Editor's Note: Kate Barron is Oxfam America’s Louisiana Community Development Specialist. She has spent the past 2+ years working with residents of and groups assisting Terrebonne Parish, and also Plaquemines, Lafourche and Vermillion parishes, in its recovery from hurricanes Rita and Katrina. Hurricane Gustav has exacerbated an already bad situation for this area. Kate briefly evacuated to family in Baton Rouge, but is driving back into the affected parishes. She shares her experience in the storm here… both before, and after:
Oxfam America Louisiana Community Development Specialist
Last Friday night, August 29th, 2008 was three years to the day of Hurricane Katrina. And there I was, packing up my house, scrambling to whip up an evacuation plan to family in Baton Rouge: Gustav loomed on the horizon.
I work as the Louisiana field representative for Oxfam America, the international humanitarian aid agency, and have spent the past two and a half years in the rural coastal communities south and west of New Orleans as part of the long and heartbreakingly inconsistent recovery from Katrina and Rita. My role in Oxfam’s work is to link small, local non-profits who are renewing these very communities to resources and opportunities that sustain their good work and amplify their voice.
Prior to Hurricane Gustav making landfall in Cocodrie this weekend, one of the community groups that Oxfam’s Gulf Coast Recovery Program supported was Bayou Grace Community Services. As I headed back to Gustav’s ground zero, Terrebonne parish, the day after the storm I spoke with Courtney Howell, Bayou Grace’s now evacuated Executive Director who formed her organization when Hurricane Rita brought over 6 feet of water into her community, Chauvin. She has spent the past three years helping her area recover holistically, as well as to get more informed and involved in its own sustainability and wellness. Courtney is a Gulf Coast leader in the call for citizens to realize one very important thing: Those levees that the media couldn’t take its eyes off this week are a third line of defense.
Coastal Louisiana (including New Orleans) flooded after Katrina and Rita, and continues to be vulnerable because, as she says, “our first and second lines of defense – healthy barrier islands and marshes have been unnaturally eroded and lost.”
In fact, for generations communities lived safely along Louisiana’s coast. My family for example prospered along Bayou Lafourche, settling there in the mid 1700s. “Only until major industry – oil, gas, and navigation- began impacting this environment did coastal Louisiana being losing these first lines of defense to coastal erosion and land loss, vanishing marshes and barrier islands.” Howell knows that as a result, all we have left now is the “third line of defense” – man-made levees. The story remains to be told is the story of how, over the past 80 years, the loss of land approximately the size of the state of Delaware from Louisiana’s coast came to be. And besides, some communities like hers aren’t even protected by those man-made levees anyway.
We in Louisiana give a great deal to our country – for starters, one third of the country’s domestic energy. We deposit almost $6 billion in revenue from oil production off our fragile coastline into our nation’s coffers. “The greatest injustice from the recovery is that we coastal Louisianans are literally losing the land we live on to provide for the rest of the country,” she told me. Coastal Louisiana is an astounding cultural treasure, with a rich tapestry of culture and history: these are not communities of suburban transplants. Down here, people have lived for generations and a last name means more than what college you went to. Despite this eroding land, we have very deep roots.
By Tuesday morning, Gustav had plowed a northwestern path along coastal Terrebonne parish. I have spent the past few days here, away from the media glare, as a part of Oxfam’s post-disaster assessment team. In service of the community leaders still evacuated, I have been serving as their eyes and ears these past few days. Driving along the empty roads (there is 24-hour curfew here) are tin roofs and mobile homes twisted up and discarded, live oak trees, Spanish moss, power lines and transformers tangled and tumbled like dominoes. This afternoon our team spent time pulling insulation, broken rafters and wet photo albums from the wreckage of a tree-crushed house of Lafourche community leaders Sharon and David Gauthe.
Sharon was still evacuated in Alabama with her elderly mother, unable to return with the prospects of 4-6 weeks of no electricity and air conditioning in the sub tropical summer heat.
Getting information to make crucial decisions has been painfully difficult. To the dismay of those of us concerned about communities in the eye of the Gustav the media attention on these areas was noticeably sparse. I wonder if this experience of evacuating, being in the eye of the storm, and of having little information in the aftermath has created a new form of erosion: that of the willingness of these industrious people, to evacuate next time. Evacuation is not in the family budget.
It costs money that we don’t have (gas, meals out, hotel rooms) for an indeterminable amount of time that we can’t know. Toting kids, grandma, medications and Fido on top of lingering stress from Rita and Katrina is not for the fainthearted.
This Friday at 6 am, almost one week after mandated to leave, all residents of Terrebonne parish will be allowed to come home. In spite of the challenges that lie ahead, I can only smile at the spirit of the locals: one neighbor making sure that her fellow neighbor has a hot pot of coffee to start the long day, making it on a gas stove despite the fact that a tree is resting in her living room..
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