Thursday, October 2, 2008

First deaths from Ike in La.'s Terrebonne Parish Native communities

by Terri C. Hansen, Environment and Science Writer

News from Indian Country

Terrebonne Parish, La. -- Floodwaters produced by Hurricane Ike have proven devastating to the Franco-influenced Native American communities in southern Louisiana.

The first deaths caused by the hurricane were in the predominantly Native populated Terrebonne Parish. A 16-year-old Houma tribal citizen drowned on Saturday, September 13 in his Bayou Dularge home. The youth was found by his 24-year-old brother with his foot caught in a porch that apparently gave way, face down into the floodwaters. Authorities have not released his name.

Another Terrebonne resident, 52-year-old Donald Celestine was found Saturday morning with a broken neck from being blown into a pole by heavy winds.

The Terrebonne Parish, on the edge of the Louisiana delta is home to United Houma Nation, Pointe-au-Chien and Beloxi-Chitimacha tribal communities. Flooding was widely reported in coastal towns with largely Native populations. The National Guard has 150 guardsmen and a high water rescue vehicle in the parish. With the assistance of the U.S. Coast Guard they responded to “a lot of calls” from citizens stranded in houses and rooftops in the towns of Dulac, Montegut, Chauvin and Theriot. 22 people were rescued.

Calls to Houma Nation sources Saturday and Sunday were unsuccessful. Houma Principal Chief Brenda Robichaux, who stayed during both Gustav and Ike, is blogging with a generator. On Saturday she wrote, “I don’t need news reports to tell me what is happening. We find ourselves with many of our communities totally covered with flood waters.” She said tribal citizens who remained in their homes told her that the flooding was worse than Hurricanes Rita and Katrina. The degree of damage cannot be known until the flood waters recede. Wal-Mart has provided their community food and goods.

On Sunday, Robichaux wrote, "I am emtionally drained and look to Creator for strength and guidance to get through these difficult times."

Charles Verdin, chief of the Pointe-au-Chien tribe in Montegut was surprised when his telephone rang. “We’ve had service off and on,” he said. Their community was completely flooded. “Gustav hit us bad. Now we have a whole new set of problems.”

Verdin said at least half of their 80 or so homes were damaged or destroyed, and their roads are flooded so the people who stayed can’t get into Houma for food and other relief help, though “most of my people evacuated to Houma. “Most of our people are fishermen, and their fishing areas are flooded.” But they won’t relocate, he said. “They’ll stay with nearby relatives, and rebuild their homes to put their families back in to.”

Just off the Pointe-au-Chien Bayou live the Beloxi-Chitimacha, on a narrow ridge of land called the Isle de Jean Charles. “Hurricane Gustav hit us with a left hook, and Ike got us with a right hook,” Chief Albert Naquin said. “We’re totally under water.” Ike was the worst hurricane they have experienced, he said, with 18 homes destroyed. All island residents evacuated to shelters in Houma, except for a 69-year-old man, “who survived the ordeal.”

Naquin’s attention now is focused on getting temporary housing from FEMA. He fears their response might be no.

The Governor’s office reported that the parish of St. Mary where the Chitimacha Tribe is located has 40 National Guardsmen and a high water rescue vehicle in the parish. The guardsmen conducted door-to-door searches and rescued 18 people, and 12 Military Police are assisting the local sheriff with security efforts.

Sherry Parfait, a Houma tribal member who grew up in Terrebonne Parish, said over the past 20 years the hurricanes had caused many of the Houmas to move inland but for some families, like her mom’s family in Dulac, “It’s just the laid-back, close-knit family lifestyle and their jobs in the seafood industry that keeps them where they are.”

Naquin used to agree. “Everything here is tied to the water,” he said. “The older ones are fishermen. Others work on boats or in the shipyard.” In 2000 the Army Corp of Engineers offered to relocate the community as a whole and move them into new homes, and provide a new community center. “That was before Katrina or Rita,” he said, “and only 80 percent of the community agreed.” The Corp required that 100 percent of the residents agree. “Now,” he says, “we need to strongly consider it if the Corp proposes it again.”

Coastal Terrebonne Parish is disappearing into the Gulf of Mexico, its waters lapping closer and closer to these communities over the years. It used to be that vast marshes and swamps blocked all but the worst storm surge coming off the Gulf of Mexico. Every two miles of healthy wetlands a storm travels though knocks down the storm surge by a foot. But the levees on the Mississippi River have gradually eroded the wetlands and to save and rebuild them, the river would have to be directed back into the delta.

A gap between levees in the Pointe-au-Chenes area has left these communities unprotected from floodwaters. When a plan to build a hurricane-protection system was stymied the Terrebonne levee district began building portions of the levee themselves, only to be stopped by a $24 million dollar lawsuit filed last May by the environmental group Save Our Wetlands, who claims their lawsuit could save more than 160,000 acres of wetlands.

They allege much of those wetlands would end up behind the levees and later be developed into subdivisions eventually destroyed by storms, similar to the levees that failed New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina. In a letter to then Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco, a group of scientists said the project "will not only destroy wetlands, acting as a hurricane tidal-surge buffer," but would "promote development into low-lying areas extremely susceptible to hurricane tidal surges."

The United Houma Nation Relief Fund, set up after Katrina, is still active. To donate visit their website