Theresa Dardar has been sitting vigil at the Pointe-Au-Chien1The spellings of this region vary, “Pointe-Au-Chien” is the spelling used by the tribal community; “Point-Au-Chenes” is the state government designation. tribal center every day since returning home after evacuating for Hurricane Ida. The community building is designed to weather high winds and floods; constructed out of sturdy metal and sitting up on stilts, it’s one of the only intact buildings in the area. Each morning she oversees the bustle of tribal center activity from her chair by the doorway at the top of the steps. Some in the community joke that it’s the queen’s throne, but she prefers to call it her office. When volunteers come in with food and supplies, Dardar directs them where to go and organizes distribution before eventually settling back into her seat at the door. As people from the community filter in to “shop” for the supplies they need, they always stay to catch up, moving between English and what the people there refer to as “Indian French.”
For many, these daily points of contact are sustenance as necessary as the items brought in every day by volunteers. “When people come here, they don’t just come for supplies,” Dardar says. “They come and they visit, they talk. That’s how our people are.” She is one of the lucky ones—her home is still standing—so she and her husband spend their days looking after the tribal members who have lost much more. “In this community we care for each other. Donald and I would do anything for our community,” she says. “That’s why we’re here every day. We’re here to serve our people, and our people are suffering. Right now in the bayou there’s only about 12 liveable homes—so many people are homeless. And it’s not just our disaster, it’s about everybody that was hit. That’s why we serve anybody that comes in.”
Section from the Official Map of Louisiana, via louisiana.gov
Bayou Point-Aux-Chenes, situated between Terrebonne and Lafourche parishes, is home to descendants of the Chitimacha, Acolapissa, Atakapas, Choctaw, and Biloxi peoples. “Our ancestors have lived here since before Louisiana was a state,” says Dardar. “I don’t think there’s another place like Point-Aux-Chenes.” When she was young, the bayou was home to a community of farmers and fishermen, just as it had been for centuries. “I wasn’t raised here but my mama was. You had to go by boat where she was raised, and my grandfather lived there till he died. He lived all his life with no electricity, no plumbing, but he wouldn’t move to Houma.” This steadfast commitment to the unique convergence between land and water that is Point-Aux-Chenes is echoed by community members who have remained in the area in spite of economic downturns, encroaching sea water, and now what is perhaps the most devastating hurricane to hit the region in a century.
“I read somewhere that this is going to go down as the biggest hurricane since the 1856 Last Island hurricane,” says tribal member Christine Verdin. “In the past when hurricanes came through, people would be back the very next day—even if they had to park their vehicles up the road and come through by boat and start rebuilding—but this is the first time people have come in and just been overwhelmed, not knowing where to start. I was afraid people would say this is it, I’m just going to go somewhere else.” In the wake of the hurricane, reasons to relocate are plainly visible. Driving along the bayou, vehicles dodge fallen power lines and pass houses stripped of roofs and walls, and others reduced to piles of rubble and soggy belongings.
But for such a tight-knit community as Point-Aux-Chenes, the idea of living elsewhere is difficult to imagine, and much to her relief Verdin is beginning to see friends and neighbors tentatively start the process of rebuilding. “Today in church my cousins were talking about possibly finding steel structures that can withstand storms. So we’re finding options that will allow us to keep living here, because we would hate to have to leave.” Verdin grew up on the Terrebonne side of Point-Aux-Chenes, and would visit family on the Lafourche side by boat until the bridge that now goes between them was built. She remembers going to her grandmother’s house on Sundays, where there was a thriving vegetable garden, a few cows and pigs, and a coop full of chickens. “The only things my grandma got from the grocery store was rice and lard. She canned her vegetables, and kept pecan trees, satsumas—we would eat the fruit that was in season.” For Verdin, the connection to the land is hard to describe. “We didn’t just decide to settle here—these families have been here for centuries. This is where our ancestors are buried. This is our place.” What’s left of Verdin’s childhood home after the hurricane can be seen from the tribal center’s wraparound porch, and while she currently lives on high ground in the town of Bourg, Verdin is planning on building a storm-resistant home base on her family’s land. She hopes to be able to plant some fruit trees.
This ancestral connection is something that is shared across the bayous of southern Louisiana. Across Lake Boudreaux from Point-Aux-Chenes, the people of Dulac are also facing the loss of an entire way of life. Pastor Norbert Billiot of Dulac’s Anchor Foursquare Church grew up in Point-Aux-Chenes, his father’s people came from Isle de Jean Charles, and he has been embedded in the Dulac community (where his wife was raised) for years. For a while he lived in Houma, but it didn’t take long for him to get back to the bayou. “I thought, why did I ever leave this place? In town you have neighbors five feet away from each other that don’t know each other. In the bayous we’re farther apart, but it’s a little bitty world where you can leave your door unlocked and stop to talk to anyone. Almost everybody down here has been family for generations.”
Like the tribal center, Pastor Billiot’s church is a center for relief efforts, and it sees a steady stream of volunteers and church groups coming from all around the country with supplies. After unloading trucks and finishing everyday tasks, they make a point of praying together, casting their eyes upward as they look for a brighter future. “This community is very spiritual,” says Pastor Billiot, “and whenever there is a disaster, it’s a time and opportunity for us to awaken to the spirit. When we look to the spirit we look for meaning. It keeps our eyes and our ears open so we can get into that flow.” When he prays, he includes a call for the people to “think bigger” as they face the daily difficulties of life in the wake of a deadly hurricane. “Thinking bigger is about looking at things through the eyes of God,” he explains. “This takes a lot of work and unity, which we need to see the flow of the steps we have to take. That’s where the peace is. You have to find your peace before you can think about the logistics; that’s how you move out of despair.”
Pastor Billiot sees opportunity in the hurricane’s aftermath for his people to get stronger. As close as the community has always been, he says there is also an “I can take care of myself” mentality that won’t do anyone much good in the days ahead. Now, it will take mutual reliance to hold on to a way of life that is important to more than just these individual communities. “People look at this and realize, we’re going to have to get together. So there’s a potential for a really good unity, of the bayou getting together.”
For Pastor Billiot, what’s at stake is not just the community of people who make their home along the bayou; it’s also about a sense of connection to the land and water. “It’s hard to explain,” he says. “It’s ingrained. Here in the open marsh, it’s peaceful. A lot of people tell me it’s beautiful, but we take it for granted because it’s home.” He says that in addition to Dulac’s many commercial fishermen, people from all over the state come to fish along the coastal marshland. “So many of the people who come here have lost fishing camps,” he says, pointing to the deeply rooted web of connections between the southern bayous and the rest of the state.
In Grand Isle, where urbane Louisianans have been coming to fish and escape the summer heat for centuries, fish camps often represent a connection to nature that can be difficult to cultivate in the city. For French Quarter resident and New Orleans native Brigid Brown, whose now destroyed fish camp was a precious refuge during quarantine, Hurricane Ida was the latest blow to a place visibly losing land to rising tides. Brown’s husband grew up in New Orleans and spent summers in Grand Isle; and though she came to it later in life, she has grown increasingly attached to the island even as she could see it was disappearing. “We’re over on the west end of the island, and each year we could see our end getting narrower and narrower,” Brown says. “We knew this would happen eventually, we just didn’t know it would be this soon.” In the immediate future, Brown says she and her husband want to keep coming back to the plot of land where the house used to be. But she doubts she would get insurance if she rebuilds, and she wonders at what point it will be time for the community to let go.
According to Scott Maurer, one of the only permitted oyster farmers in Grand Isle, Hurricane Ida has threatened the survival of more than just homes. Louisiana’s entire fishing economy has come to a standstill as countless fishing vessels remain underwater, which by his estimation represents a staggering percentage of the state’s working fishing boats. “We’re talking about a big chunk of the commercial fishing fleet. Barataria and Terrebonne Basin is where it all happens. Ida just hit ground zero. We need to get these boats up as quickly as possible, before they get too damaged.”
But while many independent fishermen are desperate to retrieve their boats, the natural disaster is compounded by the governmental red tape that is strangling what is left of Louisiana’s fishing fleet. “They are saying boats have to be retrieved by an official marine salvage company,” he says, “and then we’d have to buy it back from them.” He says the cost could be up to $10,000, which would be prohibitive for smaller fishing operations that are on the slow road to recovery. As Maurer points out, even if they had operational boats, the waterways are currently choked with debris, and it will take time before trawling for shrimp is an option. Recovering will take so much of their time and resources that paying a salvage company for a job they know how to do themselves would be a breaking point for many. “We’re not lazy people, we want to go to work. These fishermen are very skilled—as skilled as the Coast Guard and salvage companies—but they’re not allowed to even try. What’s left is only the big boats and big operations, and that’s going to put the little guys out of business.”
Though he paints a grim picture, Maurer is committed to finding solutions. He hopes they might reach a compromise in which small operations can pool together to hire a marine salvage consultant that oversees the process while they help each other retrieve their boats. Once they’re on the water again, they can puzzle out the other obstacles standing in their way. On Grand Isle, though the power is back, the docks can’t get a fresh catch onto ice, since he says the water is too contaminated to make ice. Ideally, the people who run the docks (and profit considerably from doing so) would be teaming up with fishermen to keep the supply chain running, but instead there has been a conspicuous lack of support. “The guys that run the docks have a lot of power, and all the money in the world to weather the storm, but in the meantime everybody is still struggling,” he explains. “So they shouldn’t be surprised when we start going pirate on them.”
Maurer isn’t being hyperbolic. Centuries ago, Grand Isle was the base of operations for the notorious pirate Jean Lafitte, and the same backwater bayou routes he used to smuggle goods may be the best option to save the fishing industry. “Where my mind is going right now is, can we go old school and run our stuff direct to New Orleans?” As an independent oyster farmer, Maurer has good connections with New Orleans restaurants, and he is betting they would be more than happy to come pick up fresh seafood as it arrives. For Maurer, the ability to explore new ways to disrupt old power structures is one of the hurricane’s few silver linings. “In an emergency you can get things through that people wouldn’t ever consider otherwise,” he says. Indeed, the survival of a time-honored way of life in southern Louisiana may depend on making the structural changes that have been a long time coming.
For all the communities hit by Hurricane Ida, the importance of mutual reliance has never been clearer. “All these people who have donated, they don’t know how much we appreciate it,” says Theresa Dardar, tearing up as she thinks of all the support her community has received since the first days after the storm. While she is grateful for donations that have come in from all over the country, Dardar has particularly appreciated the consistency of those who are closer to home. “The people in New Orleans have been the ones that have been delivering; they’ve been so generous with their time and energy. I’d love to hug each one of them and tell them thank you.” But she also knows that if, or more likely when, New Orleans gets hit more directly by a hurricane, her community would be ready to show that same support. “I feel like it’s my duty to help everybody, and I’m not just talking about the tribe.” Making a life in Louisiana in the midst of successive climate change disasters may not be easy, but it has also revealed a Louisiana identity made up of a web of interconnectedness that transcends political borders and isn’t going away any time soon. As Dardar puts it, “Unless God calls me home, I’m in it for the long haul.”
photos by Avery Leigh White