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George Bennett (right) looks out at damages wrought by Hurricane Ida in Manchac, La. on Saturday, Sept. 11, 2021 after the storm passed through the area almost two weeks earlier. A combination of eight-foot storm surge and howling winds wreaked vast damage on camps in the area, which are built into the swamps of Lake Maurepas' northeast shores and are only accessible by water.

For days after Hurricane Ida tore into Louisiana, a heaving mass of backed-up water and shattered debris churned in the usually tranquil swamps of Lake Maurepas, keeping George Bennett from his home.

By this past weekend, two weeks after the storm hit, the waters had gone down enough for the 70-year-old to boat out to the house on Jones Island, where, pre-hurricane, he usually spent four days each week fishing.

As he headed out, Bennett already had a good idea what he would find. His nephew had braved the high waters a few days earlier to snap pictures of the house.

The little blue A-frame structure sat askew, some 20 yards off of its foundation, as its owner sifted through splintered planks and home appliances that Ida had strewn around the swamp. Its roof was mangled by Ida’s howling winds and eight-foot storm surge.

Torn from its hinges, an otherwise-intact blue shed door lay on a heaping pile of muddy swamp grass. Two other homes that the storm had ripped from the ground formed a trio with Bennett’s by the water.

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Left to right, George Bennett, Tangipahoa Parish Councilmember Kim Coates and Greg Pizzolato survey damages to homes in Manchac, La. on Saturday, Sept. 11, 2021 after Hurricane Ida swept through about two weeks earlier. A combination of eight-foot storm surge and howling winds wreaked vast damage on camps in the area, which are built into the swamp and only accessible by water.

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George Bennett points to where the water rose in his shed during Hurricane Ida in Manchac, La. on Saturday, Sept. 11, 2021 after the storm passed through South Louisiana about two weeks earlier. A combination of eight-foot storm surge and howling winds wreaked vast damage on camps in the area, which are built into the swamps of Lake Maurepas' northeast shores and only accessible by water.

The fisherman sounded at turns desperate and determined as he surveyed the wreckage. Even after a lifetime in South Louisiana, he was unprepared for Ida’s fury. His voice breaking, he acknowledged that he had no insurance policy to cover the cost of raw materials and home goods needed to rebuild — a grueling task in this lakeshore community accessible only by boat.

Bennett has been coming to Manchac since he was a boy in the 1960s. In 1978 he built the camp, and for the past eight years the house has served as more or less his full time home. There’s no question he will rebuild.

“This is life here,” he said. “You get torn down, you rebuild. Ain’t nothing else you can do if you want to be here.”

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Homes destroyed by Hurricane Ida in Manchac, La. on Saturday, Sept. 11, 2021 after the storm swept through about two weeks earlier. A combination of eight-foot storm surge from Lakes Maurepas and Pontchartrain and howling winds wreaked vast damage on camps in the area, which are built into the swamp and only accessible by water.

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Left to right, Greg Pizzolato, Tangipahoa Parish Councilmember Kim Coates and George Bennett survey damages to homes in Manchac, La. on Saturday, Sept. 11, 2021 after Hurricane Ida swept through about two weeks earlier. A combination of eight-foot storm surge and howling winds wreaked vast damage on camps in the area which are built into the swamps of Lake Maurepas' northeast shore and are accessible only by water.

Of roughly 200 homes built into the isolated expanse of swampland between Lake Maurepas and Lake Pontchartrain, Ida blew around 30 off of their foundations. The storm that hit this area packed 100-plus mile-per-hour gusts and heavy storm surge. Many other houses lost roofs, porches, sheds, doors and furniture as the swamp sank under eight feet of water and waves battered their homes, most of which sit above the swamp on stilts.

“It was a signature event for Manchac,” said Robert Moreau, an environmental historian and research director at Southeastern University’s Turtle Cove research center in Manchac.

The severe winds caught even longtime residents off guard. They produced destruction that outpaced Hurricane Isaac in 2012, the last major disaster to hit the area, but one mostly remembered for its flooding.

As levees rise in nearby communities — but not on Lake Maurepas — and climate change batters the Louisiana coast with ever-more-powerful storms, lakeshore residents like those in Manchac are wondering who will save them from the next big storm.

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A crushed home sits among trees in Manchac, La. on Saturday, Sept. 11, 2021 after Hurricane Ida swept through nearly two weeks earlier. A combination of eight-foot storm surge and howling winds wreaked vast damage on camps in the area, which are built into the shores of Lake Maurepas' swamps and are accessible only by water.

A mix of tiny, sagging fishing huts and more spacious vacation camps raised high above the water on stilts, Manchac is home to a tight-knit community of people — most of them middle and working class — who often have generational ties to the area. Like Bennett, most residents live here part-time. About 30 who make a year-round living by fishing on the lakes call the swamp their permanent home.

Everything from food to materials to repair houses needs to be boated in. Even by the standards of South Louisiana, it’s a precarious place to call home.

“When the water comes up so fast, it just lifts up the houses that aren’t bolted down strong enough,” said Greg Pizzolato, whose camp sits north of Bennett’s.

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Built on a quiet canal off a main waterway, Pizzolatto’s camp was rendered inaccessible by a towering pile of matted swamp grass, timber, and corrugated metal scraps. The tons of debris clogging the swamp could take months to be cleared, Moreau said.

Pizzolato’s house itself was left untouched — part of a trend where the storm battered homes in some pockets of the swamp harder than others.

“You just can’t explain it,” said Kim Coates, a Tangipahoa Parish council member whose district encompasses Manchac.

He's willing to clear out the canal himself even if it takes days, Pizzolato said.

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A yacht sits lopsided in Manchac, La. on Saturday, Sept. 11, 2021, after Hurricane Ida swept through nearly two weeks earlier. Residents were just beginning to survey damages to homes in Manchac over the weekend because high waters and debris prevented them from entering the waterways immediately after the storm. Camps in the area are built into the swamp and only accessible by water.

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A pulverized roof and dock sit in Manchac, La. on Saturday, Sept. 11, 2021 after Hurricane Ida swept through nearly two weeks earlier. A combination of eight-foot storm surge and howling winds wreaked vast damage on camps in the area, which are built into the swamp and only accessible by water.

Rebuilt after Hurricane Katrina to weather powerful storms, the Turtle Cove research center survived Ida with minor cosmetic damages, Moreau said. Nearly three feet of water poured into the building, compared to the foot-and-a-half of liquid caused by Isaac.

Echoing residents like Bennett, Moreau called Ida the most destructive weather event to touch down in Manchac in recent history — a result he attributes to rapid global warming caused by humans burning fossil fuels.

“We’re seeing more and more storms, and stronger and stronger storms,” Moreau said. “And due to climate change, we’re expected to see even stronger storms as ocean waters get even warmer. Hurricanes love warm water.”

The Tangipahoa Parish Council is working with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and Federal Emergency Management Agency put a barge on the swamp to help with clearing metal, shattered timber and other wreckage from the debris-logged swamp water, Coates said.

The refuse was everywhere Saturday, stacked up on peoples' porches, on the shoreline, on boats and rooftops — a mix of human-made artifacts and twisted swamp flora. Pieces of plaster from shattered walls floated among uprooted weeds. Its mouth open wide, a four-foot alligator sunned on a board near the lakeshore.

Randy Hills' camp on North Pass lost windows taken out by the winds, a back shed that was flattened by a tree and several of his roof's shingles.

As he worked to clear pile after pile of brush from his dock and yard, he said he counted himself lucky.

“It depends how much you like living here,” said Hills. “In our case, we love it. So we’re going to rebuild.”

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Randy Hills and a friend clear debris from their camp in Manchac, La. on Saturday, Sept. 11, 2021 after Hurricane Ida swept through nearly two weeks earlier. A combination of eight-foot storm surge and howling winds wreaked vast damage on camps in the area.

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A crushed home sits among trees in Manchac after Hurricane Ida swept through.

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George Bennett picks up the door of his shed, which Hurricane Ida blew off its hinges, in Manchac, La. on Saturday, Sept. 11, 2021 after the storm passed through South Louisiana about two weeks earlier. A combination of eight-foot storm surge and howling winds wreaked vast damage on camps in the area, which are built into the swamps of Lake Maurepas' northeast shores and only accessible by water.


James Finn writes for The Advocate as a Report For America corps member. Email him at JFinn@theadvocate.com or follow him on Twitter @RJamesFinn.

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