St. Charles Residents In For Long Road To Recovery After Ida: 'Damage Is ... Everywhere'
Eight days after the powerful Hurricane Ida made landfall, it rained in St. Charles Parish, which for some residents was a welcome break from the sweltering temps. But not for Todd Benoit, whose destroyed Hahnville home was taking on more damage as the rain poured onto the lot.
“For people like me who can’t get the trees off their house or can’t fix up their house to stop it, the water actually does more damage,” Benoit said. “It just adds to the overall wreckage we have in our homes.”
The damage in St. Charles Parish, situated between New Orleans and Baton Rouge in the River Parishes region with 56,000 residents, is unprecedented, and a drive around the parish will prove it.
Parish President Matthew Jewell says Ida created nearly a million cubic yards of debris here — more than double the amount from Hurricane Katrina — and it buffeted the parish with 125 mile-per-hour winds for more than six hours.
“The damage is evident everywhere you look,” Jewell said at a press conference in the days after the storm. “After our initial assessment, I can’t imagine there’s a single structure in St. Charles Parish that hasn’t received some sort of damage.”
A Tour Of The Devastation
At Benoit’s home, the storm upended the 70-foot oak tree that once stood in his front yard, its wide branches stripped bare from Ida’s winds and now tangled in power lines. Parts of the tree also crashed through his roof.
Inside, conditions are just as bad. The living room ceiling is buckled and soggy. Insulation from the attic is strewn across the carpet. Old school pictures were left to mildew.
“The branch fell through and knocked out one of the ceiling joists and sheetrock, insulation, everything went right down on (my daughter’s) bed and it’s all pretty much gone…” Benoit said. “You can actually hear the water’s dripping somewhere from the rain we just went through.”
His daughter Sarah was away at college when it happened, and Todd and his wife Lisa rode out the storm about half a mile away with other family members. He got in his car during the first break in the winds Sunday night and saw what had happened to his house.
He heard gas leaking when he pulled up, so he rushed into the house to rescue the family — two dogs and a cat. He knew it wasn't safe, but said he couldn’t stand another loss.
Driving around the town of Hahnville, Benoit sees lots of people in similar situations. Nearly all of the properties, including homes of friends, cousins and siblings, are damaged.
Benoit grew up in Hahnville — he only lived elsewhere for a couple of years after getting married. He and his wife bought their house 25 years ago, where they raised three kids, and planned to live there indefinitely until the tree crashed through their ceiling.
Like many St. Charles Parish residents, Benoit’s roots in the community run deep.
He points out a piece of land on River Road that’s been in his family for nearly 100 years — a vegetable farm started by Benoit’s grandfather and three great uncles that now sits in the shadow of the sprawling Dow Chemical plant.
The chemical giant next door made several attempts to buy the land, Benoit said, but the family never sold. The two houses on the property were the setting for many family memories over the years.
Hurricane Ida tore off the roof. The two crumbling chimneys were exposed to the elements, and water dripped through the ceiling.
“When you see something like that happen to something that’s been in the family so long, it hurts,” Benoit said as he walked down the creaky steps.
He and his family have worked each day to clear things out of the house, but they’re not taking down the tree until the insurance company can see it. He doesn’t know how long that will take.
“We made our claim on Tuesday, and right now it’s Monday — a week later from the storm — and all I have is a claim number,” Benoit said, who plans to stay with relatives until they can repair, or even rebuild, their home.
What Recovery Looks Like
Parish officials lifted the mandatory evacuation order the Saturday after the storm, but large swaths of St. Charles Parish are still without basic services.
All of St. Charles is under a boil water advisory. And while power has been fully restored in Orleans and neighboring Jefferson Parish, the Louisiana Public Service Commission says nearly 80 percent of St. Charles Parish customers are still without power. Entergy estimates that power will not be fully restored until Sept. 29.
The hum of generators can be heard just about everywhere, powering freezers full of food and small window A/C units necessary for families battling the scorching August heat.
Driving south the devastation looks as if it were planned. Every utility pole along Bayou Gauche Road is down or leaning down. Dead power lines dangle low over the road, and cars weave between them to make their way.
Sherry Kellahan rode out the storm with her son’s family in the village of Bayou Gauche. Never again, she says.
“Every time the pressure would change, the attic door would jump up and fall, jump up and fall,” Kellahan said. “You heard things you didn’t want to hear. You couldn’t see. You could not tell what that noise was. Was it the roof coming off? Was it something that hit a vehicle outside? Was the shed in the back gone?”
The shed was gone, but the roof stayed. Sherry is one of the lucky ones. It took days for her to get back to her own house in Luling — normally a 20-minute drive. But she found it in pretty good shape.
Her neighbor was not so lucky.
“His house is the one that protected mine because he caught the brunt of it,” Kellahan said. “And he said, ‘Yeah, that’s what neighbors do. We protect each other.’ There’s nothing else you can say after that.”
She has spent her days since the storm trying to make the most of her good fortune.
Last Monday afternoon she was knocking on neighbors’ doors and flagging down passersby to offer heaping plates of jambalaya.
Amid the overwhelming jumble of branches and storm debris, Kellahan said giving people a hot meal — maybe their first hot meal in a long time — feels like progress.
“That’s a step forward,” Kellahan said.
Those steps forward are just the first down a long road to recovery. And as the days spent without power and waiting for insurance companies begin to add up, the residents of the River Parishes and the rest of southeast Louisiana will need more than the help of friends and neighbors to help them bounce back.
Help From Washington
On Wednesday, U.S. Representatives Troy Carter and Garret Graves made their second visit to the parish since landfall, telling residents they were asking for more attention and resources from Washington.
Walking neighborhoods with @stcharlesgov President Matt Jewell, @RepTroyCarter, @repjulialetlow, and several local leaders.— Rep. Garret Graves (@RepGarretGraves) September 8, 2021
Damage is still visible in these communities. https://t.co/juaGDVhYRJ pic.twitter.com/VJnwOKi7I8
Carter, the only Democrat in the state’s congressional delegation, said he has asked House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to send lawmakers to Louisiana to see the devastation firsthand.
“When you get out of the ivory tower, it’s a lot less likely that you will say, ‘That does not deserve dollars. That does not deserve resources,’” Carter said.
Graves says President Joe Biden’s visit to LaPlace last week was a step in the right direction.
“You can’t be here and see this and not be moved and understand the gravity of the situation here,” Graves said.
Last week, the Biden Administration released a budget marker indicating the President’s support for sending supplemental disaster aid to the region, which Graves said is expected to be “billions and billions of dollars.”
But the much-needed funds are far from a sure thing. Survivors of Hurricane Laura in southwest Louisiana have waited more than a year for Congress to pass a disaster relief bill for their natural disaster. Federal officials pledged to include funds for Hurricane Laura in expected Hurricane Ida relief legislation.
For his part, Benoit said he has been encouraged by all the recovery work underway in his hometown, but he said he’s worried that the rest of the country — even the state — will move on before that work is done.
“Unfortunately, you’ve got a disaster here that hit us, but tomorrow there’s going to be another disaster somewhere else,” Benoit said. “All we can do is hope that our local officials push to get as much as they possibly can.”
But when asked if he thinks his hometown will recover, Benoit doesn’t hesitate.
“Oh yeah, I’m pretty sure our little town will come back,” Benoit said. “It may be two or three years or even a little bit longer. But you know, south Louisiana is resilient… they always find a way to come back.”
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