Ten years after Hurricane Rita barreled into Cameron Parish and destroyed almost all the homes in this sparsely populated coastal community, those who stayed have struggled to rebuild what the storm blew away.
It now has new schools, a repaired hospital, a bustling natural gas export sector and homes perched high in the air under strengthened construction rules.
Even with the hard-fought effort, though, it’s been difficult to recapture what was lost. A third of Cameron Parish’s residents chose not to return to the marshy coastal plain, largely because they couldn’t afford to pay the inflated costs of rebuilding.
Many instead put down roots north, away from a storm’s immediate reach.
“The homes weren’t just flooded; they were gone. They just disappeared,” said Clair Marceaux, Cameron Parish’s director of economic development. “We didn’t lose any lives, thank God. But what we lost instead of lives were family homes we had for generations.”
Many of those who left made that decision three years after Rita, when 2008’s Hurricane Ike flooded properties all over again.
To the north, Category 3 Rita also belted Calcasieu Parish and its biggest city, Lake Charles. As destructive as Rita was there, Lake Charles Mayor Randy Roach said he believes his city and the parish were spared the trauma experienced by Cameron’s residents.
“The social fabric there was just ripped apart by the storm,” Roach said.
Hundreds of millions of dollars in state and federal aid have helped rebuild both parishes, which instituted measures to be better prepared for the next big storm.
Calcasieu recovered fairly quickly, but it’s taken all of the past decade to get this far in Cameron Parish.
Workers recently put the final touches on the new Johnson Bayou High School, the last of four new schools that make up K-12 public education in the parish. The high school was damaged by Rita but then totally destroyed by Ike.
In the town of Cameron, the parish seat, officials this year finally moved into a $20 million government complex on the north side of La. 82 that houses the Sheriff’s Office, the District Attorney’s Office and the Police Jury. The parish courthouse, however, still awaits repairs.
At Holly Beach, a long-standing tourist destination on the Gulf of Mexico, camp and homeowners have rebuilt structures on long stilts that rise high above the sand. Immediately after Rita, there was barely a hint that people had ever lived and vacationed there. Now fresh paint adorns homes overlooking the water.
And what is a liability for Cameron Parish residents when storms approach — their location on the Gulf Coast — has become an economic plus: Two LNG companies are spending a total of $30 billion to build operations in the parish, drawn to the area by abundant natural gas pipelines to feed the plants and the deep water that allows export ships access.
“Both facilities have been real community-friendly as far as donating to schools and nonprofit organizations,” said Wendell Wilkerson, who owns Wilkerson Waste, a salvage and waste-hauling business. “They have hired everybody who wants to work there, is qualified to work there and can pass a drug screen.”
Sept. 24, 2005
Rita slammed into southwest Louisiana early on a Saturday morning, pushing a wall of water across Cameron Parish and into Calcasieu. The storm, the fifth major hurricane of 2005, made landfall at Sabine Pass, at the Louisiana-Texas line. It spawned an unknown number of tornadoes that danced across Rita’s northeast quadrant. Combined with the 110 mph winds and the storm surge, it rendered almost every Cameron Parish resident homeless.
The entirety of the parish’s population of about 9,500 fled north, well aware of Hurricane Katrina’s deadly toll less than four weeks earlier in the New Orleans area.
They also remembered 1957’s Hurricane Audrey or had heard the stories of what that storm did and the people who were killed. Audrey, according to the National Weather Service, caused the deaths of 400 to 500 Cameron Parish residents. Whole families perished, from children to the elderly.
“Audrey showed the people what would happen if you don’t respect the weather,” said Ryan Bourriaque, Cameron Parish’s 31-year-old administrator, who grew up listening to stories of Audrey from his grandparents.
“We have always evacuated” when a storm approaches, Bourriaque said. “We have no levees here.”
Louisiana was already trying to deal with the destruction wrought by Katrina, which less than four weeks before Rita killed about 1,500 in and near New Orleans. Katrina, which made landfall south of New Orleans on Aug. 29, was still an unfolding national tragedy when Rita strengthened into a monster Category 5 hurricane in the Gulf of Mexico with winds clocked at 178 mph. It later weakened as it approached the coast.
“It was a double-whammy,” former Gov. Kathleen Blanco said. “It was unbelievable to realize that we’d have a second storm of equal or greater strength to Katrina.”
Almost all Calcasieu Parish residents fled too, after officials issued orders for a mandatory evacuation. Among those leaving Lake Charles were thousands of Katrina evacuees staying at the Civic Center, in Burton Coliseum and in other shelters.
Mayor Roach called the successive storms “Act One and Act Two.”
Rita’s storm surge rode the Calcasieu River north and flooded the Lake Charles lakefront, including its Civic Center and nearby downtown. Thousands of homes were flooded.
Also wrecked was the Harrah’s casino complex on floating vessels on the north end of the lake near Interstate 10. The vessels were heavily damaged or sunk by the time Rita’s winds died down. The wreckage has since been cleared. In 2006, Pinnacle Entertainment acquired the Harrah’s gaming license and eventually built another casino on the south side of the lake.
A tornado south of Lake Charles ripped apart the passenger terminal at Lake Charles Regional Airport, and the storm tore into Burton Coliseum, about a mile northeast of the airport. Both structures have been repaired.
In Lake Charles, officials used federal Community Development Block Grants and FEMA public assistance money to help rebuild. According to FEMA, Calcasieu Parish received $372 million in federal grants . Roach said Lake Charles also borrowed $75 million in its effort to rebuild and upgrade its infrastructure to better prepare for future storms.
The projects included upgrades to Lake Charles’ wastewater plant and revitalizing the city’s lakefront and downtown, Roach said.
Today, with the aid of the state’s Road Home Program, Calcasieu residents have returned and rebuilt. Population numbers show Calcasieu Parish gained 7.4 percent in population over 15 years, growing from 183,577 residents in 2000 to 197,204 by 2014.
‘A little bit too much’
For all its progress in the past 10 years, though, fully one-third of Cameron Parish’s already sparse population chose not to return. According to U.S. census and parish population figures, the parish had 9,558 people in 2005, while in 2014 the population was 6,679. Those who didn’t return grew tired of rebuilding, especially after Hurricane Ike reflooded the parish in 2008 just as people were trying to establish homes again.
The damage forced the implementation of more stringent building codes and the requirement that all structures — homes, schools, offices — be elevated anywhere from 7 feet to 18 feet above the ground.
Bourriaque, the parish administrator, said buildings now are more capable of withstanding a strong storm, but it’s come at a price, adding as much as $30,000 to $50,000 to a home’s construction cost.
“For some of our previous residents, it’s beyond their means,” he said.
Other costs include expensive homeowners insurance, including the federal program run by Louisiana Citizens Property Insurance Corp. Marceaux, who heads Cameron Parish’s Economic Development Office, said she and her husband live in an 1,800-square-foot home and pay annual premiums of more than $5,400. She also said the high cost of insurance and other pricing factors have kept developers from building apartments near the coast.
George Morales, a 67-year-old former resident of Creole, wanted to return even after Rita wiped away his family’s brick home, a wooden rental house and a double-wide trailer that the family rented out.
“There was just a slab where the brick home was,” he recalled recently. “And where the rent house and the trailer was at, there was nothing left.”
Morales said that by 2008, he and his family had moved back to Creole with plans to restart their lives. Even with increased costs — “outrageous” homeowners insurance premiums, the financial burden of elevating a home, stricter standards for building materials — Morales said he and his family were committed.
Then Category 2 Hurricane Ike made landfall at Galveston, Texas, on Sept. 13, 2008, and again flooded south Louisiana, including Cameron and Calcasieu parishes. Creole ended up with a worse storm surge from Ike than from Rita.
“After Ike, it was just a little too much for me to go back. I’m tired of running from hurricanes,” said Morales, who now lives in Lake Charles. He still owns property in Cameron Parish, and his sons live there now. He visits often, he said, including on the Friday nights this fall when his grandson plays football for South Cameron High School.
On the western side of the parish, Tim Trahan returned after Ike to reopen Bayou Convenience Store. The store, located on La. 82, the main coastal road, is an older structure that was filled with water after both Rita and Ike. Trahan, who also works at a nearby Williams Pipeline facility, said he bought the business because he believed the area needed a grocery store.
Trahan said he returned from Jasper, Texas, after Rita to find the road had been washed away. “I had to come in very carefully,” he said. One of the first things he did was visit his brother’s grave at Head of the Hollow Cemetery.
After Rita, Cameron Parish authorities tried to round up about 500 disinterred caskets that popped out the ground and floated away. They found and reburied most of them.
“My brother was still there,” Trahan said. “But my grandmother’s casket was missing. Hers was never found.”
On the east end of Cameron Parish in Grand Cheniere, 87-year-old Ella Mae “T-Mae” Booth still sits behind the counter at Booth’s Grocery off La. 82. She lost the original store to Rita — a photograph of the old Booth’s hangs on the store wall — and decided to rebuild. Instead of using pylons to raise the store to meet the elevation requirements, Booth’s Grocery was built on an earthen mound.
Asked if she’ll ever move away, she said, “Never. My daddy’s daddy is from here. My mother’s people are from right down the road.”
Since Rita, federal grants totaling $273.1 million have flowed into the parish to help rebuilding efforts, according to FEMA.
Some of the money has gone to rebuild or repair heavily damaged schools. The loss of population led to fewer students and forced the school district to consolidate, shrinking from six schools before the storm to four. South Cameron High School absorbed students from two elementary schools and now has a K-12 student body. According to parish figures, the number of kindergarten through 12th-grade students dropped 29 percent from pre-Rita numbers: There were 1,306 students in 2014, compared with 1,851 in 2005.
Morales, who moved to Lake Charles after Ike, still regards Creole and Cameron Parish as home. He said the way of life on the marshy plains has a hold on those who grew up there.
Marceaux also was born and raised in Cameron Parish. She returned home after a few years working elsewhere.
“You couldn’t pay me to live anywhere else. It’s natural, raw, undisturbed beauty, and I get to see it every day,” she said recently, holding an iPhone with a photo of the sun setting on the Gulf of Mexico. She took the photo from her porch.
“This is home. I’m not leaving,” she said.
A new industry
For all of the difficulties of life right on the Gulf, Cameron Parish’s location has some economic benefits. Two companies are spending about $30 billion to build two natural gas liquefaction plants in the parish, where monstrous chilling machines will turn the gas into a supercooled liquid to ship to overseas markets. Cameron has the advantage of having many natural gas pipelines running through it, and a deep waterway at Sabine Pass and farther north in the Calcasieu Shipping Channel.
Cheniere Energy is building its $20 billion Sabine Pass liquefaction plant at Sabine Pass near the Gulf of Mexico. Jason French, Cheniere’s senior director of government and public affairs, said the plant should transport its first shipment in early 2016. Exports will be taking place as construction continues to expand the plant’s export capacity, he said.
Farther north, in Hackberry, a joint venture whose backers include Sempra Energy and Mitsubishi Corp. is spending $10 billion to build the Cameron LNG terminal.
Together, the projects are employing thousands of construction workers and, once they’re up and running, will permanently hire about 770 employees.
Bourriaque, the parish administrator, said more companies are in various stages of the permitting process to build in Cameron. He said if the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and the Department of Energy approve all of them, there could be another $24 billion in construction coming.
“Cameron Parish is going to be the LNG capital of the world,” he said.