The NewStandard ceased publishing on April 27, 2007.

Bayou Towns Still Fending for Selves After Ritaâ€TMs Floods*

by Jessica Azulay

After Hurricane Rita left them flooded, residents of Louisiana’s impoverished, largely Native American coastal towns knew better than to expect aid from FEMA, since they’re used to being ignored by the feds.

Dulac, Louisiana; Oct. 18, 2005 – Nearly a month after Hurricane Rita’s storm surge devastated her town about 70 miles southwest of New Orleans, Jenny Trosclair still has several inches of slimy mud in her trailer. When she entered her home to take a look after the storm, she slipped on the wet, putrid muck and hurt her knee. Now she waits, crutches in hand, for the federal help that, to this community, has proven elusive.

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Though it has been weeks since Rita hit, signs of the storm’s strength are still apparent here. Boats remain lodged high above their watery parking spaces along Bayou Grand Caillou. Thick, drying mud obscures people’s yards and sidewalks. Piles of flood-ruined possessions lay along the road as residents return to empty out their homes and begin the long process of cleaning up and rebuilding.

All along Shrimpers Row, a narrow road running alongside the bayou, people laugh when asked if they have seen representatives from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Residents say the Red Cross just starting coming around a little over a week ago, dropping off hot meals, but not much else.

Trosclair, who does not have flood insurance, said she has called FEMA, but so far, no representative has come to assess her needs.

Jenny Trosclair's Home

[PHOTO: The inside of Jenny Trosclair's trailer. © The NewStandard 2005.]

Instead of FEMA or the Red Cross, people here rely on family, the church, the tribe and a few volunteers with trucks full of privatel donations.

Kim Pease, public information officer with FEMA, said the agency has sent community relations people to flyer about FEMA relief efforts and assistance more than 70 times to Terrebonne Parish, but could not say whether any had made it to the Dulac area. He said people needed register with FEMA individually in order to get help and that the wait after registration was approximately 10 days.

Down the bayou, Lisa McLin, who is working to recover her house from the more than 4 feet of water and mud that sloshed through her rooms, expressed disappointment with the Red Cross. Like many residents in the areas affected by both Hurricanes Rita and Katrina, she complained that she had been unable to get through on the phone to ask for assistance.

"I know they are a nonprofit organization," McLin said of the Red Cross, which has taken approximately $1 billion in donations for hurricane relief, "but you’d think they could get some more volunteers to answer the phones."

Instead of the government or the Red Cross, people here are relying on family, the church, the tribe and a few volunteers with trucks full of privately donated food, water, diapers and – when possible – cleaning supplies.

Nearly every day for the last three weeks, one such volunteer, Pauly Sarkozy, has driven a medium-size moving truck loaded with relief supplies into the Dulac area from the New Orleans neighborhood of Algiers, about 2 hours away. Sarkozy, originally from West Palm Beach, Florida, works with the Common Ground Collective, a group started by Algiers residents and staffed largely by volunteers who have traveled from all over the country. In addition to relief supplies, Common Ground volunteers have also been providing free first aid and vaccines to residents of the area.

"Every one of them, when you speak to them, especially the elders, they’ve got tears in their eyes and they just want to go home.” -- Brenda Dardar Robichaux

"Every day that I go, I bring a full truckload of stuff and it never seems like it’s enough," said Sarkozy. "I always have to tell people sorry I don’t have anymore. The things like baby diapers, water and bleach – I never had enough of those things."

Of the absence of government help, Sarkozy said that as "upsetting" as the situation is, the important thing is to move forward and "help communities organize to help themselves."

home on Shrimpers Row in Dulac

[PHOTO: A home on Shrimpers Row in Dulac. © The NewStandard 2005.]

In this coastal area of Louisiana’s Terrebonne Parish, 90 percent of which is covered by wetlands or water, government neglect is nothing new. The economic poverty of the residents here is starkly apparent, even with the most recent destruction layered on.

According to the 2000 Census, the per-capita income is $8,785 per year in Dulac, a town that is almost 40 percent Native American. More than 30 percent of the area’s residents struggle to make ends meet below the federally recognized poverty line. Fewer than 30 percent possess a high school diploma or equivalent.

Dulac, population 2,458, is just one bayou town among many in the area southwest of New Orleans hit by Hurricane Rita and then largely ignored by government relief agencies.

"If we’d been waiting for FEMA or the Red Cross, we’d be in a fix," said Brenda Dardar Robichaux, principal chief of the United Houma Nation, an estimated 4,000 members of which have had their homes destroyed or damaged by Rita in Terrebonne and Lafourche parishes.

Robichaux and other tribal leaders have set up a distribution center in Raceland, Louisiana stocked with food, clothing and other supplies donated by people from all over the country. She said they have also received significant donations from Wal-Mart. Robichaux believes her people are well on their way to meeting the most critical, immediate needs of tribal members, but that the next phase of recovery – rebuilding whole communities – will be much more difficult and costly.

Houma Nation Relief Center

[PHOTO: Distrubution center for the United Houma Nation in Raceland, Louisiana. © The NewStandard 2005.]

"When you visit the tribal members, each one has their own story about suffering, about worrying about their future, how they’re going to provide for their family, where are they going to live, how are they going to recover because a lot of them have no insurance or very little, so it’s up to us to come up with ways to help them," Robichaux said.

"But every one of them, when you speak to them, especially the elders, they’ve got tears in their eyes and they just want to go home," she continued. "And for us, it’s important that they go back home because that’s our communities, that’s out history, that’s our heritage, that’s generation after generation that’s lived on that property… because if they don’t go back home, we’re losing a part of who we are."

Robichaux said that her tribal members face severe obstacles when attempting to access help from FEMA. Since her people were not allowed into public schools until the 1960s, many cannot read or write. On top of that, many do not speak English.

"We’re looking at a whole population of people who are not aware of the FEMA process and could not even do it by themselves," she said.

So Robichaux finally convinced FEMA to set up a contact point at the tribal center where she and others could help people through the process. But, she said, FEMA representatives have only come a few times, have stayed only a few hours and have so far refused to give her enough notice to alert tribal members who need help.

When asked to put the lack of government hurricane assistance into historical context, Robichaux said, "It’s disappointing but not surprising because that’s been our relationship [with the government] throughout."

* FEMA returned calls for comment on this article shortly after its publication. The editors have amended the article to include the agency's response.
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The NewStandard ceased publishing on April 27, 2007.

Jessica Azulay is a staff journalist.

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