They say all politics is local, and in hurricane-devastated southern Vermilion Parish, there's a whole lot of truth to that.
Take Eric Toups, Ward 2 justice of the peace, about the only public official that anyone around here ever really gets to know. In more ordinary times, he marries young folks, evicts delinquent renters, collects debts and settles disputes between farmers arguing over whose cow is trespassing on whose land.
But since Hurricane Rita flooded this small town on Saturday and ruined almost every structure in its path, the JP is on self-prescribed disaster relief duty. Nothing huge, like Lt. Gen. Russel L. Honore, a fellow Cajun now in charge of the Joint Task Force cleanup of Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina. But who else would you call if you're worried about whether your husband's above-ground sarcophagus is still resting peacefully in the oak-shaded cemetery or if, pushed by the powerful storm surge, it is shipwrecked elsewhere?
Brenda Beaudoin called Toups, 44, and off he went in his 14-foot flatbed skiff to check out the tiny Henry Cemetery. "Alfred's against the fence," he reported by phone to Beaudoin, referring to her husband's tomb. "Alfred's daddy and granddaddy floated away to the Texaco plant. The plant found them."
He finished off the task by returning to the cemetery the next day with Beaudoin's daughter to measure how high the water rose in the cemetery. The marsh debris, washed in by the hurricane's flood, clung nine feet up into the trees.
As of this afternoon, there hadn't been any distribution of water, ice or meals here, and hardly any official recognition of the destruction. All the help from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and nonprofit relief agencies was concentrated in the county seat -- several miles but almost another world away.
‘Need any water or ice?’
"Need any water or ice?" Toups called from his battered pickup as he cruised slowly down narrow rural roads that hug the flooded sugar cane fields and cow pastures. His truck is a traveling heap of empty cigarette packs, a few Bud Light mugs, assorted trash from his home construction company -- on hold since the hurricane struck -- and a Vermilion Parish telephone book. His black robe, required for official JP duties, is back at home. He's wearing bluejeans, white boots smeared with mud and grass, and a camouflage cap pulled low over his face. His cheeks are covered with whiskers -- no time and no lights at home to shave.
Just because many of the 1,500 registered voters in this town are his relatives, that doesn't mean he's going to ignore the rest. Earlier today, he stopped by the home of the parents of his political opponent in 1996, the year he won his first six-year term by 104 votes.
"I took five bags of ice to Russ Landry's mama and daddy and Russ and I ran against each other," he said. "You know they didn't vote for me."
Licensed as a JP to carry a weapon, Toups is working looter duty too. He drives with his .22-caliber rifle behind the seat of his cab and sleeps with a loaded .357 revolver next to his pillow. Most of the homes in Henry are empty right now because they were destroyed by the impact of the storm surge or flooded and left with a coat of stinky, slimy, black marsh mud washed in by the water. Many residents are working during daylight to clean out their houses and leaving the area to sleep at homes of friends or relatives miles away.
This isn't New Orleans, where National Guard troops with M-16s were called in post-Katrina to quell the looting. But when Toups saw a truck that he didn't recognize after dark -- in violation of the dusk-to-dawn curfew -- he knew it was up to no good.
His quick call to the local sheriff's office resulted in the arrest of the driver. "He had a freezer full of food and a bag of clothes in his truck and he claimed it was his," Toups said. "But it wasn't."
Spreading the news
Toups has also been serving as a town crier of sorts, stopping frequently to let neighbors who have been busy cleaning out their homes and other officials the extent of the damage in their beloved town. "C'est mal ici," he said in French upon encountering Minos Broussard, a Vermilion Parish police juror, the equivalent of a county commissioner. "It's bad over here."
His aunt and uncle, Hazel and Jonas Perrin, wanted an update on the town's only church, the more-than-century-old St. John's Catholic Church.
"The water went up and all the pews are split. The floor in the middle of the pews got a big hump on the floor," he said. "C'est casse." (It's broken.)
"Lord!" his aunt replied.
Rita destroyed Toups's childhood home, where his mother, Ena, 71, lived. Also destroyed were the homes of his brother, sister, a number of cousins and their children. At least six of his relatives say they will not rebuild here, where his mother's family, the Aureliens, has lived for generations. There is speculation that half to three-quarters of the town may relocate.
Whether that will come to pass remains to be seen. For now Toups is driving around a changed landscape -- the carcasses of drowned livestock, including his horse, strewn about the pastures; houses washed off their foundations into neighboring lots or blown apart as if by a powerful blast; and shrimp boats pushed out of the bayou into a line of trees a half-mile away.
"It's like in a dream," Toups said. "I just can't believe this. It don't look right."