JOURNEY TO A RUINED HOME
Posted: Tuesday, September 27 at 12:05 pm CT by msnbc.com
CAMERON PARISH, La. -- When we finally cross the Gibbstown Bridge and drop into the valley beyond, we know right away we we’ll go no further in our rental truck unless it sprouts wings and a propeller. The road disappears into water, and there’s nothing but liquid marsh as far as the eye can see. A week ago, we would still be 10 miles from the coast. Today this is beach-front property.
Huey Mhire rides with his nephew Zeke Wainwright (not pictured) in a boat toward their homes in Grand Chanier, LA for the first time following hurricane Rita's landfall Monday. The two found both homes destroyed. (Andrew Locke / MSNBC.com)
VIDEO: Journey with Huey Mhire and his nephew Zeke Wainwright to their homes in Grand Chenier, La. to survey the damage from hurricane Rita first hand. (warning: this video contains adult language) (Andrew Locke / MSNBC.com)
As we pull up to the end of the road, we spot two men launching a flat-bottomed boat into the murky water. As they struggle to start the engine I yell out and ask to join them on what I imagined would be a short trip south. The older man yells, “Well, come on,” and Bob and I hurriedly agree to separate. I’ll take a boat ride, and he’ll stay behind to do a few more interviews and update the blog.
Once on the water, we make quick introductions. Zeke Wainwright and his uncle, Huey Mhire, are trying to make their way to their homes in Grand Chenier, La., some 15 miles away from here. This entire region has been closed off by authorities since Rita made landfall Friday night, and the pair are anxious to see what remains of their homes.
However, with 15 miles to go, this will not be a one-, or even three-hour tour. Unable to reach Bob (our satellite phones are sitting in a FedEx box in Memphis), I settle in for the long, hot, wet ride.
Wainwright is the principal at a local elementary school, while Mhire is spending his retirement as a hunting guide. Both are jovial as we bomb through the reedy marshes, sharing local lore and vernacular. Their boat, for example, is known locally as a “mudder” and its flat bottom and pivoting propeller allow it to move in water only a few inches deep. As we cross the first fence lurking only ankle-deep below the water’s surface, I immediately see the value of the design.
As we motor deeper into the flooded area, the extent of the damage begins to sink in. We see countless dead animals -- nutria, cattle, snakes, deer and even birds. Farther in, partially submerged houses litter the watery landscape. Mhire’s mood begins to darken. Not only are these houses submerged, none of them are sitting where they were before the hurricane. “This does not look good,” he says.
The journey is arduous. Even with the boat’s shallow draft, we have to climb out of the boat and drag the hull over submerged levees, roads and fences. We’re soon all soaked below the waist with oily floodwaters, and above with sweat. We pass a two-gallon jug of water between us and carry on.
Almost four hours after we began our journey, we bank on the edge of a flooded field next to Mhire and Wainwright’s homes, and finish our journey on foot. As we approach the houses, Mhire’s hopes are buoyed. “I can see the second story,” he says almost giddily. But the awful truth is soon revealed as we climb the shallow bank. Mhire’s second story appears intact, but all that remains of the first floor is the 2x4 framing and twisted debris.
We pass Wainwright’s home first. The destruction is complete. The walls have all collapsed and the contents of the home now lie strewn across the muddy yard.
As we move closer to Mhire’s home, a frightened dog skitters from behind some debris and barks menacingly. “Forkey! Hey girl,” he calls. The dog prances cautiously toward us, circling closer before finally submitting to a pat on the head. The dog was loose when Mhire evacuated and couldn’t be found before they had to leave. Mhire is ecstatic, and judging from what we find at the house, I can only imagine what Forkey had to survive in order to be reunited with her owner.
We arrive at Mhire’s house and the damage is stunning. The remains of the brick walls lie shattered on the ground and only the most solid construction remains inside -- support beams, the fireplace and the remains of their kitchen countertop. As we move through the rubble, we hear a cat meowing from the now-unreachable second story. It’s Lucky, one of their family cats, sitting atop his wife’s sewing cabinet. Unable to reach her, we have no choice but to move on, with Mhire relieved that she has also has survived the storm.
Back outside, Mhire faces the shell of his home in shock. “I’ve lived on this plot for 68 years, all my life,” he explains. “This is terrible.”
It’s a cruel irony that the house his father built, sitting on the same plot of land, had been similarly destroyed in 1957 by Hurricane Audrey. They rebuilt then, but he’s not sure what they’re going to do now. “I don’t know. I just don’t know,” he says.
Night is approaching, so we hurriedly drag Forkey the dog into the boat and set off for dry land. We spend a tense hour working our way over submerged obstacles in the fading light, and pull up just as the Coast Guard is preparing to come find us, more than five hours after we’d left.
With Forkey happily perched in the back of Mhire’s pickup truck, we say our goodbyes. The wizened and jovial spark I saw earlier in his eyes has returned. “Y’all tell FEMA not to forget about us out here, OK?”
As dusk finally succumbs to night, we get in the truck and end our last day reporting for this Weblog. As we drive, my head is filled with the countless voices of people I’ve met during my two reporting tours, first in the days following Katrina’s landfall, and now in the destructive wake of Hurricane Rita. For me, this cacophony of voices has begun to merge into a single tale, not of looters and chaos but one of boundless human kindness and resilience in the face of unimaginable personal tragedy.
The people of this region are suffering. To be sure, the victims of Katrina far outnumber those devastated by Rita, but victims of both storms are in need of help. And regardless of which storm devastated their lives, they will continue to suffer long after the last satellite truck has left the scene. But I will never forget them, and I hope that you, our readers, won’t either. The power to help these people is, as it always was, in your hands.
FOSTER CARE FOR MISS KITTY?