BELLE CHASSE, La. – Life in Louisiana’s Plaquemines Parish is a mix of frustration and a little adventure since Hurricane Ida, with cowboys wrangling loose cattle on a highway, residents navigating alligator-infested floodwaters to get home and thousands waiting in long lines for gas and food.
On the plus side, no one died during the Category 4 storm in this narrow spit of soggy land southeast of New Orleans. On the down side, thousands of homes are damaged, many lack power and water and no one is sure when things will get back to normal.
“It’s getting worse,” Gail Rudolph said Wednesday as she sat in a pickup truck near where dozens were lined up outside a closed grocery store waiting for it to open.
Chris Vanhoosier stood in line for an hour to fill up a few 5-gallon cans with gas.
“We’re waiting for the water to come back on. We lost a generator, so once that gets back on we’ll do a little bit better,” he said.
Just a few miles down the road, toward the tip of Louisiana’s boot-shaped coast, it was like a scene from the Old West as wranglers on horseback used ropes to catch a black cow that got loose in the storm. After about 15 minutes of work, they finally shooed it into a corral set up on a highway.
“There are a couple hundred more out there,” said one of the cowboys.
Still further south, past oil refineries that line the Mississippi River bank, Ben Tucker rode in a boat with his nephew, Robert Singlemen, and Michael Restock to check out his fish camp house at Myrtle Grove Marina for the first time.
Navigating slowly through flooded fields past alligators, snakes and hundreds of dead nutria, they found a neighborhood of about 70 flooded homes, many of which were missing siding and the contents of first-floor garages and carports, which were inundated by storm surge from Ida.
Mud was everywhere, and only a little of it was washed away by an afternoon thunderstorm. Tucker’s fishing equipment was scattered everywhere and the benches near his dock were gone. But the main floor of the house, which stands on stilts, was remarkably dry and the roof seemed fine.
All in all, Tucker said, things could be a lot worse.
“It’s here. It survived. It ain’t the prettiest, but we’ll be back,” he said.
Next-door neighbor Gayle Lawrence, who rode out Ida with her husband in the neighborhood, which is built along canals, fretted over the loss of two cars, refrigerators and most everything else in their garage, filled with marsh grass and stinking, dead fish.
“The house is solid, it didn’t even move. But when the water came up it destroyed everything,” she said.
The entire lower part of the parish remains under a mandatory evacuation order, and the town of Belle Chasse is under a voluntary evacuation order. In one area, workers are cutting through a levee to let water drain back toward the gulf, officials said. Water service is spotty because of power failures and local government offices are closed until next week.
Parish President Kirk Lepine urged residents who fled Ida to stay away a while longer until roads can be cleared, power restored, dead livestock removed and more.
“We do want to see your smiling face. We want you to come home. But not right now,” he told a news briefing.
Louisiana calls itself a “sportsman's paradise,” and Plaquemines gets a lot of credit for the nickname. Skilled taxidermists can do a good business in this parish of 23,000 people preparing all the mounted fish and deer heads that hang on walls in residents' homes. They're sometimes beside paintings of crabs, shrimp and other coastal delicacies.
The houses that some residents call “fish camps” are a lot like the big, nice houses that line so much of the Gulf Coast. Refinery and oil industry workers in the area make enough money to have a good life with a little extra to spare for boats, hunting gear, top-quality fishing poles and more. It's a place where it's easy to forget the problems of the world.
“It's just great. The water is just serenity. It's like you're on an island except when a hurricane comes,” said Lawrence, 79, who retired to Plaquemines Parish with her husband Warren. “We talked about selling when this was coming through, but we can't do that.”
Tucker, who works for a road-building company and lives in the New Orleans suburb of Gretna, might quit the parish some day, but it's hard to imagine when. The fishing is good, the beer is awfully tasty when it's cold on a hot day and hurricanes, like alligators, come and go.
“As long as it's more fun than work, I'm all in,” he said.