"Oh, don't remind me of that," she says, swatting the air gently with one hand. "We still have to put our brother back in there."
Levy looks over her shoulder and does her best to stare through a thick brush line into a small cemetery in the adjacent country lot. Concrete tombs are cracked open, revealing shards and sections of old pine boxes. Wood posts labeled with people's names are stuck into the ground near open-earth pits where caskets were carried off by Hurricane Rita's storm surge. "The water came in and turned over all those tombs," Levy says. "It picked them all up and crashed them together. They were picking up bodies out these fields after that."
A vase of fresh white lilies placed by a solitary tombstone is the only evidence the Mouton Cove graveyard has not been totally abandoned. Even though the site is a stone's throw away, Levy hasn't visited in months. Memories of Sept. 24 linger among the empty caskets. Reminders of the day Rita came ashore can be found all over Mouton Cove, a residential settlement south of Abbeville that currently boasts maybe 300 residents ' depending on which local you ask.
The blue-collar community was forced under 9 feet of water in some areas. Roofs were torn off the community's white frame houses, trailers were uprooted by the flooding, and Mouton Cove's few native businesses were awash in saltwater. On the other hand, it's a study of contrast. While everything to the south on Pecan Island was totally devastated, and everything to the north in Abbeville was largely left dry, Mouton Cove was flung into a disaster purgatory, somewhere between grossly demolished and extremely lucky. It survives as a microcosm of the rebuilding efforts still under way on the Gulf Coast and in New Orleans, but without all the national media attention and steady stream of bureaucratic visitors.
Many of the Cove's residents have approached recovery with either an urgent sense of self-preservation or with the help of their community. There's the young couple that opened their home to family members who lost everything and who wrestle with the guilt of their own house and possessions being spared. A well-known businessman rebuilt his thriving trade with personal savings ' and no help from the government ' hoping to give his neighbors work. Right down the road, a longtime resident is still struggling with a decision to either pick up the pieces or turn his back.
Levy says she doesn't know any of these people, but their stories sound familiar to her. More than 4 feet of water moved through her shotgun house, tearing up the floor and ruining furniture. Inside, there are only a couple of cots to sleep on and an outdated window unit that badly manages Louisiana's coastal heat. Her half-sister, Ernestine Moore, who is only a tad younger at 75 years, shares the space.
"That water just came right in here and tore it all up," Moore says as she relocates a pile of clothes. "We had to empty out the bottom of that dresser where the water was because it was so stinky."
The two women have been through hell and back together, which makes their collective joy today all the sweeter. They shimmy into another room that has new flooring ' green linoleum squares ' that was put in by family members. Levy kicks off her shoes and takes a walk around. Moore beams knowingly at her half-sister.
Moore remembers Rita's rain and noise "like it was yesterday," even though every day since has been counted and feared and relished since that fateful morning. Levy nods her head in agreement. Together they weathered the storm and together they remain. "We were raised up here," Moore says. "We ain't going anywhere."
It's a war cry repeated around Mouton Cove.
At the intersection of Highway 82 and Audubon Road, Bon Amis Grocery sits as a local fixture, an expanded gas station where a fisherman can grab a pistolette before heading onto the water. A mom can also make a quick stop there to find some last-minute dinner fixings. It's the only grocery store in Mouton Cove, and it's the geographic and cultural heart of the community. When Rita made landfall, hungry rescue workers stared at the storefront and reminisced about its food as they watched 2 feet of water surge through the aisles and knock over shelves stocked full of groceries.
On a recent August morning, Bon Amis was bustling again. Ongoing construction in the area has triggered an increase in foot traffic, and the coffee machine gets a serious workout, even in the midday heat. And there's boudin on the menu. Thirty-two-year-old Crystal Lucas is on her knees dusting boxes of candy. Every now and then she stops and shouts something over her shoulder.
"We still have people coming in here talking about the hurricane," she says. "And now everybody is watching the forecasts. Even my little girl is watching it."
At the counter, Phyllis Clark, who has lived in Mouton Cove all her 44 years, guesses that possibly half her neighbors still haven't returned. She has been working at Bon Amis Grocery for roughly five years, and the rebuilding effort is the only thing keeping business at a brisk pace. "It's a slow recovery," she says. "There's no big rush."
A few miles away at the midpoint of Community Road, the Gaspard family is taking their time as well. It's a team effort to unload the large ornamental concrete horse from a trailer. After pitching in, Tricia Gaspard, 36, walks across the road back to her own home. Her arms are wrapped tightly around her son Luke, who was only 6 months old when Rita made landfall.
"We lost seven homesteads that day," Tricia says. "We were the only ones in this area that didn't get water. It was a very horrible feeling."
Tears roll down her cheek, and her lips quiver. Tricia says the family members who lost everything were able to seek shelter at her house, since it was left unscathed. The fact that everyone is alive and her property is intact provides Tricia with immeasurable joy, but the sight of her family's losses has also weighed her down with guilt. She ticks off a list of casualties ' "Dad's house, his camp, my grandfather's house, Christian's campâ?¦" ' and the tears intensify.
Scottie Gaspard comes walking from around the side of the house where he's repairing a water well and places an arm around Tricia, introducing himself as "one of her husbands." Thirty-six-year-old Scottie rubs his wife's back, and Tricia smiles and shifts Luke to another arm.
In Mouton Cove, God and family are always on the tip of someone's tongue. When Lafayette pioneer Marin Mouton reportedly bought the settlement from an Indian chief in 1802, he wrote that he wanted to "form a compact settlement or neighborhood of persons, most of whom were connected in their families with each other." True to Mouton's wishes, many families have been in Mouton Cove for generations.
"We lost everything," Tricia says, leaning on Scottie. "But we have each other."
Seven hundred infant alligators are either stuffed in burlap sacks or are three deep in large plastic containers. They're being handled briskly by workers, and it's a busy day at the Vermilion Gator Farm.
Most of the reptiles are 3 to 4 feet in length. When you walk near a bin, a dozen heads leap and strain to snap the tape around their jaws. Occasionally, one of the gators breaks loose, only to skid clumsily across the floor as its claws hit smooth concrete. These alligators will eventually be set free in Cameron Parish and other locales per state law, but normally they're processed at a later stage for skins and sometimes their meat. It's another way the community makes money, in addition to cattle ranching, farming, commercial fishing and oilfield jobs. There's even a modest tourism market slowly building for birdwatchers. The fields along the east side of Prairie Road offer some of the best viewing opportunities for waterfowl and shorebirds, and thousands of birders converge upon Mouton Cove each year around March or April. But alligator farming is still Mouton Cove's claim to fame.
At Vermilion Gator Farm, operated by Wayne Sagrera and his sons, more than 120,000 alligators are processed each year. Sagrera has been in the gator business since 1984, but Rita challenged him in ways he never imagined.
The hurricane pushed more than 2 feet of water into Sagrera's warehouse, destroying millions of dollars worth of equipment and livestock. A batch of young alligators was lost, as well as a great deal of other inventory. Due to the eggs involved and the long-term investment, Sagrera's financial losses will increase for several years, and it will be another few until he gets a firm handle on the bottom line.
"We'll be trying to outrun these losses for a long time," says 62-year-old Sagrera. "I went from semi-retired and having no debt to spending all this money."
Rather than waiting on government groups like the Small Business Administration and the Federal Emergency Management Agency for assistance, Sagrera tapped into his personal savings and got a loan from the bank. He started from scratch and rebuilt his business to the point where it can now employ up to 45 people during certain times of the year.
Many of those workers are from Mouton Cove, which was one of the driving forces behind Sagrera's decision. The people who process his alligators are not only employees, but they're his friends. It's also the reason he gave his neighbors carte blanche access to his fleet of airboats as Rita moved inland. "Nobody was waiting for the governor or anyone else to come down here and help," he says. "We've done everything on our own. From when the storm came in to now. It's time to take Rita off the back page and Katrina off the front page."
Ask anyone living in the devastated region around Cameron and Vermilion parishes, and they share that sentiment. For instance, the Louisiana Recovery Authority, formed in the wake of Katrina to handle the influx of federal dollars and other hurricane-related issues, waited until a few months ago to form a special task force for the southwestern part of the state. Recorded deaths attributable to Rita have likewise been handled differently. Rather than keeping an official tally on the state level, parish coroners were asked to disseminate the information. As a result, there are still reports being published that no one died in Louisiana as a result of Rita, which isn't true. According to his death certificate, Lawrence Blanchard of Chauvin died Oct. 26 from an infection he contracted after entering floodwaters caused by Rita. Additionally, a report issued by the National Hurricane Center in March referred to another death "due to drowning near Lake Charles."
It's a bitter pill to swallow for people like Sagrera, who are reminded every day of the storm's brutality, even though national headlines don't reflect it. No matter how hard he works, no matter what he does, Rita's shadow is hard to escape. But as he looks around at his workers tagging alligators and wrapping them up for delivery, Sagrera manages a smile and pumps a fist lightly into the air.
"We're going to rebound," Sagrera says. "People in south Louisiana are survivors."
Joe Tessier keeps a picture of his flooded-out home in a frame. Before Hurricane Rita brought the Gulf of Mexico into his front yard, Tessier had lived there for roughly 40 years ' from his birth through adolescence, to a time not long ago when his wife and little girl moved in.
Tessier has one bit of good news that many others don't. Due to cooperation from his insurance company, creditors, the SBA and FEMA, his financial losses are covered. "I've been lifted of a lot of debt, and just about everything has been paid for," he says. "If you look down deep enough, I find that good always comes from bad."
If only it were that simple. The morning Rita made landfall, Tessier joined a caravan of boat owners from the courthouse in Abbeville into Mouton Cove. He abandoned his own boat to allow a team to enter the settlement through a series of rice ponds, only to join up with another group of men a few hours later. The entire time, Tessier never bothered to check on his home, which still has visible water marks. And no amount of money can erase the shock from when he first saw his house.
For months, Tessier's family rented a place to stay in Lafayette and made frequent visits to the destroyed homestead. Even today, he is conflicted about how to get on with his life. "It's just so surreal," he says. "One day you go down to your corner grocery store and the Red Cross is handing out mealsâ?¦" Tessier's breathing becomes labored, and his chest is heaving. He takes off his sunglasses and wipes his eyes. Tessier stomps a boot to the ground and apologizes.
"You're there getting food from the Red Cross and you can't help but think you're bad off if they're around. They were giving out ice to us, too. I mean, they were pushing it on us, making us take as much as possible," he says while sobbing. "The label on the bags said New York, and I kept thinking that somebody in New York bagged that ice for me, and I couldn't believe it. I still can't believe it.
"It still touches me," he continues. "We're all hard-working people, and we've made it through this the best way we knew how."
So, in the end, the Tessier family ' like Bertha Levy, Ernestine Moore, Wayne Sagrera and the Gaspard family ' isn't leaving Mouton Cove. But when it comes to rebuilding the family home or tearing it down, Tessier is paralyzed by indecision.
"This is really emotional for me," he says with a shaky tone, pausing to collect his thoughts through the tears. "Everybody wants a new house, but I grew up in this house. It's hard to let go of. I'll live here, but I don't know if I'm going to rebuild. I wish I had a dollar for every time I thought was going to rebuild, though, and another dollar for every time I changed my mind. Ah, who knows? I just know I'm going to stay."
The circumstances surrounding the death last March while in the backseat of a sheriff’s cruiser of Victor White III, long a source of dispute by White’s family, have earned an investigation by federal officials.
With six of the LPSB’s nine members poised for Pat Cooper’s termination, a request was filed Tuesday for a fast-tracked hearing on the federal lawsuit calling for the disqualification of two board members from voting on the matter due to bias.
Louisiana's Republican Party has filed a complaint against Democratic U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu with the Senate's ethics committee about her use of private chartered planes.
An attorney signs up to run against LPSB's Mark Cockerham, and within a week a lawsuit is filed by a former LPSS employee in an attempt to disqualify him. Coincidence?
The Ragin’ Cajuns got off to a superb start Saturday night, and the Human Jukebox made the soaked season opener even sweeter for the third-largest crowd in Cajun Field history.
The Louisiana health department will follow a federal judge's order and refrain from immediately penalizing doctors who are trying to comply with a new abortion law that requires them to obtain admitting privileges at a local hospital, a spokeswoman said Monday.
While bogged down with qualifying candidates last month, Secretary of State Tom Schedler didn’t lose sight of the true endgame coming in November and December.
Tuesday's Blogs from the Bog!
Stoned driving a concern when pot is legal; Detroit's bankruptcy trial; speed trap scandal in Florida and more national and international news for Tuesday, September 02, 2014.
A federal jury found attorney Daniel Stanford guilty Friday afternoon on eight of 13 counts for his role in the Curious Goods conspiracy.
Lafayette City-Court Judge Francie Bouillion has served on the bench for two decades since winning a special election to replace Judge Kaliste Saloom when he retired in 1994.
The magazine's senior football writer also predicts a break-out year for Saints fourth-year running back Mark Ingram.
Gulf Coast ceremonies marking the ninth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina have begun.
The Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries says there is little known about the effects of tiger prawns on indigenous Louisiana shrimp. But, officials say the reports they're seeking will help state biologists monitor the distribution of the prawns and determine the possible presence of spawning populations.
Baltimore Ravens coach John Harbaugh rested his regulars and watched with delight as Ray Rice's backups ground out 214 yards rushing in a 22-13 victory over the New Orleans Saints on Thursday night.
High-profile criminal defense attorney Daniel Stanford awaits his fate in the Curious Goods conspiracy trial.
The Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries is set to put the kibosh on the legal ownership of monkeys trained to help the disabled, and the agency wants to know what you think.
A federal judge on Thursday asked lawyers battling over Louisiana's new, restrictive abortion law for an agreement that apparently could let clinics stay open — at least for a while — after the law takes effect Sept. 1.
An abortion rights organization wants a federal judge to block enforcement of Louisiana's new abortion law while its lawsuit to overturn the law makes its way through court.
Republican presidential prospects Ted Cruz and Bobby Jindal are planning to speak at an Iowa Christian conservative event in September.
The attention surrounding Victor White III has spiked with the release of last week’s autopsy report, which has raised a number of serious questions about the night of his death and has put the Iberia Parish Sheriff’s Office under an increased wave of scrutiny as more national media outlets are jumping on the story, most recently seen on MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show.
A group supporting taxpayer-funded private school tuition vouchers is appealing a federal judge's order that Louisiana must provide regular reports to federal officials on the state's voucher program.
The Discovery Channel has canceled reality TV star Will Hayden's popular "Sons of Guns" show after his arrest on an aggravated rape charge.
The LPSB will finally hear from the attorney it hired to investigate the superintendent at a special meeting Thursday at 4 p.m.
Authorities are investigating a report that a student there warned the principal of impending violence similar to that depicted in the movie "The Purge."