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‘Everything’s a fight’: Island falters for months after Ida assaulted Louisiana

david Sears spent six weeks outdoors sleeping on the shattered remains of his Grand Isle, Louisiana home. The house was destroyed by Hurricane Ida in late August, but Sears had nowhere else to go. So he returned to this barrier island, in the Gulf of Mexico, and lived on his porch for over a month.

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

There is still debris on the roads, destroyed houses along the beach and hundreds of residents are still on the run. This patch of land, humanity’s last frontier before the open ocean, is used to taking the brunt of extreme weather. But Ida was the worst in the island’s history.

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

“I believe the Lord looked down on me,” he said, sitting outside with a sea breeze blowing over his new trailer, a few yards from the beach. The retiree, who lives on Social Security, was one of the first to move into this row of temporary Fema houses, which housed dozens of islanders who had lost everything.

David Sears spent six weeks outside sleeping on the shattered remains of his Grand Isle, Louisiana home. Photo: The Guardian

With his long-term prospects still uncertain, Sears lived from day to day.

“One day at a time,” he said. ‘I’ll stay here for now. I will save some money. And one day hopefully I can buy the trailer.”

This post-storm purgatory has been felt by many as they prepare for an uncertain new year as Grand Isle continues to struggle with a massive recovery effort.

Adriane Cunningham, a patrol officer with the island’s police, lived in a trailer a few yards from Sears. Her house was crushed by two trees that had been ripped from their roots by Ida. She had lived without insurance and had already spent more than $3,000 clearing the rubble. She had no idea how much it would cost to rebuild or if she could even do it.

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

For now, she splits her time between the trailer during the week and her sister’s house, three and a half hours away, on the weekend. Her five children have withdrawn from the local school district and moved to a school outside the state capital, Baton Rouge. The family just doesn’t fit in the trailer.

Adriane Cunningham, a patrol officer with the island's police, lived in a trailer a few yards from Sears.  Her house was crushed by two trees that had been ripped from their roots by Ida.
Adriane Cunningham, a patrol officer with the island’s police, lived in a trailer a few yards from Sears. Her house was crushed by two trees that had been ripped from their roots by Ida. Photo: The Guardian

141 Grand Isle households have applied for Fema housing in the wake of the storm, and 42 are still awaiting unit approval or availability, said Jefferson parish fire chief Bryan Adams, who oversees reconstruction efforts. the local government.

Ida came ashore with pounding winds of 150mph and damaged every structure on the island. Local officials estimate that about 700 buildings, a quarter of the structures on the island, have either been destroyed or must be completely demolished. Many are houses built before Hurricane Katrina. Fewer than 400 people have returned to live.

There is progress, but it has been gradual. In October, electricity returned to the island and thicker pylons with deeper foundations were installed. But there are still regular outages and Grand Isle is still powered by generator power and not connected to the grid. Running water has also returned, but a boiling water recommendation remains in effect. Gas connections are sporadic, some on the island still live without them.

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

Standing on the twisting burrito, where cracks in the pipes are exposed to the midday sun, Grand Isle Cajun Mayor David Camardelle spoke of the battles he’s fought since Ida struck.

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

Camardelle is lobbying not only to speed up the recovery of the dikes, but also to further increase protection at sea against the devastating storm surge. He pointed to the horizon where clusters of breakwater boulders have been placed in the sea in certain parts of the landscape.

Camardelle argues that devastation to the west of the island has increased because there is no breakwater protection in certain areas, meaning sea upwelling is stronger. He lobbies the US Army of engineers to invest in new construction, but with an estimated $50 million price tag, his efforts are not certain to be successful.

A view shows debris and buildings damaged by Hurricane Ida on September 3, 2021 in Louisiana's Grand Isle, Laffite.
A view shows debris and buildings damaged by Hurricane Ida on September 3, 2021 in Louisiana’s Grand Isle, Laffite. Photo: Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

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

“No,” he said. “This is a community. We are families and we all know each other. What prompted me to go to the office was to save this island.” Camardelle has been an incumbent since 1997. His grandfather, a shrimp and crab fisherman, moved to Grand Isle in 1947; his mother, in her late 80s, lives on the island with his uncles, aunts and children.

Like many island advocates, Camardelle pointed out that Grand Isle often takes the first blow from extreme storms, cushioning the blow to larger populations such as 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 epitomizes the toughness required to exist on the borders. At age 70, Gatz, like most residents, evacuated during the storm, but returned after running water was restored to his home.

He is a dialysis patient, but nevertheless tried to repair his stilt house himself. Much of the porch had been destroyed and the drywall inside was covered in mold. But shortly after his return, he slipped on the wooden stairs and broke both his legs in two places.

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

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

There’s still no gas in his house, so he relies on the local government’s hot meals and hired a few friends to help rebuild.

“It’s a unique place,” he says. “I like the stories of old pirates. I like fishing; trout, redfish, you name it.

“You have to be extremely resilient,” he said. “And you must like it here.”