Monday, April 30, 2007

Louisiana Hurricanes, Poetic Relief


By Brenda Norrell

TUCSON, Ariz. -- Sometimes, even for news reporters, life can be poetic.

Last September, I returned to the hurricane-wrecked Louisiana Gulf Coast of my childhood. As a teenager, I joined my father as he rebuilt homes wrecked by other hurricanes. Now, these hurricanes had new names, Katrina and Rita, but the stories were familiar, mixed with memories of oyster poorboys in New Orleans and the sound of never-ending rain.

The Gulf Coast tribes, Biloxi-Chitimacha and Pointe au Chien, gave me a hero's welcome, wonderful laughter and stories, as if somehow they knew. I was even able to spend the night in a bunkhouse on a fisherman's pier, with the waves causing the bunkhouse to sway all night, like years coming and going.

In Raceland, I saw the filled warehouse and the outpouring of donations from all over the country to the Houma Indians, who the Red Cross had forgotten.

Those articles, written during the trip along the coast, were the last articles I would write for the Indian newspaper where I worked for most of the years since it was created in 1994. Still, my life had gone full circle. My only regret was that I was fired (after complaining of censorship) before I could write about the wonderful Coushatta Indian Museum.

There, too, I was given a wonderful welcome and spent the day learning of the Coushatta, who survived, alongside their Cajun neighbors, in a state where racism is the persistent stalker. But in this rich land of Indian, Cajun and Creole, there is the music, the food and the laughter. There's alligator on the menu and Cajun music, real Cajun music, on the radio.

So, if you're in southwest Louisiana, please visit the Coushatta Indian Museum. There's a rich history of basketry, clanship and survival in the heart of these deep Louisiana woods. (The tribe also has a great campground, lots of hotels and a beautiful golf course at the casino.)

Here's the latest news from my good friends at Montegut on the Gulf Coast:

Local Indian tribal elders get keys to their new homes

By RAYMOND LEGENDRE
NYT Regional Newspapers



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MONTEGUT – Jim Shelly stood ready to hand the key to a new house to a Pointe-aux-Chenes couple, when he realized he had made a mistake.

“I must have gave the keys to the house to Deme (Naquin) on the island,” said Shelly, a field consultant for the Mennonite Disaster Services, referring to an Isle de Jean Charles man, who a half hour earlier had unknowingly gotten two keys – one to his new house and the other to Andrew and Leonise Dardar.

“Deme owns two houses right now,” Shelly joked.

“Deme might rent one out,” replied Randy Verdun, chairman of the Louisiana Coastal Tribes Coalition.

The two houses were built as part of the Mennonite Disaster Services’ Pointe-aux-Chenes Project, which provided the labor for new houses for tribal elders in the lower bayou Indian communities. The Louisiana Coastal Tribes Coalition, along with the Isle de Jean Charles Band of Biloxi-Chitimacha and the Pointe-aux-Chenes Indian Tribe, also contributed to the project.

Both featured the same wood exterior and three-bedroom interior and were designed, with cables, beams and concrete foundations to withstand 155-mph winds and flooding up to 14 feet.

When Naquin drove his golf cart across the rickety wooden bridge near his home Saturday, he declared his independence – freedom from anxieties caused by hurricane season and the unwanted presence of ants and roaches.

The 80-year-old, who has lived on Island Road in Isle de Jean Charles for 58 years, crossed the bridge, then crossed the street to his new three-bedroom house. There, his seven children celebrated with crawfish, cake and beer.

“This means a lot,” Naquin said. “I can’t thank the people enough. I didn’t expect this much.”

Naquin, who rarely walks and often gets around in either a wheelchair or a golf cart due to a foot condition, said his new place, which features an elevator to accommodate him, would allow him to remain independent. After Hurricane Rita, he stayed with family members for three months, before returning to his home on Island Road.

“I’m in nobody’s way here and I can do what I want,” the retired fisherman said. Naquin and his wife, Wilma, were married 60 years, before she died in 2003.

The man’s daughter-in-law, Sheena Naquin, said she was excited to see his new house, and described him as “easy going” and a person who “would give the shirt off his back.”

Deme’s son, Donnie Naquin, also expressed satisfaction that his dad had gotten a new, more flood resistant house after what he endured in the wake of Rita, which left four feet of standing water in his house.

“With what he’s been through, I couldn’t be more happy for him,” the son said. “He struggled to make ends meet. I just pray to God to give him enough time to enjoy it.”

Nearby in Pointe-aux-Chenes, Andrew and Leonise Dardar celebrated in a more subdued fashion, with only a small group of family members present.

Andrew Dardar, 81, spoke of the day’s meaning in Cajun French, then his 19-year-old grandson, Lanny Dardar, Jr., who lives with the couple, translated.

“It means a lot,” the grandson said, relaying his grandfather’s words. “We didn’t have much. I can’t put it into words how happy we are.”

Randy Verdun, chairman of the year-old Lousiana Coastal Tribes Coalition, attempted to put his elation for the Dardar family into words.

“If it weren’t for the Mennonites, we would be standing on dirt,” Verdun said. “We would be looking up at the sky. We wouldn’t be standing on this foundation.”

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