Pam Benoit and Carmen Schexnayder sliced lunch meat under a flashlight in the back of Schexnayder's Supermarket as hungry customers waited for workers to fill their orders.

The neighborhood grocery store is in a part of St. James Parish locals call "back Vacherie," and it took a beating in Hurricane Ida. The shop didn't have power and had mechanical trouble with its backup generator.

But, as one of few stores open in the parish, manager Thelma Cortez decided to keep operations going as much as possible.

That meant taking cash orders, she said, primarily for dry goods. Workers went through the store's darkened aisles with a flashlight looking for the food.

Other than the Army National Guard distribution point, which offered water and meals ready to eat, this was the only place to get food nearby, said Maley Stein, 20.

Hurricane Ida's eye passed just west of this west bank community in St. James Parish, off La. 20.

The power of the storm's winds was evident up and down Vacherie's narrow streets. Trees were toppled, and some landed on houses. Trailers and a few older homes had their walls and roofs sheared off. Metal sheds were splintered into shards — one was even picked up and dropped on a house next door.  

The wind knocked off big limbs and created piles of smaller branches from the famous live oaks of Oak Alley Planation in Vacherie and, on the east bank, at Manresa House of Retreats in Convent.

It didn't appear any of the oaks that form the sites' famed canopies had toppled. But some of other trees did and Oak Alley's canopy seemed considerably thinned.

Parish workers and others weren't able to reach much of Vacherie — and residents couldn't get out — until Tuesday, after a tangle of downed powerlines was cleared from La. 20.

Like most other parts of southeast Louisiana, Ida's winds did most of the damage in St. James.

Parish officials think the wind reached 70 to 90 mph on the east bank and blew even harder on the west bank. It smashed the parish's electrical grid, temporarily strained its water system and likely shut down the parish's largest east bank grocery, Winn Dixie, for as much as five months. Another east bank grocery, Matherne's, was open, but customers had to drive under partially downed powerlines.

The wind also damaged the parish emergency operations building and both water plants — the roof was torn off the east bank plant. So many trees fell  and so many lines broke that the system lost significant water pressure for about 12 to 24 hours.

Repairs have since been made and pressure has been restored, but the entire parish remains under a boil water advisory. 

Meredith Conger, parish government spokeswoman, said Entergy told parish officials that all four substations that help power more than 20,000 people's homes were damaged "pretty significantly" and no transformers fed the parish into Thursday.

"We are considered off the grid at this time," Conger said.

Repairs could take several weeks. Conger asked residents for patience.

Stephanie Levet, 42, her daughter, Karli Levet, 15, and Karli's cousin, Rylen Delatte, were hauling sheets of corrugated tin roof to the road from the back of the house of Stephanie's relative, Kenny Delatte.

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Ida's winds shattered the 1,500-square-foot metal building where Delatte and his family had lived along La. 644 until he built his current home, constructed to the latest hurricane-rated building standards. 

Delatte and Stephanie Levet, who lives nearby, said Ida's winds were so strong they both felt the walls of their homes being periodically drawn inward and the roofs being pulled upward and then going back into position as the gusts subsided.

"The house was breathing," Stephanie Levet said. 

Both feared their roofs could have been torn off. Delatte said his family locked themselves in the bathroom; Levet's hid under the stairs.

Like other parts of southeast Louisiana, lines for gasoline were lengthy in Vacherie. Parish officials struggled to find a consistent supply for their own operations.

Sheriff Willy Martin Jr. noted that the Marathon refinery in nearby Garyville had resumed production — the refinery supplies a parish distributor — and said he was working with Shell to set up a fuel site for parish emergency workers at the now-shuttered Convent refinery. The refinery won't make the gasoline, but it will serve as a staging site for fuel from other sources.  

St. James had Army National Guard-managed points of distribution set up on the east and west banks. Conger, the parish spokeswoman, said more services were coming, including a cooling station and shelter opening in Vacherie and locations on both sides of the river to distribute donated goods that are coming in.

Parish officials were also preparing with their contractor to start critical damage assessments for the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Despite the parish's plans, spotty cell service has left some struggling to get their footing and frustrations were rising about the absence of tarps and other resources to the rural parish. 

Luce Kliebert, 55, and her daughter, Keisha Pitre were on limited generator power and without running water in their trailer home in Vacherie. The water supply to her trailer had been knocked out by Ida's winds when a tree fell on a pipe.

The old house on the front of her lot, where she grew up as a child, has water but had its front and rear walls torn off. Kliebert said it's no longer safe to enter. Her brother, who lived in the home, had to escape the building during Ida and rode out the hurricane in his truck, she said.

Kliebert, who has been getting water from Schexnayder's Supermarket, said she can't reach federal officials on her cellphone or find other help. She said the parish, or someone, needs to have a bigger role in Vacherie.

"There's no FEMA site out here. Nothing out here for us. No Red Cross, no nothing," she said. "Nothing. Nothing out here. The parish hasn't came, hasn't stopped by, nothing."

Conger said parish officials had been meeting with residents in Vacherie but had been unable even to get there until the roads were cleared on Tuesday. She said parish officials would check in on Kliebert and her family.

Despite the hard times, there were those little moments in Vacherie that the disruption of hurricanes and lack of power often seem bring out: neighbors chatting on the street, homeowners on their front porches, children gathered together on their bikes and others swinging in the back yard.

Lay'anie Johnson, 5, and Malik Collins, 9, were on a swing set that somehow survived unscathed from Ida's winds that had pulled out support pillars from a nearby home carport and lifted a trampoline well down the block.

"They're happy, so that's it," their grandmother, Simone Davis, 54, said.


Email David J. Mitchell at dmitchell@theadvocate.com

Follow David J. Mitchell on Twitter, @NewsieDave.