When Ruby Ancar talks about her fishing village on the bayou, she says a divine hand has protected her Atakapa-Ishak kinfolk for generations.
But Grand Bayou is forsaken these days, 30 months after Hurricane Katrina washed over it and dragged one of Louisiana’s last authentic outposts of bayou culture into a world defined by insurers, money lenders, building code enforcers and government auditors.
“We’re facing a greater hurricane now than we did with Katrina, with the bureaucracy,” Ancar, 60, said, gesticulating passionately and flashing a toothy grin as she glided down the bayou in a boat. “The government — that’s our hurricane right now that we’re in.”
Before Katrina, Grand Bayou and its 25-odd families of Atakapa-Ishak American Indians lived in a parallel world, in concert with moon cycles and migrations of shrimp. This living museum, where there are no roads and everyone travels by boat, is facing extinction.
Post-storm government aid has been nearly nonexistent, villagers said, leaving the entire village unable to return to their homes.
“We were hanging onto that little village out there, but I think the hurricane took the last wind out of us,” said Louis Thompson, known as “PU.”
Thompson commanded the communal boat, a banana-yellow water taxi tied up since the storm. “It was a school boat, medical boat, grocery boat, just about everything else boat,” he said.
Example of a rich-poor gap
Grand Bayou’s state of despair resembles that of the Lower 9th Ward, 40 miles away in New Orleans. Both are lifeless. Both are poor. Both were colorful enclaves of traditional Louisiana culture.
They are exhibits in a pattern emerging since Katrina struck on Aug. 29, 2005: The widening gap between rich and poor in rebuilding.
“The similarities have to do a lot with economic challenges. If these people were middle or upper income in general they would have the resources to go back and build their houses,” said Shirley Laska, a University of New Orleans sociologist.
The gap between rich and poor is plainly evident on the horizon of wind-blown marsh-grass at Grand Bayou.
A mile away, the community of weekend sport fishermen and retirees at Happy Jack is bouncing back.
A recent survey showed that of Happy Jack’s approximately 83 waterfront homes only about 11 showed no sign of being rebuilt. Shaded docks, automatic boat lifts, jet skis and personal water craft abound.
“This place is built probably better than before the storm,” said Willie Bullock, who retired from the Navy and moved to Happy Jack with his wife. “I love it here. This is where I was meant to be.”
Down the gravel road, Brad Schmit, a 35-year-old sun-bronzed fishing guide, was void of complaints, too. “Business is good,” Schmit said, “about the same as before the storm.”
Things are so normal, it’s hard to tell Katrina made landfall just 15 miles south of Schmit’s busy fishing camp where stressed-out city folk come to get away. The offices, shower room, patio and boat deck are rebuilt, smell new; guides and customers lounge and talk of fish, nature and the gleaming fiberglass boats; brand new pickup trucks await to take everyone back to comfortable, high-tech homes in the city.
Happy Jack is growing. Excavators have prepared ground for 60 more lots that will be up for sale by the summer.
“In the last two days we’ve had two different parties from the Florida area telling us, ‘This is where we like to fish,”’ Diana Alfortish, a real estate broker for the developer, said recently.
Those who smile, those who frown
The significance is not lost at Grand Bayou: An uncomfortable circle of outsiders and development is drawing tighter.
On a recent short-sleeves winter day, during a break in the shrimp harvest, Dwight Reyes Sr. stepped off his boat, where he’s lived with his wife since Katrina wrecked their home, and surveyed the neat-and-clean silhouette of Happy Jack.
“Weekend warriors, that’s all that is,” Reyes sneered.
He turned his back, and paced back-and-forth through the dock yard, scattering roosters and ducks camped out in beached skiffs, heaps of rope and nets, rusting boat parts and assorted junk.
“They’re people with all kinds of money and all kinds of help,” he said, attempting to explain why Grand Bayou looks like a ghost town sinking into the marsh.
He stopped, and grinned. He’d found the right aphorism. “They’ve got a smile from ear to ear, we’ve got a frown.”
His wife, Theresa, bent-over and grim-faced, stewed seafood on a stove on the boat deck in a washed-out smock and said nothing.
“I’ve got fed up with trying,” Reyes said, and sneered at the state-managed, federally funded flagship of the hurricane recovery, the Road Home program.
“Everywhere you go they turn you down. I just got off the phone a while ago with (Road Home) telling me I need papers for this. I’m tired of faxing paper in.”
Turning reminiscent, he looked at the bayou and said he used to like to trawl its placid, moon-burnished waters for shrimp on hot, critter-noisy nights.
“Doing this here at night, it makes you sick,” he spat out. “You don’t see a light in none of the houses. You don’t see nobody outside hollering at you, asking if you’re doing any good.”
Billy Nungesser, president of Plaquemines Parish, is familiar with Grand Bayou’s problems.
“When I took office a year ago, nothing had been done on Grand Bayou,” he said. “To me, they were forgotten.”
He said Road Home wasn’t equipped for people living on the margins of society, in funky wooden properties on the water with no road to reach them.
“It’s hard to get their hands around the value of their property,” Nungesser said.
Recovery officials say they haven’t forgotten Grand Bayou.
“We have been out in that community really hard,” said Gentry Bran, spokeswoman for ICF International, the company that oversees Road Home under a $756 million contract. “I would challenge the concept they’re not getting assistance from the Road Home.”
A sample, though, of five Road Home applicants interviewed by the AP suggests money has been slow to reach Grand Bayou’s 25 families. Two applicants had received grants while three others hadn’t. Road Home would not disclose how much money each applicant got nor give an idea about how much money in all has gotten to Grand Bayou.
'Hotel' is pile of debris
Back on the bayou, time has stopped.
Dock and home are broken and twisted. The “Hallelujah Hotel,” where visiting ministers stayed during revival services, is a pile of debris on the waterfront. Farther down the bayou, the Pentecostal Light Tabernacle Church is closed, its pastor gone.
“PU,” the school boat driver, lives in a trailer in town, as do many others. Children of working age have left. They’re in Texas, Oklahoma, Georgia.
Memories are all that remains, like boating across the bayou to Grandma’s house for Thanksgiving dinner and kitchen chatter in French patois.
Grand Bayou now counts on charity.
The Mennonite Disaster Service, a volunteer network of the Anabaptist church, has rebuilt Ancar’s home and plans to build five new homes and renovate another one.
“The location of their homes, the shrimping and fishing, and their lives are bound together, woven together. We want to honor their way of life and location choice, just like anyone else in the parish,” said Paul Unruh, a Mennonite social worker.
Unruh said building costs will be high because of post-storm requirements, such as raising homes 10 feet and tougher building standards.
Ancar thinks she can pioneer the return.
“We’re going to be campers on my floor until the homes are rebuilt,” she said. “It doesn’t take long to build a house.”
But the march back home is proving difficult for Ancar, who has not yet moved into her rebuilt home from her FEMA trailer in town.
The problem? Her budget is so tight she’ll find it hard to pay a new $20 hurricane-related monthly surcharge the power company is tacking onto bills.