BURAS, La.—Guarding a path along a levee that's become the only dry road into this bayou town, a local sheriff's deputy Monday sat quietly crying in his police cruiser.
He watched as residents returned to an area arguably the hardest hit by Hurricane Katrina but largely forgotten amid the storm's dramatic aftermath in neighboring New Orleans.
"I grew up down here, and the first time I came back I didn't recognize it. I didn't know where I was," said Plaquemines Parish Deputy John Wigstrom, wiping a tear from his red, swollen eyes. "It's just all gone."
At daybreak Aug. 29, Louisiana's Cajun countryside learned hours before anyone else that life after Katrina would never be quite the same. Positioned 70 miles southeast of New Orleans, the bayou—which for centuries has fed New Orleans' mystique with its crawfish catches and legendary blues music—took the brunt of what Katrina had to offer.
A wall of water more than 20 feet high, backed by winds topping 145 mph, swept across the bayou. The force rolled houses and trailers end to end until they split at the seams. It picked up an 18-wheeler and dropped it headfirst into a doublewide mobile home. It shot caskets from their crypts into a schoolyard. It drowned alligators and left a cow hanging 10 feet high in a tree.
From the air, the bayou's 11 southernmost towns appear as clumps of matchsticks, one discernible from the next only by crumpled remains of church steeples and general stores that used to anchor places named Empire, Port Sulphur and Venice.
The towns now run together in a 40-mile lake of toxic oil, gas, chemicals and sewage that morphs from brown to a thick black near the old Alliance Refinery.
The four-lane Route 23, which runs like a spine through this shattered area, is completely blocked south of Empire Bridge by a 200-foot ocean vessel marooned diagonally across the road.
On Monday, the first handfuls of the bayou's 30,000 residents began returning to their homes, only to find they had none.
"It's unbelievable," said a near-speechless Tai Nguyen, surveying for the first time his flooded and collapsed Happy Land gas station and Laundromat in Buras. "Maybe I could rebuild, but what if no one is coming back? What would be the point?" said Nguyen, clutching his baseball cap and choking back tears.
The tears are becoming common in the bayou, said Senior Master Sgt. John Guilmette of the New Mexico National Guard.
"It's like a funeral down here every day," said Guilmette, who for two weeks has been tasked with pushing as far south in the bayou as possible. "They come, they cry, they pick up a couple things and they leave," he said of local residents. "I've given out $300 in gas money to people who say they just want to drive away as far as they can and never return. I believe them—I would."
Bayou residents interviewed Monday expressed frustration about the lack of attention to Louisiana's other flood.
"In all the news on television, no one has said one word about down here," said Kenneth Zegura, 51, after returning to Buras on Monday to find what remained of his home submerged. "There's no presidential visit, no Red Cross, there's nothing. They're all looking at New Orleans."
Residents said they worry that without federal help Katrina may be the knockout punch to a region that never fully recovered from Hurricane Camille in 1969. Others say they simply feel unfairly left behind in the national tragedy.
"It's just a little place down here; nobody really worries about us," said Jason Carter, 47, a tugboat operator who returned Monday to find Katrina's wave had crushed his house and swept his mother's and sister's off their foundations and onto Highway 11.
Carter knew from the smell before he arrived that the odds were against him.
Nearly two hours south of New Orleans, down the Mississippi River and into Plaquemines Parish, past the tent cities of troops set up at the Naval Air Station and beyond the fishing boats and train cars pushed into the median of Route 23, the odor grows stronger as you approach the oil-stained floodwaters.
"I won't rebuild again," said Joyce Dazet Carter, 71, recounting how her brick home had been rebuilt twice already because of hurricanes—last time after Camille. "The insurance, they give you as little as they can and there's never enough to completely rebuild." For now, eight members of the Carter family are camped out at a rented house near Shreveport.
Joyce Carter, though, is still optimistic. "I'll get by; you've got to keep counting your blessings," she said, adding that she might be able to afford a trailer for her property.
"I feel the sorriest for my son and daughter; this is the first time they've lost everything."
(Davis reports for the San Jose Mercury News.)
(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
GRAPHIC (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20050919 KATRINA forgot
Need to map