In the Shadow of Hurricane Katrina, Victims of Rita Feel Largely Forgotten

Rodney Guilbeaux spent the better part of his retired life trying to save his small beachfront community and the southwestern Louisiana coast upon which it sits. He convinced politicians and engineers to find money to pump in sand and build breakwaters, yet it was impossible to sway the one whose say really mattered — Mother Nature.

One year ago Sunday, she arrived on the coast in the form of Hurricane Rita and ripped through Constance Beach, La., decimating Guilbeaux's hamlet, as well as most of the buildings in the southern half of the state's largest parish, Cameron.

"Mother Nature, she's going to do what she wants," said Guilbeaux, 79, from an assisted-living facility in Lake Charles, La. "You can change your situation, but she's still going to have her say."

One year after Rita delivered a powerful left hook to the state, residents of southwestern Louisiana feel largely forgotten, their plight overshadowed by Hurricane Katrina and the needs of those displaced from New Orleans and the Mississippi Gulf Coast.

"It's called 'Rita amnesia' around here," said Brett Downer, the editor of the local paper, the Lake Charles American Press. "There are still well-meaning folks and organizations and churches that call this area asking how we did after Katrina. Of course, we were untouched [by that hurricane].

"[Rita is] really considered a forgotten storm," Downer continued. "As far as the damage, though, it's unprecedented. Had there not been a Katrina, it probably really would have dominated the news."

The 'Cajun Riviera'

Even before Rita, Highway 82 was a narrow, frayed ribbon of higher ground running alongside the Gulf of Mexico, protecting the marshland from saltwater intrusion. Though piles of rebar and rock reinforced the beach side of the highway, on blustery days the Gulf spray could still lick the pavement.

Cameron is a rural parish, with a much smaller population than its neighbors. The U.S. Census estimated the pre-Rita population to be about 10,000 permanent residents.

In the summer and on weekends, those numbers swelled as an influx of beachgoers from Louisiana, Texas and Arkansas made their way to the state's largest swath of beach; year-round residents made their modest living renting camps to the beach bums or working for the oil and gas industry.

"It was the Cajun Riviera," said Mark Davis, executive director of the Coalition to Restore Coastal Louisiana. "Emphasis on 'Cajun' more than 'Riviera.'"

Though the houses and camps along the highway were nothing grandiose, they were special to vacationers like Audrey Marks and her husband, Patrick, of Breaux Bridge, La.

"Some people say it was one of the last poor man's beaches," Audrey Marks said. "Where people could go and get away from home and just enjoy themselves, whether they have a ton of money or not."

The Markses bought their camp near Holly Beach nine years ago and spent just about every weekend at the Gulf, where only the occasional oil rig broke the flat horizon.

"We'd go fishing, we'd go crabbing and surf fishing in the ocean," she said. "Made a lot of nice friends out there."

One of those friendly faces, collecting seashells along the shore, was Rodney Guilbeaux.

Mayor of Constance Beach

Guilbeaux found his way to the sandy beaches of Cameron Parish in 1948, after knocking about in the South Pacific as a Merchant Marine during World War II.

"Some people like the lakes, some people like the rivers. I was a beach bum," he said with his Cajun lilt.

In the early 1950s, he bought a camp in a new development, Constance Beach, about 7 miles west of the parish's largest beachfront community, Holly Beach. Though unincorporated, Constance (pronounced the Cajun way, "Cawhn-stawhnce") Beach, on the south side of Highway 82, had four streets running parallel to the Gulf and 250 feet of sandy beach.

"It had the prettiest beach in Louisiana, and then it started eroding," he said.

The problems manifested early on. A winter storm could easily eat away 30 feet of beach in a night. But Guilbeaux persevered; if the Gulf swallowed one property, he bought another.

On one occasion, Guilbeaux awoke to find that his bedroom was surrounded on all sides by the Gulf. By the mid-1990s, Constance Beach had only two streets parallel to water.

He and his wife, Mickey, settled in for fulltime retirement in a former beauty shop on one of the hamlet's back lots, which he expanded to such a degree the locals referred to it as the "Constance Beach Hilton."

He continued to pay taxes on all the properties — to stake claim to ownership rights, in case by some miracle, the Gulf decided to give the property back — and turned his own gripes into a crusade for the parish's coastline.

"At first the [Army] Corps [of Engineers] said there was nothing they could do," said Guilbeaux, now a widower. "Later on, they thought I was just trying to protect my house. I'm trying to protect the whole marsh because we were the last ridge, the last high spot between the Gulf and the marshes ... they started listening."

Behind that ridge of land, or chenier, was a system of marshes that fed into the Sabine National Wildlife Refuge, home to egrets, alligators and the state's bird, the brown pelican. He helped convinced U.S. Sen. John Breaux to sponsor the Coastal Wetlands Planning, Protection and Restoration Act of 1990; funding was found for breakwaters along the shoreline and for sand fill to bulk up the beach.

Engineers consulted Guilbeaux on projects, and even the governor visited remote Constance Beach.

"It was a standing joke that I was the mayor of the area, and they all come pay homage to me," Guilbeaux said with a laugh.

Lessons From Audrey

One thing Cameron Parish residents never really joke about is hurricanes. In June 1957, Audrey, a hurricane almost as strong as Rita, ripped through the parish, killing more than 500 people, including nine members of Guilbeaux's family.

"My mother's body was found just south of the country club in Lake Charles," Guilbeaux said. "That's 38 miles from her house. She was found 15 days later."

Even today, the parish's hurricane-preparedness instructions ominously advise evacuees to take identification tags "for every member of the family with name and address of next of kin."

As Rita approached land last September, weakening from a Category 5 storm, the parish ordered a mandatory evacuation. About 98 percent fled, says Clifton Hebert, the director of homeland security and emergency preparedness for Cameron Parish.

Rita made landfall in Johnson Bayou, less than 5 miles from Constance Beach, as a Category 3 hurricane early on Sept. 24, 2005, clocking winds upward of 110 mph with gusts of 150 mph, according to the National Weather Service.

Holly Beach and its environs, home to the Markses' camp and Guilbeaux's Hilton, disappeared as the northeastern quadrant of the hurricane made landfall.

"It's like something just passed and blew it all apart and then the water just washed it [away]," Audrey Marks said.

"In southeast Louisiana with Katrina, we measured damage by acres lost," Davis said. "You didn't lose acres so much there [in southwestern Louisiana], you transformed them. The saltwater moved into those marshes that had managed [by man] to be fresh."

Though 98 percent of the buildings in the lower portion of the parish were obliterated, only one person died, Hebert said.

"The land was wiped virtually clean to the slab," Davis said. "There's an eeriness, a silence, that is. You can't escape when you go there. The even eerier part has been the silence of the world outside to what actually happened there, and what might need to happen to give it a chance at a sustainable future."

Rita Amnesia

It's been a year since the forgotten hurricane made landfall. The headlines of the weekly newspaper, the Cameron Parish Pilot, sum up the progress made in the parish in the days since. On Sept. 7, the Pilot heralded the reopening of the post office, and the recovery and re-interment of caskets that had been unearthed by Rita and tossed into the treetops.

There is, in short, much to be done.

The estimates of the population percentage that has returned is around 30 percent to 40 percent, and Hebert says his parish hopes to finish the cleanup stage by December and move on to rebuilding and recovery.

Two schools reopened last month, but there are only two places to get gas in the southern portion of the parish and nothing in the way of grocery stores.

In large part, that's because federal building regulations are requiring new buildings to be constructed on piles ranging from 8 feet to 19 feet in the air.

"That's the biggest problem for people," Hebert said. "They just cannot afford to come back and build up to the standards with which we're tied to and have to build to."

The anger bubbles over at public meetings, Downer said.

"They're frustrated with FEMA, and they're frustrated with federal regulations on how to rebuild your homes," Downer said. "There's even rules for temporary structures, which has gotten a lot of people upset. Some of these people literally have nothing but the concrete slab."

The Markses will not be able to rebuild; as theirs was a vacation property and they weren't full-time residents, they don't qualify for FEMA assistance. Audrey works as a part-time house cleaner; her husband is on disability.

"I don't think the poor people will be able to build anything back there," she said.

The parish's main industry, oil and gas, got its operations back online quickly, Hebert said. Rice and cattle farmers are having a tougher go of it, Davis said.

And the comparisons between Rita and Audrey continue.

"I'm sure the recovery was quite a bit quicker," said Hebert of the post-Audrey cleanup. "I'm told within a year to two years, they were up and running, full steam ahead. Whereas here, we're looking at three to five years, minimum."

Parish officials hope Congress will pass legislation that would give Louisiana oil-and-gas revenue-sharing, freeing up new money for coastal erosion prevention and marshland protection.

Locals say they aren't asking for handouts, just some recognition from the outside world that, yes, a big hurricane hit them too.

"These are the heartiest, most resilient folks, who still view where they live as their version of paradise," Davis said. "And you sit with them long enough, and you have to agree."

As for Rodney Guilbeaux, who spent decades lobbying for his own little corner of paradise, the dance with Mother Nature has ended. He will not rebuild.

In the last year, diabetes has claimed Guilbeaux's leg. He plans to move to Sulphur, near Lake Charles, to be closer to his five grown children.

"I would like to get back down there [to Cameron Parish] and visit friends, if I can find somebody who'd take me for the day and drive me around," he said, adding, "I hope it comes back, if for no other reason: It's God's country — best hunting, best fishing, best swimming. It's just plain good."