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'Overlooked And Forgotten' But Resolute, 10 Years After Hurricane Rita

Cypress trees in Lacassine National Wildlife Refuge, stretching across Cameron and Evangeline Parishes in southwestern Louisiana.
Steve Hillebrand
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
Cypress trees in Lacassine National Wildlife Refuge, stretching across Cameron and Evangeline Parishes in southwestern Louisiana.

Hurricane Rita came ashore just three weeks after Hurricane Katrina, killing seven people directly and over a hundred more in the evacuation and in the storm's aftermath.

Ten years later, many residents of southwest Louisiana are feeling forgotten as the international media spotlight stays focused on New Orleans.

Rita reflooded New Orleans’ 9th Ward and parts of neighboring St. Bernard Parish. Low-lying Cameron Parish, directly in the path of the storm, took on over 16 feet of storm surge.

The strongest hurricane ever recorded in the Gulf of Mexico, Rita peaked as a Category 5 storm with 180 mph winds in the central Gulf before weakening slightly to a Category 3. The storm made landfall around 2:40 a.m. on September 24, 2005, tearing through theCajun parishes of southwestern Louisiana and the counties of Eastern Texas with sustained winds of over 115 mph.

Credit NASA
Rain accumulation from Hurricane Rita from September 18 through 25, 2005.

Hurricane Rita was a grim echo of another disastrous storm — Hurricane Audrey, which wiped out a wide swath of Acadiana when it came ashore on June 27, 1957.

“Audrey washed away in an instant most of what people had built in Cameron Parish,” says Andy Horowitz, an assistant professor of history at Tulane University who has done extensive research on disaster response and recovery in south Louisiana. “More than half the homes in the parish were totally destroyed, and another 30 percent were damaged beyond repair.”

The official death count from Audrey, according to the Cameron Parish Sheriff’s Office, goes as high as 362 confirmed dead, and another 182 missing.

“What is interesting in the perspective of the 2005 storms is how quickly recovery efforts proceeded in 1957,” says Horowitz. “One of the things they did in Cameron that seemed important at the time was they got people back on their properties very quickly. They were intent on not building tent cities elsewhere.”

Horowitz says the federal government provided families with 14x15-foot tents with windows and screen doors, erecting 400 tents by mid-September. Over 200 SBA loans totaling $1.5 million were awarded by the end of September.

“They were not totally happy being in debt to the federal government, but the money got there,” Horowitz says.

By March of 1958 the Red Cross estimated 70 percent of Cameron had been rebuilt, and by 1960 there were more homes in Cameron than before the hurricane.

“One of the biggest lies that we have been lead to believe about these hurricanes is that rebuilding has to be slow and difficult,” Horowitz says. “And when nearly 10 percent of your population dies — everyone knows lots of people who died from drowning and snakes, cottonmouths crawled out everywhere — this was a horrifically tragic event, and these markers of economic recovery should not mask the fact that this is a horror story.”

Credit NOOA
Holly Beach, the 'Cajun Riviera,' before and after Hurricane Rita.

Ryan Bourriaque is the Cameron Parish Administrator. We spoke about the struggles of rebuilding in the shadow of the Hurricane Katrina recovery effort, and what the people of southwestern Louisiana are doing to protect their homes.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

Can you explain a little bit about the history of Cameron Parish and Cajun culture, and your attachment to the unique landscape and way of life?

Cameron Parish, the largest Parish in Louisiana land-wise, is tucked away in the southwest corner of Louisiana, and many times the values and people of Cameron are overlooked and forgotten. Many of our residents welcome this way of life. Seclusion, independence and self-sufficiency are certainly terms that have adequately described the people of this area. British cartographers, in trying to map coastal Louisiana, labeled Cameron Parish as an “uninhabitable wasteland”; however, several generations of my family members had already settled here. My two daughters are the 6th generation of my family to live on the same tract of land in Grand Chenier. It is a very special place to us.

Credit NASA
Widespread flooding and coastal erosion two days after Hurricane Rita's landfall.

The history of a people can never be separated from the geography of the land in which they dwell. Cameron Parish is an area of abundance, unique in formation, fertile in soil, and rich in beauty. Cameron also serves as a major economic driver in our region and state with profitable finds of oil and gas, support services for those industries, wild game, fisheries, fur-bearing animals, farming and cattle. In recent years, the expansion of the LNG (liquefied natural gas) industry has resulted in an economic boom, and Cameron Parish has a total of $30 billion in industrial investment under construction, with another $23 billion in proposed projects that are in various stages of the federal permitting process.

At the same time, we entertain over 300,000 tourists a year either through the Creole Nature Trail or our Wildlife Refuges, a number that doesn’t account for the number of sportsmen who temporarily occupy the Parish during hunting seasons or peak fishing times. We are home to one of the largest strategic oil reserves, a top-10 fisheries producer, we are the healthiest Parish in the State of Louisiana, and home to the largest private industrial development project in the Cheniere LNG expansion in Johnson Bayou. Our most vital resource, however, is our 6,800 spirited residents. Our people work hard, play hard, and pray even harder.

In my very humble opinion, this is “God’s Country.”

Can you describe the lingering effects of Hurricane Rita on Cameron Parish?

Rita was a devastating storm for the Parish. It will not garner the same amount of attention that Katrina has but we have come to accept that. Lower Cameron Parish suffered nearly a total loss of structures following the storm. Wave heights in some areas were over 18 feet. Over 40 percent of the total structures in the Parish were destroyed with an even larger number damaged. Lower Cameron Parish was without electricity for some four months and even longer without a gas station.

The front page of the New Orleans Times-Picayune, September 24, 2005.
The front page of the New Orleans Times-Picayune, September 24, 2005.

The effects of Rita were significant for our people, no doubt, but our residents also realized and were thankful that the life loss experienced in Audrey was not repeated. Many of the items damaged by Rita have been addressed, though Rita recovery was greatly hindered by Hurricane Ike (in 2008).

I feel that the community has slowly come back or at least a pace that is not as expedient as we would have liked. Much of the redevelopment that has taken place is to do with the fact that our residents are tied to their family land and the freedom and history that come with it.

Coastal erosion and land loss has threatened this culture and way of life, which is why the Police Jury (a governmental body similar to a Parish Council) commissioned a Cameron Parish Comprehensive Plan for Coastal Restoration & Protection. This plan highlights the needs of the Parish — from drainage to shoreline protection and marsh creation. The Police Jury feels that in working with the CPRA, Chenier Plain Coastal Restoration & Protection Authority, and other State & federal agencies, we will be able to preserve some of the aspects that we all have grown to know and love here in Cameron.

Can you describe how Cameron Parish rebounded from Hurricane Audrey? What is it about the people of south Louisiana that makes us bounce back every time?

Audrey was “The Storm” for all of the older members of my family. My grandmother is still scared to death of snakes from experiencing Audrey.

A commemoration of the 50th anniversary of Hurricane Audrey, June 27, 2007.
Credit National Weather Service Lake Charles Office
National Weather Service Lake Charles Office
A commemoration of the 50th anniversary of Hurricane Audrey, June 27, 2007.

Our people have often been called ignorant for staying for Audrey. Our families were told that the storm would be coming days later. Many vehicles were packed and ready to evacuate when the waters began to rise in the early morning hours.

One major difference between Rita and Audrey was the fact that our families quickly moved back to their land in the days immediately following Audrey. They lived in tents provided by the American Red Cross on their own property and began repairing their damaged homes. The recovery was expedited and immediate. Many families stayed.

After Rita came, some 50 years later, the recovery time was delayed a great deal. Regulations and building requirements changed the way we did business here in Cameron. It was hard on the local government and our residents to implement such drastic changes at a moment’s notice. I would venture to say that elevation requirements are still frowned upon by some residents, but for the most part it has been accepted as a necessary means to protect our property. It has made us more resilient.

What is on the horizon for the people of Cameron? What makes you excited to go to work each day?

I feel that Cameron’s best days are ahead of her. As a local kid who had so many people express their concern with my well-being and successes in life, it is something I do not take for granted. It changed the way I live my life. Many local residents question my sanity for taking such a position as the Parish Administrator, where you are the first to be told the bad news and the last to be told the good news. The bad news is always my fault and the good news is never my fault, but that is the case for many public officials throughout the State. They will understand my statement.

Credit Cameron Parish
Cameron Parish
Cameron Parish Administrator Ryan Bourriaque.

However, every day that the good Lord allows me to wake up I am proud that I work for and serve the people of Cameron Parish. I feel that I have been blessed with the support of a staff that is never outworked and an elected body that tries to promote change and growth. This Parish is special to all of us. Our goal and mission is to provide opportunities to the next generation of Cameron Parish residents that are far beyond anything we could have imagined.

I think this generation of Cameron residents is tasked to capitalize on all these positive aspects of our Parish without letting it pass us by. Sometimes that takes an inordinate amount of time and effort, but for us, this place is worth saving.

Jason Saul served as WWNO's Director of Digital Services. In 2017 he took a position at BirdNote, in Seattle.