Can a Louisiana town recover after yet another hurricane?

Can a Louisiana town recover after yet another hurricane?


CAMERON, La. — Michelle Vincent stood before the Virgin Mary and whispered a prayer, thanking the mother for her protection during Hurricane Delta.

She’s grateful: She and her family survived the hurricane — another hurricane.

Her home is mostly intact, but her church is wrecked. A thought is swirling in her mind, first lodged years ago, after Hurricane Rita: Should she stay in Cameron? It’s the only home she’s known, but as hurricanes keep decimating southwest Louisiana and jobs ship out of the Cameron Parish, the temptation is there. 

Vincent, a Cameron native, came to inspect Our Lady Star of the Sea, to view the destruction left in the path of Laura and compounded by Delta. She was raised in the church, the same one where generations of her family attended. 

To see it damaged, with broken windows, shattered pews and sludge creeping through the hall, is devastating. It was already hammered by Laura when the hurricane made landfall in Cameron on Aug. 27. The beating continued Friday when Delta landed near Creole, 13 miles east. 

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After hurricanes Ike (2008) and Rita (2005), Vincent was ready to move elsewhere, but it was her husband who encouraged her to return. His job was soon after shipped out to another part of the state, putting a four-hour commute between work and home. 

“It’s hard to come back and see it again and then to know there’s another (hurricane) that’s out there,” she said. “It’s tough.”

Hurricanes are a way of life for people here. Vincent’s mother survived Audrey and every one since. But as they keep battering the coast, they’re driving people away. With each storm that barrels through, Vincent said fewer people return.

“Yeah, our house is still there,” she said as tears streamed down her face, “but do you know how lonely this place is going to be?”

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The Rev. Father D. B. Thompson, left, and Canon Jean-Marie Moreau look at the shrine of Our Lady Star of the Sea Catholic Church in Cameron, Louisiana, on Saturday, Oct.10, 2020.
The Rev. Father D. B. Thompson, left, and Canon Jean-Marie Moreau look at the shrine of Our Lady Star of the Sea Catholic Church in Cameron, Louisiana, on Saturday, Oct.10, 2020.

‘Do not harm my children’ 

An hour before Vincent stood before the white marble statue of the Virgin Mary, the Rev. D.B. Thompson was making the trek along the damaged coast to check on the shrine. 

Our Lady is one of the two churches in the Cameron Parish overseen by Thompson. The priest juggles masses between Our Lady and Sacred Heart of Jesus in Creole. He stopped first to survey the damage at the Creole church and walked the grounds where his home used to be before Laura crushed it. 

Sacred Heart is old, and its roots stretch back to when Creole was established in 1890. Although the original building has been washed away by storms, the congregation has pulled together time and time again to rebuild it at least four times. 

The original church was knocked down by a hurricane in the 20th century. Then plummeted by Audrey in 1957. Decimated by Rita in 2005 and hit by Ike in 2008. Laura and Delta may be the final one-two punch. 

Thompson said he was unsure if Sacred Heart would rebuild — it’s up to the Diocese of Lake Charles — and it would be at least a year before the restoration would be complete if they move forward with raising a new building for the fifth time. All churches in the diocese sustained approximately $60-$100 million in damage from the latest storms, he said.

“It was a little gem,” Thompson said of the church. 

The shrine for Our Lady withstood Laura, and Thompson and Canon Jean-Marie Moreau prayed she’d still be standing when they arrived to Cameron. 

And she was. 

The mother stood spotless in front of the church. The shrine, blessed by a bishop in 1963, is made of stunning white marble, quarried in Carrara, Italy. 

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Standing tall above the ground, with her hand outstretched, as if holding back deadly water, a command is etched into a plaque: “Do not harm my children.”

Four angels stand guard around the mother. She has her arm around a child, who looks up at her.

The mother and child are modeled after the wife and children of Norman McCall, who died during Audrey, one of the worst hurricanes in the country’s history, when more than 400 people died. McCall, who survived Audrey and is now in his 90s, is the caretaker of the shrine to this day.

To see her standing unscathed from two hurricanes is a testament to the congregation’s unwavering hope. 

As Thompson and Moreau surveyed the second church, they found a lit candle from a parishioner inside that withstood Delta’s rains. The flame danced in the tall candle inside the dark and dingy church, crushed by winds and water. 

“A sign of faith,” Thompson said. 

The cemetery at Our Lady Star of the Sea Catholic Church in Cameron, Louisiana, is flooded on Saturday, Oct. 10, 2020, following Hurricane Delta moved through the area.
The cemetery at Our Lady Star of the Sea Catholic Church in Cameron, Louisiana, is flooded on Saturday, Oct. 10, 2020, following Hurricane Delta moved through the area.

Reopening old wounds 

Behind the church, down a paved path, stand raised graves that are popular in Louisiana, and a mausoleum, washed out by the intruding floods. Vincent’s family members, including her brother and her grandmother, are buried there. She came to check on their graves to ensure they weren’t robbed by the floods, knowing the pain of finding an empty tomb after her grandmother’s casket was moved by a prior hurricane.

She was recovered, but Vincent said some families still have lost loved ones after Ike and Rita. Bodies are frequently tagged now before burial to make sure they can be identified if the waters pull the caskets out from mausoleums.

“You always want that closure when someone dies,” Vincent said. “But when they disappear after a hurricane, you want them found and put back. … The wounds are reopened but it’s peaceful to know they’re back in their resting place.”

The pelican in her piety seal lays at the alter at the Sacred Heart of Jesus in Creole, Louisiana, on Saturday, Oct. 10, 2020.
The pelican in her piety seal lays at the alter at the Sacred Heart of Jesus in Creole, Louisiana, on Saturday, Oct. 10, 2020.

The Rev. D.B. Thompson said he’s already held two community meetings with families of those whose bodies were lost in the most recent bout of storms. After Laura, the church saw a constant stream of people to check on their loved ones.

“We wouldn’t be here today if it weren’t for all the people buried in that cemetery,” Thompson said.

The Hermit Kingdom  

They called it the Hermit Kingdom.

With few houses dotting the road into Creole and Cameron, sitting high on stilts above the marshy ground, it’s easy to see why. The sparse population paired with the sprawling wetlands where alligators pop up along the roadway make for a captivating beauty that draws visitors in. 

It makes sense why some residents return hurricane after hurricane, rebuilding homes destroyed by encroaching waters and intruding winds.

But storm after storm has broken some people down. 

Thompson said after each hurricane, fewer people return to Creole, where the population is less than 700. Cameron is even smaller – about 400 residents. He expects the same to happen in wake of Laura and Delta.

“The people here, they don’t keep moving back here because they’re imprudent,” Thompson said. “They keep moving back here because they have a great love for the way of life here. There’s something here that can’t be found in many other places.”

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It’s that resilience that’s kept the Higgins family in Cameron for generations. The Higgins men are shrimpers and pass the knowledge down from son to son. Neil Higgins’ deep roots in the town is what pulled him and his wife, Edie, to build their home there and what’s keeping them there even after Laura. 

Edie Higgins is a teacher at the high school. She stays optimistic for her students about the future of Cameron, even as the town’s population dwindles. 

“You don’t want to give up on the community,” she said. “You want to keep pushing and give it hope.” 

Edie Higgins and her oldest son, Eli Higgins, in front of their house the day after Hurricane Delta in Cameron, Louisiana, on Saturday, Oct. 10, 2020.
Edie Higgins and her oldest son, Eli Higgins, in front of their house the day after Hurricane Delta in Cameron, Louisiana, on Saturday, Oct. 10, 2020.

Cameron is a tight-knit batch of people nestled in the swamps close to the Gulf of Mexico. Many of the residents are outdoors folks, and the easy access to the waterways makes it a prime spot for fishing, crabbing and shrimping. Residents use dune buggies to get to the beach. It’s a peaceful slice of heaven, but its settlers know it’s likely impossible to avoid another hurricane.

“It’s always in the back of your mind,” Edie Higgins said. “You know it could happen again.” 

The town’s gas station and little restaurant were ruined by Laura, and the storms forced the new bar and grill – a town treat – to shutter. But with time, the Higginses are sure Cameron will rebound.

“We’re coming back,” Neil Higgins said, “no matter what.” 

Follow reporter Brinley Hineman on Twitter: @brinleyhineman

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This article originally appeared on Lafayette Daily Advertiser: Hurricane Delta hit Cameron, Louisiana: Can it recover yet again?



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