‘Everything is a fight’: the island still reeling months after Ida battered Louisiana

David Sears spent six weeks sleeping outside on the splintered remains of his home on Grand Isle, Louisiana. The house was destroyed by Hurricane Ida at the end of August but Sears had nowhere else to go. So he returned to this barrier island, out in the gulf of Mexico, and lived on his front porch for over a month.

Grand Isle, with its sweeping white sand beaches, rows of bobbing shrimp boats and 1,000 permanent residents, took the first punch from Ida, the category 4 hurricane that became one of America’s most powerful storms when it landed here in the summer. And four months later the scars have barely begun to heal.

Debris still litters the roadways, destroyed homes line the beachfront and hundreds of residents remain displaced. This sliver of land, the last frontier of humanity before the open ocean, is used to taking hits from extreme weather. But Ida was the worst in the island’s history.

Sears, a 70 year old with a white handlebar moustache, contracted pneumonia and staph infections in both his eyes after his six weeks living outdoors. He was rushed to hospital and told he may not survive. But after nine days of treatment, he made it out in mid-November.

“I believe the Lord was looking down on me," hy het gesê, sitting outside as a sea breeze passed over his new trailer home, a few feet from the beach. The retiree, who lives on social security payments, was one of the first to move into this row of temporary Fema homes, sheltering dozens of the island’s residents who have lost everything.

With his long term prospects still uncertain, Sears was living day by day.

“One day at a time," hy het gesê. “I’m going to stay right here for now. I’ll save some money. And one day, hopelik, I can buy the trailer.”

This post-storm purgatory was felt among many, who are preparing for an uncertain new year as Grand Isle continues to grapple with a gargantuan recovery effort.

Adriane Cunningham, a patrol officer with the island police force, was living in a trailer a few down from Sears. Her home was crushed by two trees ripped from their roots by Ida. She had been living without insurance and had already spent over $3,000 just to remove the debris. She had no idea how much it would cost to rebuild or if she even could.

“It seems like every time we do something with the house, something else goes wrong with it," sy het gese. “It’s just so much money.”

Vir nou, she splits her time between the trailer during the week and her sister’s house, three and a half hours away, at the weekend. Her five children have been withdrawn from the local school district and moved to a school outside of the state capitol, Baton Rouge. The family simply cannot fit inside the trailer.

141 households on Grand Isle applied for Fema housing in the wake of the storm, met 42 still waiting on approval or unit availability, said Jefferson parish fire director Bryan Adams, who is overseeing local government reconstruction efforts.

Ida came ashore with pummeling 150mph winds, damaging every structure on the island. Local officials estimate around 700 buildings, a quarter of the island’s constructions, have either been destroyed or will need to be completely demolished. Many are homes constructed before Hurricane Katrina. Minder as 400 people have returned to live.

There is progress, but it has been gradual. Electricity returned to the island in October, and thicker pylons with deeper foundations have been installed. But there are still regular outages, and Grand Isle is still being powered by generator energy and remains unconnected to the grid. Running water has also returned, but a boil water advisory remains in place. Gas connections are sporadic, with some on the island still living without.

Some of the most devastating damage was done to the island’s levee protection system. The Gulf coastline on Grand Isle is enveloped by a so-called “burrito levee”, a 13 foot tall sand-filled tube that sits at the back of the beach. It was breached at multiple locations, flooding much of the island and leaving thick dunes of sand over six foot high.

Standing on top of the winding burrito, where rips in the tubing are exposed to the afternoon sun, Grand Isle’s Cajun mayor David Camardelle spoke of the battles he has fought since Ida hit.

“Everything is a fight,” he said “A fight to save our community.”

Camardelle is in the process of lobbying not only to hasten the levees repair but to increase protection from the devastating storm surge further out at sea. He pointed to the horizon where, on certain parts of the landscape, clusters of breakwater boulders are placed out at sea.

Camardelle argues that the devastation to the west of the island was intensified as there is no breakwater protection in certain areas, meaning the surge from the sea is stronger. He is lobbying the US army corps of engineers to invest in new construction, but with an estimated $50m price tag his efforts are not certain to go forward.

With hundreds of homes requiring demolition, the levees in a state of disrepair, Grand Isle already finds itself in a race against time to prepare for the 2022 hurricane season. Amid coastal erosion and rising sea levels, all exacerbated by the climate crisis, which has already triggered more frequent and devastating storms, has Camardelle considered whether he is fighting a losing battle?

"Geen," hy het gesê. “This is a community. We’re families and we all know each other. What made me run for office was to save this island.” Camardelle is an incumbent since 1997. His grandfather, a shrimp and crab fisherman, moved to Grand Isle in 1947; sy ma, in her late 80s along with his uncles, aunts and children all live on the island.

Like many other island advocates, Camardelle pointed to the fact that Grand Isle frequently takes the first punch from extreme storms, cushioning the blow for larger populations, like New Orleans and Baton Rouge further inland.

One of the mayor’s lifelong friends, Bennie Gatz, a local mosquito terminator who lives close to the beach and is an embodiment of the required hardiness to exist out on the frontiers. By 70 jaar oud, Gatz, like most residents evacuated during the storm, but returned after running water was restored to his home.

He is a dialysis patient, but attempted nonetheless to repair his stilted home himself. Much of the porch had been destroyed and inside the drywall was covered in mold. But soon after returning he slipped on the wooden stairs and broke both his legs in two places.

With the nearest hospital, Lady of the Sea, closed following damage sustained by Ida, Gatz was forced to travel for an hour and half by ambulance in severe pain to the nearest functioning emergency room in the town of Thibodaux.

They put both his legs in casts, and he left in a wheelchair. He returned straight back to the island, a place he says he will never leave.

There’s still no gas at his home, so he relies on hot meal handouts from the local government and has hired some friends to assist with the rebuild.

“It’s a unique place," hy het gesê. “I love the tales of old pirates. I love the fishing; trout, redfish, you name it.

“You have to be extremely resilient," hy het gesê. “And you have to love it here.”

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