A village, culture teeter on bayou
Blows by Katrina, bureaucracy have stranded families
GRAND BAYOU, La. - When Ruby Ancar talks about her fishing village on the bayou, she says a divine hand has protected her Atakapa-Ishak kinfolk for generations.
But Grand Bayou is forsaken these days, 30 months after Hurricane Katrina washed over it and dragged one of Louisiana's last authentic outposts of bayou culture into a world defined by insurers, money lenders, building code enforcers, and government auditors.
"We're facing a greater hurricane now than we did with Katrina, with the bureaucracy," Ancar, 60, said, gesticulating passionately and flashing a toothy grin as she glided down the bayou in a boat. "The government - that's our hurricane right now that we're in."
Before Katrina, Grand Bayou and its small group of families of Atakapa-Ishak American Indians lived in a parallel world, in concert with moon cycles and migrations of shrimp. This living museum, where there are no roads and everyone travels by boat, is facing extinction.
Post-storm government aid has been nearly nonexistent, residents said, leaving the entire village unable to return to their homes.
"We were hanging onto that little village out there, but I think the hurricane took the last wind out of us," Louis Thompson said.
Thompson commanded the communal boat, a banana-yellow water taxi tied up since the storm. "It was a school boat, medical boat, grocery boat, just about everything else boat," he said.
Grand Bayou's state of despair resembles that of the Lower Ninth Ward, 40 miles away in New Orleans. Both are lifeless and poor. Both were colorful enclaves of traditional Louisiana culture.
They are exhibits in a pattern emerging since Katrina struck on Aug. 29, 2005: the widening gap between rich and poor in rebuilding.
"The similarities have to do a lot with economic challenges. If these people were middle or upper income in general, they would have the resources to go back and build their houses," said Shirley Laska, a University of New Orleans sociologist.
The gap between rich and poor is plainly evident on the horizon of wind-blown marsh grass at Grand Bayou.
A mile away, the community of weekend sport fishermen and retirees at Happy Jack is bouncing back. A recent survey showed that of Happy Jack's approximately 83 waterfront homes only about 11 showed no sign of being rebuilt. Shaded docks, automatic boat lifts, and personal water craft abound.
And Happy Jack is growing. Excavators have prepared ground for 60 more lots that will be up for sale by the summer.
The significance is not lost at Grand Bayou: An uncomfortable circle of outsiders and development is drawing tighter.
On a recent short-sleeves winter day, during a break in the shrimp harvest, Dwight Reyes Sr. stepped off his boat, where he's lived with his wife since Katrina wrecked their home, and surveyed the neat-and-clean silhouette of Happy Jack.
"Weekend warriors, that's all that is," Reyes sneered.
He turned his back, and paced back-and-forth through the dock yard, scattering roosters and ducks camped out in beached skiffs, heaps of rope and nets, rusting boat parts, and assorted junk.
"They're people with all kinds of money and all kinds of help," he said, attempting to explain why Grand Bayou looks like a ghost town sinking into the marsh.
"I've got fed up with trying," Reyes said, referring to the Road Home program, the state-managed, federally funded flagship of the hurricane recovery effort.
"Everywhere you go they turn you down," he said. "I just got off the phone a while ago with [Road Home] telling me I need papers for this. I'm tired of faxing paper in."
Recovery officials say they haven't forgotten Grand Bayou.
"We have been out in that community really hard," said Gentry Bran, spokeswoman for ICF International, the company that oversees Road Home under a $756 million contract. "I would challenge the concept they're not getting assistance from the Road Home."
A sample, though, of five Road Home applicants interviewed suggests money has been slow to reach Grand Bayou's 25 families. Two applicants had received grants while three others hadn't. Road Home would not disclose how much money each applicant got nor give an idea about how much money in all has been sent to Grand Bayou.
Back on the bayou, time has stopped.
Dock and home are broken and twisted. The "Hallelujah Hotel," where visiting ministers stayed during revival services, is a pile of debris on the waterfront.
Thompson, the school boat driver, lives in a trailer in town, as do many others. Children of working age have left for Texas, Oklahoma, Georgia.
Memories are all that remains, like boating across the bayou to Grandma's house for Thanksgiving dinner and kitchen chatter in French patois.