles northwest of Vermilion Bay and 10 feet above sea level, Champagne’s Supermarket took on two feet of water, which took two days to recede. At the convenience store in Delcambre, the water only got 10 inches high. Inside the Delcambre supermarket, though, the flooding finally topped out at more than seven feet. A CNN report that night on Rita’s impact across coastal Louisiana showed footage from the front of the store. The front doors were not visible, completely submerged by the floodwaters.
When the water engulfed the Delcambre store, it actually pushed the building off its footing. Between the flooding and the structural damage, the building was rendered a total loss — a total, uninsured loss. There was flood insurance in place on the Erath supermarket and the convenience store, but Luquette and Champagne had felt they couldn’t afford the flood insurance premium on the Delcambre supermarket and so they did without. Adding insult to injury, as Rita was laying siege to the building that fateful day, a fire broke out, engulfing all of the electrical panels and threatening to send the structure up in flames. Had the fire burned the store down, insurance would have covered that. But the rising flood waters extinguished the flames.
The owners were able to salvage the convenience store and reopen for business there three weeks later. Both supermarkets were ruined, though.
That wasn’t the worst of it.
“We were 10 family members just on the Champagne side that lost our homes,” Luquette said. “Ten family members. Lester’s boy lost his. I lost mine. Lester’s sister lost hers. He had two nieces that lost theirs. This is all in the Henry-Delcambre-Erath area. My sister lost hers. Two of her kids lost theirs. The biggest part about it — the majority of the family was all working at the store. All of a sudden, everybody’s unemployed.”
As in nearby Delcambre, about 90 percent of the buildings in Erath flooded. It took two to three days for the flooding from Rita’s storm surge to recede. Then began the long, slow process of recovery. It was difficult for individual homeowners, difficult for businesspeople, difficult for entire communities.
These were areas not prone to frequent flooding. Most houses were built on slabs or perched on small concrete pillars just a few feet off the ground. Flood insurance was something that many people felt they did not need. And when Rita proved otherwise, thousands of storm victims throughout the lower reaches of Vermilion Parish — as elsewhere in coastal Louisiana — were left to navigate a maddening, often booby-trapped bureaucratic maze before finding assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the state’s Road Home program, which then-Gov. Kathleen Blanco established to funnel federal relief payments to homeowners.
One such resident, interviewed 20 months after Rita hit, couldn’t spit the words out fast enough as she tried to convey the frustration the recovery process had dealt her as she struggled to rebuild her flooded home and her life. Financial assistance for her losses — house, cattle, property — was difficult to obtain, slow to arrive, insufficient to cover all the damage and then, adding insult to injury, deemed taxable income: “I don’t want to deal with anything. My taxes. The Road Home. The government? Don’t talk to me about the government. I’ve had it. I’m tired of jumping through hoops. If you’re gonna help me, help me. I ain’t asking for the handout — you wanted to give it to me. They gave it to me, and then they sent me 1099s for it. Come on!”
She was a church secretary, interviewed in the trailer serving as the church office while storm repairs were being made to the parish hall.
As the weeks turned to months, Luquette and his uncle kept 30 of their 70 employees on the payroll — and kept paying their health insurance. Those that weren’t family were like family, and most had lost their homes and most of their worldly possessions in the flood. Luquette and Champagne felt an obligation to help them as much as they could, even though the business was generating no income except at the convenience store. In the meantime, they wrangled with insurers and government agencies over the debilitated store’s hefty hurricane damage claims, to no avail.
“The insurance didn’t want to pay anything,” Luquette said. “You contact FEMA to help with your clean-up bills — between the two stores, we had $600,000 worth of clean-up bills. We had to hire hazmat to come in here to clean up. With all the odors and everything else, I didn’t want to risk anybody’s lives. So we contacted FEMA, I contacted every elected official I could think of, I applied everywhere — nothing. FEMA’s response was, quote-unquote, ‘We do not help businesspeople.’ Who in the hell do they think businesspeople are?
“Six hundred thousand dollar clean-up bill, out of our pockets. We fought the insurance for the longest period of time. We had to end up suing to start collecting some money.”
By the summer of 2006, Champagne’s was still no closer to opening. Luquette and his uncle were frustrated, but the business had taken such a loss, it could never seem to gain any traction toward reopening. The shuttered supermarket in the middle of Erath was an unfortunate but all-too-fitting symbol for the funk that permeated the community amid sluggish recovery efforts.
Then, in August, Luquette and Champagne were visited by their banker, Mickey Broussard. Ever since the store opened in 1968, it had done business with the Bank of Abbeville, first with Broussard’s father Roy, then with him. Broussard met Luquette and Champagne one morning at the Delcambre convenience store.
His message to them was simple: Champagne’s Supermarket needs to get back in business. Erath’s recovery is depending on it.
Broussard was well aware that they were still wrangling with insurance companies to try and cover at least some of their losses, and that they were running out of money.
“I know what y’all are doing,” Broussard told them. “Come to the bank. Let’s get started. We’re going to front you guys the money. Don’t worry about collateral. We’ll take care of everything later. But you guys need to start now because your communities need you.”
Until that moment, the owners thought they might never climb out of the rut where Rita had dumped them. Every conversation they had seemed to circle back to the same theme: What are we going to do? Do we want to reopen? Yes, we do, but we’re waiting on insurance. The insurance company won’t pay our claim. We can’t afford to start up again without that insurance money. What are we going to do?
Then, on a handshake, Champagne’s turned the corner. In that instant, the burden of worry that Luquette had been shouldering for many long months was lifted.
Luquette didn’t see the offer coming, but he should have. Given the family’s relationship with its bankers over the years, it should have been no surprise at all. Back in 1968, Champagne applied for a loan at the Bank of Abbeville to get the supermarket started on a secure footing. Roy Broussard studied his business plan, checked out the location and decided to loan him more money than he had requested. Ever since, the folks at Champagne’s Supermarket swore by the Bank of Abbeville.
That devotion carried over into their personal lives as well.
Back in 1974 — a year after he graduated from Erath High School, a year before he got married — Luquette decided to buy a little two-bedroom house on the corner of LeBlanc and Hill streets in Erath. The asking price: $6,000. At 18 years of age, he already had been a Bank of Abbeville customer for six years, having opened his first savings account there at the age of 12, soon after he went to work for his uncle at the supermarket. He went to the bank and met with Roy Broussard about a mortgage.
“Mr. Roy, I’m getting married next year, and this little house on the corner came up for sale, and I’d like to buy it,” Luquette explained.
“How much do they want for it?” Broussard asked.
“Six thousand dollars,” the nervous teenager told him.
“I tell you what,” the banker replied. “Let’s get in my car and go ride to Erath. Come show me the house.”
The drive took less than 10 minutes, but for Luquette it seemed to last forever. Broussard, who was 62 at the time, tried to make small talk with his young customer, and Luquette struggled not to show just how nervous he really was. He always thought of “Mr. Roy” as a nice old man, but at this moment Luquette was petrified.
They arrived in Erath, and Luquette showed him the house. Broussard walked around, inspecting it thoroughly. Luquette, by now even more nervous, stood by quietly.
After checking out the place, Broussard asked him, “How much do they want for it?”
“Six thousand,” Luquette reminded him.
The banker shook his head.
“No, I’m not going to loan you six thousand,” Broussard told him.
Luquette’s heart sank. In that moment, he couldn’t even respond as he struggled with the implications of the verdict he had been dreading since before he ever walked into the bank that day.
“No,” Broussard continued, “I’m going to loan you $8,000. You need some repairs on the house before you move in.”
For the teenage businessman-in-training, it was an important lesson.
“That’s the type of people that they are,” Luquette would say more than 30 years later as he recalled the exchange. “They’re down-home people. You cannot put a value on that.”
As his responsibility at the supermarket increased, Luquette saw to it that hometown service was not just a slogan but a way — the only way — to do business. Elderly residents around Erath appreciated that when they could get a ride into town to the pharmacy, they could walk from there to Champagne’s and do their grocery shopping, and someone from the store would take them home. Or they could call the store, an employee would pick them up, take them to the store and bring them back home when they were finished shopping. Or they could just phone in their grocery order to the store and someone would deliver it to their door.
Community connections like that are hard to come by, and the folks in Erath were not likely to take them for granted. It was no surprise, then, that when a team of national planning experts sent from the state capital politely suggested in Rita’s aftermath that the entire town be relocated to higher ground to minimize the threat of flooding from future hurricanes, the recommendation didn’t go over very well.
Residents took offense at the suggestion by architect and urban planner Andres Duany that the best way to sustain the place they called home was to give up on it and start over somewhere else. The initial public meeting about the post-Rita future of Erath had barely ended when Mayor George Dupuis’ phone started ringing off the hook, mostly from older citizens insulted by the notion that Erath as they knew it wasn’t worth saving and worried that the proposal might actually come to pass.
Dupuis understood his small-town Cajun constituency in a way that the experts did not. He assured residents that Erath was there to stay, and he wondered if the out-of-town planners were “idiots.”
Luquette dismissed the notion as well.
“It’s not going to happen,” he said. “It’s not going to happen. Sure, it’s so much easier for somebody to come here and tell you what to do with your own life.”
Duany’s planning team appeared gratified that local citizens were so engaged, and it soon modified its original idea by suggesting instead that Erath expand north of the current town limits, developing an area on higher ground as an option — not a mandate — for flood-threatened residents. Duany envisioned a self-contained site, with shopping, schools and parks within walking distance of houses. The mayor said he saw merit in the new proposal, and Duany, who had worked on other what’s-old-is-new-again New Urbanism projects across the country, began to explore possible sites for what some began calling “new Erath.” The effort was stymied, though, by the overabundance of landowners holding rights to tiny slivers of the targeted property — a consequence of Louisiana’s forced heirship practice under the Napoleonic Code, whereby children share equally in property passed down from their parents, resulting in family tracts being subdivided into smaller and smaller sections with each succeeding generation. Besides, as often happens with well-intentioned planning exercises, the public dialogue and published reports failed to identify a substantial and sure-fire revenue source for putting the plans into action, so the recommendation inevitably ended up taking a back seat to more tangible recovery needs.
For Delcambre, Duany’s team recommended converting the bayouside, where the town’s ever-diminishing shrimping fleet docks, into an upscale, more marketable harbor area. Delcambre Mayor Carol Broussard seized on the idea, recognizing the potential in transforming the workaday dock area into something more appealing to businesses and developers, even at the risk of changing the character of the little town.
The 10-foot storm tide that Rita dumped on the town was devastating, and it drove away an estimated 600 of the 2,300 people who had lived in Delcambre before the storm. Hurricane Ike hit the town almost as hard three years later, and residents who had stayed in town but failed to raise their homes to meet the flood elevation guidelines set by FEMA were hammered by flooding again. Looking critically upon Delcambre’s vulnerability to the elements, Broussard fretted that, absent a dramatic reversal of fortune like that envisioned by the harbor makeover proposal, the little town might just slowly waste away.
Champagne’s Supermarket wanted to come back to Delcambre, but it couldn’t. In the months after Rita, as the owners wrangled with insurance companies, the damaged store was made available to a Methodist mission and used as a hurricane relief center, warehousing donations of furniture, used appliances and clothing for the area’s needy storm victims. Their court fight against their insurers ultimately proved successful, but by the time the owners saw any money, the Delcambre building — also flooded by Ike — was in such bad shape that it was beyond repair. They often reiterated their commitment to Delcambre, though, and continued to look for alternate sites in the town where they might situate a new store.
“It’s killing us not to be in Delcambre right now, but we can’t,” Luquette lamented.
As the people in Erath, Delcambre and Henry worked their way back from disaster, Luquette remained acutely aware of the community’s struggle. He saw it. He knew it. He was living it himself — not only as a civic-minded citizen active in the Knights of Columbus and the volunteer fire department, not only as the supermarket manager juggling myriad and complex business difficulties arising from three flooded stores, but also on a personal level as a storm victim. He had spent the night after Rita’s landfall at City Hall, and his wife Mary and daughters Kimberly and Karissa had stayed with friends in Abbeville. It was three more days before they could get back to Henry to check on their home.
It’s an eerie feeling for an evacuee, waiting for the water to go down, knowing deep down that the damage back home is going to be bad — really bad — but eagerly, almost desperately wanting to see your house for yourself that first time. The Luquettes endured that anxiety like all their neighbors as they waited for the flooding to subside. When they finally made their way into Henry, the displaced houses that they saw had been washed into the cane fields and cow pastures braced them for the worst. Their home, it turned out, was still there, damaged, but salvageable, not entirely ruined or washed away altogether like so many others.
For the next seven months, they lived in the home of their friend Charles “Peanut” Vallot in Abbeville. For five of those months, storm victims Teddy and Gayle Broussard of Erath lived there too.
“Three families in one home in Abbeville,” Luquette said. “We were friends, but before we left, we were family. We’d been knowing each other for years — we see each other, we talk, but you know it doesn’t really get personal. But this, before it was all over, our families just knitted together.
“You lose your two businesses, you lose your homes, you lose everything, and you just start over. Everything happens for a reason, though. It made truer Christians out of people, it really did. It brought families together that weren’t together. It made new families out of friends.”
Back on South Kibbe Street in Erath, Champagne’s Supermarket finally reopened six months after that fateful meeting with the banker. Freshly painted, shelves fully stocked, new coolers and freezers up and running, the store never looked better. Employees at Champagne’s had looked forward to the day for a long time, but they were hardly prepared for what happened when they threw open the doors on January 11, 2007.
The opening day was one big family reunion, filled with hugs, tears, more hugs, a palpable sense of the camaraderie that makes American small-town life so endearing, and finally, shopping carts full of groceries.
“You couldn’t imagine it,” Luquette said, his eyes welling with tears even months later as he recalled the experience. “Just the warm feeling that everybody had. Everybody became not just friends, but one big family.”
And Erath had found its pulse again.
Excerpted with permission from Hell or High Water: How Cajun Fortitude Withstood Hurricanes Rita and Ike by Ron Thibodeaux, published by the University of Louisiana at Lafayette Press in 2012. For more information, visit www.ulpress.org/catalog.php?item=129
Ron Thibodeaux is press secretary for Louisiana Economic Development. Previously, he was an associate editor for Louisiana Cultural Vistas and KnowLA.org, the Digital Encyclopedia of Louisiana, and the St. Tammany bureau chief of The Times-Picayune, the newspaper where he worked for 31 years.