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Smaller Communities Like Houma, Louisiana Struggle With Hurricane Relief


It's been almost a week since Ida made landfall in Louisiana as a Category 4 hurricane. Yesterday, President Biden visited storm-damaged areas in the southeast part of the state and promised federal aid. The destruction is so widespread, some smaller communities are struggling to get the help they need just to care for basic critical needs, as NPR's Debbie Elliott reports.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, BYLINE: The lights have started to come back on in metro New Orleans, but not in Houma, La., a town of about 30,000 people southwest of the city. Hurricane Ida's winds ripped the town to shreds. Power poles lean precariously over roads. Downtown is destroyed. Glass storefronts are blown out, and twisted metal roofs litter the sidewalks.


ELLIOTT: Ned Gautreaux is trying to clean up his corner service station on Main Street.

NED GAUTREAUX: We just trying to do what we got to do to get back open. We tore up pretty good.

ELLIOTT: His gas pumps aren't working properly. The storm blew the back cover entirely off of one. Shingles, chunks of metal and power lines are strewn on the ground. A downed tree blocks the driveway.

GAUTREAUX: If you live down here, you got to make it. We enjoy this area too much to move. So my home is busted pretty good, but we're going to do what we got to do there, too.

ELLIOTT: There's not a structure untouched by Ida. The hospitals were so damaged, they had to be evacuated. On the west side of town, LaToya Nixon sits on her front stoop watching a pot of water boiling over charcoal in a hibachi grill.

LATOYA NIXON: I'm trying to whip up something.

ELLIOTT: A generator hums next door, and the mangled metal roof that blew off a mobile home across the street is leaning on her house.

NIXON: We wasn't ready. It destroyed Houma. It destroyed it.

ELLIOTT: Nixon says the heat is unbearable, and she's trying to figure out a way to evacuate with her 5-year-old granddaughter. The Popeyes fried chicken store where she's a manager isn't open, so she can't work.

NIXON: You just got to build yourself to be strong or to just get through it. I'm ready to scream now, but, I mean, you know, that's just to make me feel better. But I'm going to keep pushing.

ELLIOTT: Nixon says Houma has gotten overlooked in the storm recovery. It's not a tourist town but one where many people make their living on the Gulf of Mexico in the oil field or fishing.

NIXON: That's why I don't even look at the news in the morning, because it's New Orleans, New Orleans, New Orleans. What about us, you know? Y'all may have houses or whatever down, but look at all of this, you know? We need the attention of the people down here.

ELLIOTT: South of Houma, down Bayou as they say here, the destruction is even worse. People have lost everything.

BRAD HIXSON: Good afternoon, ma'am. What are you needing?


HIXSON: Oh, you need diapers? What size?


HIXSON: Size six?


HIXSON: OK. Two size sixes, please.


ELLIOTT: Oklahoma National Guardsman Brad Hixson is working a drive-through distribution point at a community center in Chauvin, La. Troops and volunteers hand out baby food, cleaning supplies, food and water. Keisha Foret organized the operation after getting a delivery of supplies from the volunteer aid group known as the Cajun Navy. She lost her home to Ida, and so have many of the friends and neighbors who are here helping.

KEISHA FORET: I try not to even think of the next moves. You know, we trying to get through, getting the people what they need. And I just try not to think about it right now 'cause I'll break down (laughter). That's all I can do.

ELLIOTT: The stress of the crisis is starting to weigh on local leaders, too, like Terrebonne Parish Councilman Dirk Guidry.

DIRK GUIDRY: There's only so much I can do. My hands are tied. I have no communications.

ELLIOTT: In these down bayou communities like Chauvin, there's no cell service. The power, water and sewer systems are all out. And Guidry says it will be weeks before all of that can be restored. He knows that takes time, but he's frustrated that it's taken so long to get emergency aid. The National Guard didn't arrive until yesterday, five days after Ida hit.

GUIDRY: And I can understand that it's such a wide area that's destroyed. But these bayou people here, we got hit hard. There's not one building down here that has not been affected. We got shrimp boats flipped over in the middle of the bayou. So I know these guys that are like going back to work, they can't even get out to the sea, you know? So our way of life has come to a stop for a while, you know?

ELLIOTT: Guidry says it's not easy to ask for help, but they're in dire need.

GUIDRY: We need water. We need ice. We need MREs. We need formulas. We need tarps. We need a toothbrush, you know? There's a lot of people that don't even have a toothbrush, if you can understand that, you know? So - and this is America. So please, God, if y'all would - if y'all listening to me, please send us whatever y'all can send us 'cause this is my bayou. And I need it for my people.

ELLIOTT: While the focus is on critical needs today, some here are thinking about the future. Jonathan Foret grew up in Chauvin. He's executive director of the South Louisiana Wetlands Discovery Center in Houma.

JONATHAN FORET: We work to educate our kids on how to bounce back from things like this and how to protect themselves and their families. But when you look around at this and your community is not even recognizable anymore, you don't know where to start, you know?

ELLIOTT: He's been collecting donations flown into the Houma airport and delivering them to Chauvin. He says as climate change fuels more intense storms like Ida and Laura that hit Louisiana last year, it's getting harder to find the path forward.

J FORET: If that's an indication of what we are facing in the future, I don't know how often we're going to be able to do this. That's the part of it that really scares me. I'm tired of being resilient (laughter). I just want to catch a break, you know?

ELLIOTT: But with an active hurricane season reaching its peak, that break may not be coming anytime soon. Debbie Elliott, NPR News, Houma, La.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR National Correspondent Debbie Elliott can be heard telling stories from her native South. She covers the latest news and politics, and is attuned to the region's rich culture and history.