Back home only to find `It's gone'

Returning: Residents of one Louisiana parish survey uprooted boats, houses, cars and coffins looking for remnants of their former lives.

Katrina's Wake

September 06, 2005|By Stephen Kiehl | Stephen Kiehl,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

PORT SULPHUR, La. - Paula Landry returned to her home yesterday to find a pile of wood scraps, an enormous tree snapped in half across her front lawn and a car buried in rubble. She also found an album filled with photos of her children, some of their baby clothes and a few pieces of her grandmother's crystal.

It was enough.

"I'm not coming back," said Landry, 58, a paramedic. She meant that she would leave the cleanup to others. Her eyes were red and her arms had goose bumps. She hadn't known it would be this hard. Asked why she wouldn't return again to salvage what was left of her home, she said, "It's gone."

So much of this town is. Port Sulphur, once home to 3,000 people, lies on the banks of the Mississippi River about 45 miles south of New Orleans. Hurricane Katrina sent the river rushing over the town's levees, washing barges and boats into people's yards. Cars were turned upside down. Coffins were deposited on the side of the road. Virtually every home was destroyed.

A breakdown in communications - and the sheer volume of the water - has slowed news from small Louisiana towns such as Port Sulphur, where officials say it could be six months before residents are allowed to return permanently. Those returning to retrieve scraps of their lives are finding the damage exceeds their worst fears.

The water lifted houses off their foundations and left them hundreds of yards away in the middle of the road, their frames reduced to kindling. Many were surrounded yesterday by water that reached the tops of the tires of the cars left in the driveways. Even brick houses seemed to have vanished.

In a cemetery by the river, the cover of one above-ground tomb had been pushed off. The skull and bones inside were floating in brown water. The carcasses of deer and elk lined the roads. The front door of one home was dangling from a tree branch, apparently attached by blinds.

"My neighbors have no idea," said Russell Gainey, 41, who has a landscaping business and was using his backhoe to clear streets yesterday. "I don't want to be the bearer of bad news, but there's nothing left."

He said his wife was up until 5:30 a.m. the day before Katrina hit, finishing a remodeling of their bathroom. They had spent seven years fixing up an old house in town. He kept a picture of the house, with its red roof and white porch, in his pickup. He said they would rebuild.

"We were born and raised here. We've got nothing else," Gainey said. "Everyone here is family - black, white, Catholic, Baptist, we're all the same. Now it doesn't matter if you had a mansion or a shack. We all suffered the same loss."

Port Sulphur is one of the larger towns in rural Plaquemines Parish, parishes being Louisiana's equivalent to a county. The parish, with a population of 27,000, stretches 100 miles from New Orleans to the Gulf of Mexico. The Mississippi River runs on one side, and a marsh lies on the other. Last week, the water came from both directions.

Livestock pastures have become lakes, forcing the animals to huddle on the sides of roads. Billy Nungesser, who had 270 cattle, 130 elk and 25 elk calves, estimated that half of them have been lost. He saved one elk and a dozen cattle that were standing up to their necks in water in a pump station. He has taken in others.

"I have 25 horses," said Nungesser, 46. "I don't know whose they are."

During the storm, he and several friends held up the wall of his home that faces the Mississippi. Still, he said, it moved in about a foot. "I have six boats in my front yard," he said. "They went airborne as they came over the levee. They took my fence out. Trees six feet around came over the levee and took half my barn out."

There's no shortage of survival stories here. Nungesser said boaters brought him a family of eight that had been rescued from a trailer. He said they were caught in the trailer when the flood came. As the waters rose, they tried to saw a hole in the roof to climb on top of it. That didn't work. But they were able to extend through the roof a hand that was seen by boaters.

Nungesser gave them clean T-shirts and bowls of jambalaya, then sent them to a shelter.

In Port Sulphur, 12 people were trapped in a choir loft at St. Patrick Roman Catholic Church. They opened a window and climbed into a boat. The window was still open yesterday, the farthest on the left above the statue of Jesus over the main entrance. The church was surrounded by water about 3 feet deep.

"My father is buried behind that church," said Amos Cormier, chairman of the Plaquemines Parish Council, who was out surveying damage yesterday. He had hoped to get to his house to retrieve photographs and other personal items, but the roads were blocked by fallen trees and power lines.

"This is devastating," said Cormier, 59. "I thought I would see homes with water damage and destruction, but this looks like a bomb went off."

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