'It ain't easy right now': Ida strands residents, wipes away landmarks on island

Trevor Hughes
Lafayette Daily Advertiser
Members of the National Guard construct a temporary floating bridge to reach the island of Barataria, Louisiana, which was cut off from the mainland after the passage of Hurricane Ida.

BARATARIA, Louisiana — Tess Coulon stands up on the bed of the flatbed trailer towed behind an ATV at it rolls to a halt, and yells out to the house with muddy footprints in the driveway: "HEY! You need anything? We got water, hot meals, apples, bananas."

After a brief pause, a shell-shocked man and woman appear on the deck. Offering thanks to Coulon, 52, and her small team of volunteers — mostly her own family and neighbors — the couple gratefully accepts some chicken-and-rice stew made that morning 30 miles away in New Orleans and then driven, boated and ferried by ATV to their island home. Coulon’s teenaged grandsons pile back onto the trailer behind the ATV, knocking mud off their rubber boots after carrying armloads of the food and supplies to the couple.

"Thank you!" the woman yells to Coulon's team as the ATV putters off. "I'm so tired of eating junk food."

Tess Coulon's team rides to her hometown island of Barataria, La., which was cut off from the mainland by Hurricane Ida. Coulon's washing machine broke after the storm, and she traveled to the mainland to get a new one, so she and her family could have clean clothes while they wait for the road to be repaired.

Hurricane Ida shoved a big fishing boat beneath the only bridge connecting Barataria to the mainland, twisting the decking like a Hotwheels track, severing the road and further complicating what was already a massive cleanup-and-recovery effort in this community of 1,200.

More:How to help the victims of Hurricane Ida: Ways to volunteer, donate supplies, give funds

Post-storm, six houses burned down because firefighters couldn't get trucks to the island. And so frustrations are mounting, gas is dwindling and tempers are flaring. But house-by-house, street-by-street, a small group of volunteers is making sure neighbors have food to eat and water to drink, boated in each day from the mainland and then hand-delivered though the sticky, stinking mud blanketing the roads, sidewalks and driveways. Those deliveries even include food for a 44-year-old parrot named Kelly.

The convoy rolls on, meeting Stanley “Tick Tock” Helmer, 55, a boat captain. Helmer managed to make a supply run to the mainland, carrying back cigarettes and other necessities. Still, he accepts a bottle of water from the convoy's cooler.

More:How mutual aid groups mobilized aid during a pandemic and destructive hurricane season

“This is life right now," he says, showing off the frosty bottle. "I mean, just to have a little cold water?”

Experts say prolonged exposure to heat and high humidity can be deadly, and not everyone on Barataria has a generator to run air conditioning or a fan. But generators themselves can be dangerous — at least four people in the greater New Orleans area have died from carbon monoxide poisoning and more than 80 taken to hospitals for treatment, Gov. John Bel Edwards has said.

At house after house, Coulon's convoy hears the same request: "We need ice."

Tuesday, she has none to offer, as the Cajun Navy Relief is still sorting out the logistics of how to store and distribute the thousands of bags of ice they've acquired.

'It ain't easy right now'

For five years, Mark Wilson has lived happily among the bayous and canals and rivers of Jefferson Parish. Drawn to Barataria for its small-town feel, he loved rising with the sun to watch the fishing boats heading out to the Gulf. A school bus driver like his wife, Wilson, 45, knows every inch of every road in the area.

“People work hard and they give back," he said. "If anybody is struggling and doing bad, the whole community comes together to help them.”

He then paused to look at the destruction around him: "They say it’s easy living down here, but it ain’t easy right now.”

The Coulons trace their heritage to pirate and smuggler Jean Lafitte and his men, who used the area as a base to move goods captured from merchant ships in the early 1800s. Lafitte and his Baratarians helped protect New Orleans from the British during the War of 1812. Under normal conditions, the island's main street, Privateer Boulevard, winds though stands of cypress trees and bushes covered in Spanish moss.

These are not normal conditions.

Hurricane Ida destroyed the volunteer fire station on Barataria, La., and a few days later, six homes burned down because firefighters couldn't get across to the island to save them.

Hurricane Ida hit the coast on Aug. 29 as a Category 4 storm, with winds hitting 150 mph. Those winds uprooted trees, flayed siding and roofs from houses and tumbled SUVs and boats alike. Pushed by the storm, a surge of water 8 feet high inundated Jefferson Parish, including the town of Jean Lafitte on the mainland and Barataria just across the bayou. Many homes here sit on slabs, and the water simply shoved them down the road, relocating them to neighbors' yards after slopping nearly a foot of mud onto everything as Ida moved north.

Citing the extensive damage in coastal areas, power company Entergy says electricity may not be restored until Sept. 29, a full month after the storm's passage. With the rusting swing bridge connecting Barataria to the mainland — to the Piggly Wiggly and gas stations and the school and the police station — jammed shut, the Louisiana National Guard on Tuesday was building a temporary floating bridge to access the island's south end. It remained unclear if residents would be allowed to use it, or if it would be restricted just to government vehicles and first responders.

The island's volunteer fire station flooded during the storm, its side wall blown out, and many fire hydrants barely poke out above the mud left behind. Four days after the storm, six empty houses on Debra Ann Drive damaged by the floodwaters burned to the ground because firefighters couldn't reach the island fast enough.

“The only way to get across is the bridge we don’t have," said Darrin Coulon, 33, who is Tess Coulon's son.

Concerned about looting, residents carry pistols

Driving a four-wheeler through the mud, Darrin Coulon points out where his home used to sit and where it now rests, 100 feet away. Coulon, his fiancée and their kids, including their 5-month-old daughter, left the island before Ida hit. His mom stayed, as did his grandparents. After the storm's worst passed, Tess Coulon put on her Trump 2020 hat and braved the floodwaters to rescue Cheeto the cat and several hunting rifles from her son's house. And while the house had floated off its cinderblock footings, knickknacks were still sitting on the shelves, she said.

Darrin Coulon, who normally works as a swamp tour guide, returned to the island as soon as he could after the storm. While he's happy his fiancée and their daughter are safe on the mainland, “I figured I’d be more use to people here instead of just sitting around waiting for the power to come back on.”

At the moment, Baratarians like the Coulons are more or less on their own. Although the National Guard built a bridge, it had virtually no patrol presence on the island for days, raising concerns among residents about looting. Many people are now openly carrying pistols in case they confront anyone who doesn't belong, and the Cajun Navy Relief, which has been ferrying people across, is careful to bring most visitors to Wilson's dock. The Jefferson Parish Sheriff's office has also been patrolling with deputies ferried across by boat or airboat.

“Nobody anticipated it to be this bad," Darrin Coulon said. “I mean, my house floated away. I’m sure glad I wasn’t it there when it happened.”

Tiny community sits beyond protection of levees

Tess Coulon and her caravan wind their way along Privateer Boulevard, stopping at any house where there's signs of habitation. She thinks maybe as many as 200 rode out the storm on the island. Although Ida lashed New Orleans with high winds, the city escaped relatively unscathed, particularly when it came to floodwaters. Experts say billions of dollars worth of new levees built or strengthened after 2005's Hurricane Katrina did their job, keeping storm surge from inundating the historic city, parts of which sit 8 feet below sea level. But most of Barataria is outside those levies, exposing the community to the storm's worst. Darrin Coulon said he couldn't imagine how bad it must have been — his house has sat in that location for at least every one of his 33 years and was never affected before.

Wading through deep mud, Romeo Mamolo III hands fresh fruit to a woman stuck at her home on the island of Barataria, La. Barataria was cut off from the mainland after the passage of Hurricane Ida, and volunteers deliver food and other supplies to stranded residents.

As he motors his ATV past by the family cemetery, Darrin Coulon points out how some of the above-ground mausoleums and lawn crypts have been knocked around by the waters and will need to be fixed. It's just one more item on a long list of repairs, from fire hydrants to power lines to virtually every one of the island's approximately 500 homes. So far, there's little sign of government assistance, no FEMA trucks, not even the Red Cross.

"My house has never flooded before. This is the worst it’s ever been." Coulon says. "I mean, we will literally have to rebury our dead."

Coulon owns vacant land where he hoped to build a bigger home for his family, and now he's reassessing just how high off the ground it will need to be. Many homes on Barataria sit on concrete pilings 10 feet or taller, raising them up from the minor flooding and storm surges the area gets every year. But on the island's southern end, storm surge reached into even those houses, dirty water busting open doors and flooding inside.

"Everything I worked for was in that house. But the people I care about got out and are safe. The stuff can be replaced," he said. Even knowing that climate change will likely make storms like Ida both stronger and more frequent, Coulon said he'll stay. This is where he's from, and the land and water help define his life, from hunting and fishing to the summer rainstorms, and yes, the hurricanes.

“There’s natural disasters wherever you go. At least with a hurricane they are kind of predictable and you can get out of the way," he said. "I mean, tornadoes and earthquakes? No, thank you."

All around the island, residents who either stayed or returned quickly have already begun gutting their houses — mold starts growing almost immediately under the hot, humid conditions and it will colonize the entire home if the sodden carpet and clothes, dressers and drywall, aren't quickly removed.

Tess Coulon hands supplies to a resident of the island of Barataria, La.

Tess Coulon's convoy rolls past the debris, ducking under dangling power lines and snapped utility poles.

"Y'all need anything?" she yells out over and over, summoning neighbors and friends.

"We've got hot meals!" hollers Gina Wilson, 48, who also helps organize the deliveries.

Tuesday, both women are proverbially steaming after an island resident complained to their Facebook group about the slow pace of deliveries. Without a nimble four-wheeler or side-by-side ATV, getting around many of the island's residential streets is impossible. Yet several residents have proven surprisingly ungrateful for the free meals cooked by chefs with the nonprofit World Central Kitchen, regularly posting complaints on Facebook. Wilson and Coulon are doing their best to stay positive, but they admit it's disheartening to be criticized for their entirely volunteer efforts.

Earlier in the day, Nate Mook, CEO of World Central Kitchen, pulled up to a boat ramp across the water from Wilson's dock, unloading several boxes of hot meals, sandwiches and fresh fruit. Founded by celebrity chef Jose Andres, WCK uses existing restaurants in disaster areas to quickly prepare and distribute hot meals to survivors, and has already served more than 200,000 meals in Louisiana, while simultaneously serving earthquake survivors in Haiti and Afghan refugees arriving at Dulles International Airport in Virginia.

“The need is just so great out there,” Mook said.

Colleen Udell and Chris Doran of Cajun Navy Relief load food donated by World Central Kitchen to deliver to the island of Barataria, La., cut off after the passage of Hurricane Ida.

After carefully stacking the boxes on the boat ramp, Mook headed back to New Orleans, passing a small convoy of Cajun Navy Relief volunteers arriving to shuttle the food across to Barataria. The "navy" is a small group of boat owners who respond to water-related disasters in the southeast, donating their time, fuel and boats to rescue people from flooding and then assist with recovery efforts afterward. Last year, the group worked five storms, but so far in 2021 has deployed only to Ida relief efforts.

Taking the tiller, Chris Doran motored upstream toward the damaged bridge, hoping to pass beneath it so he could collect the ice and save a lot of driving. But no dice — the jammed fishing boat means it won't be opening anytime soon, and the storm surge piled hundreds of yards worth of floating swamp vegetation behind it.

“You don’t want to walk through there. It’s all flooded and there's dead hogs floating everywhere," Doran, 50, said, looking over at the shore.

Shot back Wilson, deadpan: “The dead hogs ain’t the problem — it’s the gators. They’re pissed.”

Island natives have seen entire world altered by Ida

Coulon's convoy rolls down another street, this one where her parents live. They come out onto the upper-level deck and shout down to answer a reporter's shouted questions. Coulon's father, Romeo Mamolo, Jr., rode out the storm alone, at one point swimming through the storm surge to adjust the lines on his fishing boat after the winds and water shoved an RV beneath it. Mamolo is 79.

“I was trying to save whatever I could save," Mamolo says. "And I’ll be here for the next one.”

Gina Wilson hands hot meals cooked and donated by World Central Kitchen to Romeo Mamolo III on the island of Barataria, La.

Coulon shakes her head. Her mom went to the mainland during the storm.

“My dad would never leave. He’s hard-headed. And I guess I am too because I didn’t leave," she says. Coulon is trying to keep busy distracted from the devastation surrounding her and the island she's lived on her entire life. A paralegal under normal circumstances, she's helped organized disaster-recovery efforts previously. Like many residents, Coulon is struggling with the trauma of seeing her entire world altered by Ida, from the roads to the trees to the sandwich shop that somehow floated away.

“That's probably the most depressing part, knowing that this town will never be same. The landmarks I knew as a child are all gone," she says.