Photo by Lori Waselchuk
Photo by Lori Waselchuk

Rebounding from Rita

Southwest Louisiana’s resilient spirit is stronger than the hurricane that laid waste to many of its communities.

by Eric Cormier

 

At some point between evacuating their homes in Cameron Parish and fielding grounders on a makeshift softball field in Grand Lake, the South Cameron Lady Tarpons decided they were going to make post-storm history. On April 30, as the sunlight crept off of a softball field in Sulphur, site of the girl’s state championships, the Lady Tarpons put the finishing touches on a 3-0 victory over Merryville, their district rivals, to claim the Class A state title.

Moments after the final out and infield celebration, South Cameron coach Angie Little told the Lake Charles American Press that there is “nothing I can say to express what this means to our community. None of the girls on our team live in the houses they lived in before the hurricane. It’s just a great feeling.”

Winning that title was more than just an athletic accomplishment for the girls. From the start of their first practice in January on another school’s field, until the final out of the season, they carried a heavy burden. On their shoulders were the hopes of every resident in Cameron and, to some extent, Calcasieu. Both parishes, which sit on the farthest southwest corner of Louisiana, were devastated by Hurricane Rita’s 120 mile per hour winds and a tidal surge that reached as high as 20 feet along the coastal areas.

The Lady Tarpons’ high school in Creole was one of Rita’s casualties, leaving the girls and their fellow students without a school to attend. So the fact that this team was able to collect itself, practice, play a full season and win a state championship proved something. Their actions proved that the blood coursing through their veins is strong, just like that of their parents and grandparents who, nearly 50 years ago, faced yet another natural disaster — Hurricane Audrey, which killed more than 500 people.

The hallmark for today’s generation

It’s human nature to compare events that alter our lives with those of our ancestors. It took 48 years for the population in Calcasieu and Cameron parishes to encounter a storm to compare with Audrey. When taken into context, the differences between the storms are sobering.

Audrey blew onto the Cameron coast on June 27, 1957 with winds that were measured in Lake Charles at 69 miles per hour. She dropped six to eight inches of rain. Her storm surge was measured at 12 feet. Rita, now considered one of the biggest and boldest storms ever recorded in the Atlantic region had 110 mile-per hour-winds. Rita dropped 7.68 inches of rain, and her surge was eight feet higher than Audrey’s, yet only two people are alleged to have died because of the storm. One body was found north of Lake Charles, and another was located in the Calcasieu River Ship Channel, south of Lake Charles. During Audrey, evacuation warning systems were nearly as effective as they were in for Rita’s landfall on September 24, 2005. Science has made quantum leaps in understanding hurricanes today compared to 1957. Modern-day forecasters are much more adept at telling the world when and where a storm will land.

Rita’s total property damage greatly outweighs that of Audrey, largely due to increased density of the coastal population. As different as the storms were, there’s one undeniable truth that witnesses to both storms can agree upon. The area’s high-water mark, or informal dating system, has changed.

In her book, The Devastation of Hurricane Rita, Lake Charles author Nola Mae Ross wrote, “Hurricane Audrey on June 27, 1957 became a Mark In Time that changed forever the lives of Cameron Parish residents. Even after that day, the people of Cameron gauged every big event in their lives as occurring Before or After Audrey. A new time line for Cameron as well as Calcasieu Parish was created by Hurricane Rita. Important events are now spoken as Before Rita or After Rita. In reality, there will be two time lines for those old enough to remember Hurricane Audrey in 1957, whose devastation can never be forgotten. Now they will add Before Rita and After Rita in their vocabulary.”

With the new era being created, many in Southwest Louisiana are trying to figure out how long will it take the Rita generation to get their lives back in order in comparison to the Audrey generation. Nobody doubts that it will happen. Yet, with the federal government’s involvement, squabbles with insurance companies, and an overall feeling that another hurricane could strike another blow upon the parishes in the near future, there is a sense of reservation about starting new building projects without weighing the financial and emotional costs.

Jim Beam, former editor of the American Press and a long-time reporter in the area, witnessed the public recovery after Audrey. Today, he observes and writes about the recovery following Rita in his newspaper column. From his vantage point, the public’s resilience is the same as it was in 1957, even though the impact of Rita’s destruction has made the public a lot more aware of the ways nature imposes its will on mankind. “I think people probably got back together as a whole, as I recall, a lot quicker after Audrey. People lived in tents put up by the Army as they rebuilt. There was no FEMA. Things are slower now as people try to get going. Back in 1957, nobody looked for anybody to do anything for them,” he says.

The physical rebuilding after Rita could take longer than it did following Audrey for no other reason other than there are more people living in the region today. All of the small Cameron Parish settlements along the Gulf like Johnson Bayou, Holly Beach, Cameron and Hackberry have to be rebuilt from the base infrastructure up. Ironically, Lake Charles, the region’s largest city with a population of more than 80,000, fared better during Rita than Audrey. Yet, none of the cities along the Interstate 10 corridor, which stretches from the Louisiana-Texas border in Vinton through Lake Charles and ending in Iowa, were spared. Winds blew untold amounts of shingles, trees and structures to the ground. Today, the number of blue tarp roofs is so widespread in Lake Charles a radio talk personality calls it the “Blue Roof Capital of the World.”

Beam remembers pictures of people in Cameron walking with blank stares on their faces after Audrey. Following Rita, those same expressions of awe and surprise were found on many faces. Beam fully believes that over time, just as in the past, the public will rebuild. In fact he applauds efforts of political officials and the public in guiding the region to a point where it functions despite hardships. “The farther away people get from Rita’s memory, the more likely the are gong to be back in Cameron and Calcasieu parishes. These are practical, independent, and self-reliant people. They aren’t going to wait on anybody to do something for them. I find it telling that, overall, people aren’t complaining. I heard a Cameron school board member say that ‘we’re coming back, and this won’t even bat an eye.’”

Practical people who understand hard work

Virtually all of Cameron Parish, except for a handful of diehards who couldn’t fathom leaving, no matter how perilous the weather, followed instructions from emergency planners and evacuated. Meanwhile, in Calcasieu, thousands left, but many waited until the very end to leave. For many, their main reason for staying was a sense of personal duty to protect their property and that of their neighbors, friends and family who didn’t have the means or or the know-how to batten down the hatches.

From the days when the two parishes were formed out of St. Landry Parish — Calcasieu in 1840, Cameron in 1870 — life for residents here consists of hard work and loyalty to family. Industries like farming, fishing, oil, shipping and more recently, gaming, is what has kept the economy afloat. The population is a mixture of Creoles, Acadians, African-Americans, immigrants and Native Americans, each of which understands that success is often only gained through time-consuming, sweaty, back-breaking work. The fruits of their labor have been homes, cars, boats and educations for their children. So it was only natural that they would try to protect their valuables when a storm threatened. When evacuees returned to the parish, the practical thing to do was to get construction equipment, a tarp and generators and start working all over again. No questions asked.

Dennis Stine, a former state legislator who now spends his time working alongside his brothers in running the Lake Charles-based Stine Lumber Company, thinks the roll-up-your-sleeves approach to life shared among people here will make the biggest difference in the recovery effort. In fact, he’s come to the conclusion that the reason the area has more progress in the recovery effort as compared to Southeast Louisiana’s Hurricane Katrina devastation zones is because the people of Southwest Louisiana have a blue-collar work ethic.

To get up from the bottom, a person has to work at it; they can’t do it standing around, he says. “We opened our doors at the store the Monday after the storm passed. A lot of people came in and bought things they needed for the immediate moment. But they also bought for others who needed help.

“Things were calm; it was a surreal time,” Stine remembers. “Amid all the devastation, there was no panic. People were in good sprits, they had jobs to do and they didn’t complain. I had people tell me they were just going to rebuild, even people from Cameron.”

In his dealings with customers, Stine has developed an even greater appreciation for the character shown by the general public. The people have risen to the occasion with a deep respect for the Audrey generation. “There is a can-do attitude. There is this sense that if the people of Cameron who went through Audrey and saw all of those lives lost and all the property destroyed and they still managed to start over, then we can too. Why can’t we? People are about the business of how to get moving again.”

Coping today and tomorrow

June 1 ushered in the new hurricane season. Because of Rita, people in Southwest Louisiana are changing their habits. The Weather Channel is watched more. Evacuation plans are being made. Re-entry procedures are top priority among governmental officials.

People are different now. They are part of history, a history that for this area has included six large-scale storms in a span of 140 years.

“We’re making small steps in preparation. A lot of people are taking small actions for the new season,” says Candis Carr, associate executive director of the Family and Youth Counseling Agency in Lake Charles. “Don’t forget, we’ve all developed a sense of being survivors. And we understand nobody will immediately help us from the outside if another storm should come.”

Along with making personal preparations, post-Rita life means building bigger and better structures that might actually survive one of nature’s most powerful phenomena. It’s a way of saying, “we won’t give in.”

They area afraid of the future, who wouldn’t be? Psychology experts, gauging the mental outlook of those who lived in the path of Hurricane Rita have assessed that there is a segment of the population that is still depressed because of their personal loses.

Last winter, a counselor told the American Press that the masses were experiencing a feeling of mourning, just like a death in the family or divorce. The question that nobody has been able to answer is how will the community respond if another large storm strikes? If that happens, can the the spirit of giving and resilience endure another blow?

Carr’s an optimist. She believes the people can recover from just about any situation they encounter. “We believe everybody has whatever they need to solve their own problems.” If they need a reminder, all anyone here as to do is take heed of the Lady Tarpons, a vibrant group of young girls who hail from a town that, for now, only exists on a map.

The day the school reopens, Coach Little plans on organizing a special event. “We’re going to get a trophy case and put the state title in it. I’m sure when that day happens, it will be an occasion when everybody comes — the team, families, even people not associated with the school but live in the area,” she says. That will be fitting, because the title, which marks a team as the best in its sport, is symbolic of a people who believe that no matter what terrible situation might befall them, they can overcome. The residents of Cameron and Calcasieu parishes have proven before and will prove again, that they are champions of the storm.

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Eric Cormier is the special projects and communications director for Southwest Louisiana Economic Development Alliance and formerly an award-winning staff writer and food columnist at the Lake Charles American Press newspaper.

 

 

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