With dusty black-rubber work boots, a camouflage baseball cap and a shaggy beard, no one would mistake Albert Marange for Brad Pitt. Except maybe Kellie Naquin, an office assistant with Bayou Grace Community Services, who compares him to the superstar actor making headlines for his efforts in the 9th Ward. “Thanks, Brad,” she says as they diligently unload boxes of clothes and cleaning supplies. Breathless and sweating in the Cajun sun, Marange doesn’t miss a beat. “You’re welcome, Angelina.”
Just three weeks after Gustav, Vonnie Hawkins, a programs officer for the Pennington Family Foundation, has driven more than two hours to Chauvin in a Penske truck. It is filled with relief supplies for the devastated shrimp- and oil-fueled communities of the five bayous of Terrebonne Parish. More than 25,000 people live on narrow, crooked fingers of low country stretching south along those five bayous from Houma toward the Gulf. The battering winds and tornadoes of Gustav and dark floodwaters of Ike crippled the commercial industries and transportation that had kept these communities afloat. The Baton Rouge-based nonprofit foundation decided to help.
“Our primary goal is to fill gaps left by government bureaucracy,” Hawkins says with only a hint of frustration at what she believes was a lack of action by the state Office of Public Heath following the hurricanes. “One of the reasons I joined the foundation is because we can make quick decisions and deliver within the hour.”
Today’s delivery includes donations collected from students, church groups and individual donors across the state: twenty-five $200 debit cards, two $1,000 debit cards, diapers, hand wipes, baby formula, computers, cleaning kits, bleach, hand sanitizer, non-perishable food, clothes, shoes, socks, and underwear of every shape, size and color.
The hub for these supplies is just down the street from Bayou Grace at a community recreational center with storage rooms and a gymnasium that would not be out of place in Hoosiers. Though a handful of volunteers help unload and organize all this stuff, it is clear who’s in charge: Natalie Bergeron, a local postal carrier for 30 years and—as Hawkins describes her—a “community gatekeeper” in Chauvin. Bergeron is doing all she can to fill the gaps between state bureaucracy and those in need, gaps Hawkins says are much wider than they ought to be.
“People here feel like they don’t have a voice, like those they elect to go to Baton Rouge and speak up for them have let them down,” Bergeron says. “It feels out of their control, and they don’t know how to fix it, because there isn’t a quick fix for this.”
In preparation for Ike, Bayou Grace partnered with the international nonprofit organization Oxfam to bring batteries, flashlights and radios to the residents of Island Road, a narrow slice of land separated from Chauvin by two lanes of blacktop now being eaten away by rising sea levels on either side. Out there after Gustav, Bergeron found families sleeping under open skies on mattresses soaked in contaminated water and fishermen cut off from news reports that another storm was heading their way.
She tells us we really ought to meet these people and see what they are going through, so Hawkins locks the Penske and we pile into a pickup. Watching ripples of the bayou lap against the right lane leading out to Island Road, we witness coastal erosion firsthand. Hawkins holds on to the seat and an anxious feeling squeezes my stomach as if we are chugging to the summit of a rollercoaster and anticipating any second now a mighty plunge downward.
“Gustav and Ike proved what Katrina and Rita did, that our receding coastline is in a detrimental state so that these storms have enormous impact on our communities,” says Courtney Howell, director of Bayou Grace. “We’re getting destroyed over and over again, and if we had our natural environment, we’d be protected. We need sustainable housing and partnerships for recovery.”
Howell says Chauvin is at a critical point, but she hasn’t lost hope. And even though the hurricanes knocked out local ice factories and four seafood-processing plants, still undaunted are the area’s shrimpers and oystermen, those unheralded men and women who keep us in Baton Rouge eating fresh Louisiana seafood.
Out on the strip, fields of muck and stale black waters cover debris-dotted yards, and houses stand wobbly and broken. The air is quiet and breezy as we step down from the truck looking for signs of life. We spot three workers dragging shovels behind them in the middle of the road. Shoeless and sunburned, with his right hand caked in mud, Dominic Naquin is patching up his 84-year-old mother’s dilapidated, wind-damaged home.
“We’re from Baton Rouge, just down here trying to help out, and we wanted to give you this,” Hawkins says, handing Naquin a $200 debit card.
“Thank you, thank you,” he says, wiping sweat from his face. “You know we still got no lights?”
Winding back through Chauvin, the stench of the hurricanes grows strong. All that trash and sewage had mixed with water that was pumped back into the bayous without being treated. I hold my breath. I ask Bergeron how long she’ll wait before eating shrimp or oysters again. “Three or four weeks,” she says. “Would you eat something caught in that water right now?”
I’m still thinking about my answer when we see an ash-gray mare tied up outside of a home ahead. The horse is gaunt, the ridges of her ribs prominent even from the road. We pull up to the rec center, and Bergeron thanks us for coming down. As she does, I worry I’m taking more from these people than I’m giving to them. There is so much to do here, and Bayou Grace seems like a small boat in a big bayou of difficulties.
“People think we’re crazy for living down here,” says Bea Prosperie, the director of the rec center. “But what’s that old saying? ‘There’s no place like home.’”
Though the Pennington Family Foundation is miles away in Baton Rouge, Hawkins believes it has a mandate to meet the needs of these people and try to preserve this culture. She knows the contribution today is only a token step, but the hope, she says, is to inspire others to follow suit.
“Y’all can come back whenever you want,” Bergeron tells us. “It’s going to be like this for a long time.”