Before two hurricanes hit in three years, a collection of modest beach houses and trailers along the Gulf known as the "Cajun Riviera" drew thousands for summer weekends of crabbing, beer drinking and kids playing in the surf.
Now, the few-dozen families who do visit Holly Beach mostly camp on the sand, thanks to the double blow of hurricanes Rita and Ike. The dozen or so permanent residents — down from several hundred — must drive 20 miles for groceries. And the town is dead quiet, save for the hum of bulldozers rebuilding an eroded road along empty lots.
"I hate to say it, but a lot of times it's very depressing," resident Kathy Miller said. "During the week, it's very quiet."
While the two September storms — Rita in 2005, which destroyed every structure in town, and Ike in 2008 — didn't kill anyone in Louisiana, they effectively ended Holly Beach's status as a vacation destination. Most lots are empty except for concrete slabs and high grass, but several families have built grand homes that tower on stilts to get out of the way of the next storm surge.
Will Holly Beach regain its charm?
A local development official says improvements including a new municipal sewer should pave the way for condo and hotel developers, but residents fear that a rebuilt Holly Beach will never regain its former charm.
Before Rita, the town about 120 miles east of Houston would draw families that swelled the population to thousands on summer holiday weekends, residents recalled.
"You all the time smelled crabs boiling, and shrimp. People were riding around the streets, playing their Cajun music, and we'd just sit on the porch and enjoy it," said Miller, who, with her husband, Ray, moved from Shreveport into their Holly Beach vacation home in 2001.
The Millers' two-bedroom home sits atop 15-foot stilts, with a front-porch view of the dolphins, oil rigs and bobbing shrimp boats in the Gulf of Mexico. The sandy beach is deserted, save for the occasional surf fisherman.
Among the buildings wiped out by Rita were a fire station, several bars, seafood shops and small groceries. Before the 2005 storm, the unincorporated community's permanent residents were a mix of retirees, fisherman and workers in the offshore oil and gas industry. Those who remain now must drive 20 miles north to Hackberry to buy food or other supplies.
Ray Miller said the town will eventually return, but in a new form.
"I think in the long run, Holly Beach will come back, but it won't be anything like it used to be," he said.
‘That's a big ticket’
Cameron Parish's planning and development chief, Ernest Broussard, foresees a grand future with beachfront condos and hotels, restaurants and nightspots with video poker. He said he's spoken with several developers who are interested in Holly Beach but declined to identify them, citing confidentiality agreements.
"We think we have big opportunities here, just because we've got land on the Gulf," Broussard said. "That's a big ticket."
He acknowledges people reminisce about the old Holly Beach, but said it needs to be reborn.
Among its flaws, Broussard said, were houses and trailers with shoddy septic and electrical systems, and property boundaries that were ignored. The trailers and rickety structures that once stood in town provided no defense against high winds and storm surge.
Buildings under construction must meet new codes that should keep them standing even in big storms. Broussard said another step toward redevelopment is $4.1 million in state money that will go toward a municipal sewer system, which it still lacks.
Outnumbered by mosquitoes
For now, Holly Beach usually stands quiet, aside from the few tourists who catch flounder, crabs and shrimp, or just stroll the beach. They're outnumbered by the swarms of mosquitoes that breed in the nearby marshes.
Craig Broussard, a Holly Beach homeowner, said he was encouraged that hundreds of people came to town for the July 4 and Labor Day weekends. The crowds camped out on the sand or drove in recreational vehicles, he said.
"We're growing. We'd like it to go faster, but it's still making progress," said Broussard, who's not related to the parish planner.
Resident Lee Stelly, who rents out two trailers to tourists and workmen, said he doesn't know what the town will look like in a few years, but it won't be like the Holly Beach of old.
"It was a place people came to have a good time, that's what Holly Beach was all about," Stelly said. "It'll never be the same."