Finding destruction, not death, on island

Hurricane Rita

September 26, 2005|By Jennifer McMenamin | Jennifer McMenamin,sun reporter

BIG LAKE ISLAND, LA. -- Agent Wayne Matirne was on a mission to check this sprawling island on the Intracoastal Waterway for residents stranded by Hurricane Rita - if only he could find clear roadways and a boat launch not clogged with office furniture, dead livestock, marsh grasses and other debris from the storm.

Once on the water, the Louisiana Wildlife and Fisheries Enforcement agent and his partner steered a 25-foot Boston Whaler past the barges and buoys, past the oil refineries and fine waterfront homes suddenly in the water, to the rural communities of humble houses and summer homes tucked into the remote nooks of this island south of Lake Charles, near the Texas border.

Splitting into groups, the officers went house to house, rifles drawn. They knocked on doors, checking for survivors and for those who didn't make it out alive, looking for signs of looters and assessing property damage in areas hit hard by the waves and winds of the hurricane.

Some homes they visited had no walls left, let alone a front door on which to knock.

"I'd be real surprised if there weren't a couple bodies out here," said Alan Inzer, who works in the marine and livestock division of the Calcasieu Parish sheriff's office and accompanied Matirne. "You hope they all got out, but you never know."

The two officers, joined by four California Highway Patrol officers deployed to Louisiana to assist with recovery efforts, were among scores of law enforcement officials who headed out on the water yesterday to reach flood-prone and coastal areas that had been unreachable by land since Rita struck early Saturday.

After hours of searching Hebert Landing, Pelican Point and Old Settlement - all communities on Big Lake Island - Matirne and Inzer's group found neither survivors in need of rescue nor bodies. But they did see plenty of evidence of Rita's destruction - as well as signs that residents had heeded the calls to evacuate.

"I think Katrina really helped us out on this one," Matirne said. "People saw what happened in New Orleans and got out."

Left behind were the turtles, snakes and alligators that slithered into once-lush yards, now slick with a stinky sludge.

There were dead cows and a stiff armadillo, waterlogged nutria floating in the harbors and dead fish rotting on land. There were homes hit so hard by the wind that not only were windows shattered but refrigerators and furniture also were tossed about as if the rooms had been ransacked.

Waves washed away entire first floors in some homes, leaving in one case nothing but a canoe that had been bolted to the ceiling.

"This used to be a beautiful place to live," Matirne said of Hebert Landing, where he bought a house a little over a year ago. "When it's all cleaned up and everything's all nice, it's kind of like a little Key West, Florida."

Accessible only by boat or pontoon bridge, the community was a blend of quaint cottages painted bright blues, pinks, teals and yellows, well-kept mobile homes and modest houses in which people lived year-round.

Farther north on the island sits Pelican Point, where palatial homes with sweeping views of the water are propped on stilts between canals plied by residents.

Still farther north lies Old Settlement, the first area on the island to be inhabited, where older homes were built before the parish began requiring residents to build 10 feet above sea level.

It was in that area that the destruction was greatest.

A one-week-old baby alligator and a mud turtle padded around in one home built of brick that had only two outer walls left after the storm.

In another home, hurricane shutters were peeled away like cellophane and the first-floor library was thick with roseau cane, a tall marsh grass similar to bamboo that grows on the edges and wetlands of the island.

Trees were tossed like pickup sticks on roofs, fences and the few roads that wind through the neighborhoods.

Matirne had feared that all the homes on the island, including his own, would have fared as poorly as those in Old Settlement.

He and Inzer made their way patiently through the streets of Hebert Landing, clearing one home after another before heading to Matirne's property. Not only was his house still standing and his boat tied down, there were only tiny areas of water seepage inside the home.

"I'll be doggoned," Matirne said, poking his head inside the front door. "I swore this was all gone. I feel real sorry for the others, but man am I happy.

"My bills even stayed dry," he added with a chuckle. "Damn."

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