"Oh, don't remind me of that," she says of Hurricane Rita, swatting the air gently with one hand. "We still have to put our brother back in there."
Levy looks over her shoulder and does her best to stare through a thick brush line into a small cemetery in the adjacent country lot. Concrete tombs are cracked open, revealing shards and sections of old pine boxes. Wood posts labeled with people's names are stuck into the ground near open-earth pits where caskets were carried off by Rita's storm surge. "The water came in and turned over all those tombs," Levy says. "It picked them all up and crashed them together. They were picking up bodies out these fields after that."
A vase of fresh white lilies placed by a solitary tombstone is the only evidence the Mouton Cove graveyard has not been totally abandoned. Even though the site is a stone's throw away, Levy hasn't visited in months. Memories of Sept. 24, 2005, hang in the air like a shroud over the empty caskets. Reminders of the day Rita came ashore can be found all over Mouton Cove, a residential settlement south of Abbeville that currently boasts maybe 300 residents -- depending on which local you ask.
The blue-collar community took 9 feet of water in some areas. Roofs were torn off the community's white frame houses, trailers were uprooted by the flooding, and Mouton Cove's few native businesses were awash in saltwater. On the other hand, the tiny community also is a study in contrasts. While everything to the south on Pecan Island was devastated, and everything to the north in Abbeville was largely left dry, Mouton Cove was flung into a disaster purgatory, somewhere between demolished and lucky. It survives as a microcosm of the rebuilding efforts still under way on the Gulf Coast and in New Orleans, but without all the national media attention and steady stream of bureaucratic visitors.
Many of the Cove's residents have approached recovery with either an urgent sense of self-preservation or with the help of their community. There's the young couple that opened their home to family members who lost everything and who wrestle with the guilt of their own house and possessions being spared. A well-known businessman rebuilt his thriving trade with personal savings -- and no help from the government -- hoping to give his neighbors work. Right down the road, a longtime resident is still struggling with a decision whether to pick up the pieces or turn his back on it all.
Levy says she doesn't know any of these people, but their stories sound familiar to her. More than 4 feet of water moved through her shotgun house, tearing up the floor and ruining furniture. Inside, there are only a couple of cots to sleep on and an outdated window unit that struggles against Louisiana's coastal heat and humidity. Her half-sister, Ernestine Moore, who is only a tad younger at 75 years, shares the space.
"That water just came right in here and tore it all up," Moore says as she relocates a pile of clothes. "We had to empty out the bottom of that dresser where the water was because it was so stinky."
The two women have been through hell and back together, which makes their collective joy today all the sweeter. They shimmy into another room that has new flooring -- green linoleum squares -- that was put in by family members. Levy kicks off her shoes and takes a walk around. Moore beams knowingly at her half-sister.
Moore remembers Rita's rain and noise "like it was yesterday," even though every day since has been counted and feared and relished since that fateful morning. Levy nods her head in agreement. Together they weathered the storm and together they remain. "We were raised up here," Moore says. "We ain't going anywhere."
It's a war cry repeated around Mouton Cove.
AT THE INTERSECTION OF HIGHWAY 82 and Audubon Road, Bon Amis Grocery sits as a local fixture, an expanded gas station where a fisherman can grab a pistolette before heading onto the water. A mom can also make a quick stop there to find some last-minute dinner fixings. It's the only grocery store in Mouton Cove, and thus it's the geographic and cultural heart of the community. When Rita made landfall, hungry rescue workers stared at the storefront and reminisced about its food as they watched 2 feet of water surge through the aisles and knock over shelves stocked full of groceries.
On a recent August morning, Bon Amis was bustling again. Ongoing construction in the area has triggered an increase in foot traffic, and the coffee machine gets a serious workout even in the midday heat. And, of course, there's boudin on the menu. Thirty-two-year-old Crystal Lucas is on her knees dusting boxes of candy. Every now and then she stops and shouts something over her shoulder.
"We still have people coming in here talking about the hurricane," she says. "And now everybody is watching the forecasts. Even my little girl is watching it."
At the counter, Phyllis Clark, who has lived in Mouton Cove all her 44 years, guesses that possibly half her neighbors still haven't returned. She has been working at Bon Amis Grocery for roughly five years, and the rebuilding effort is the only thing keeping business at a brisk pace. "It's a slow recovery," she says. "There's no big rush."
A few miles away at the midpoint of Community Road, the Gaspard family is taking their time as well. It's a team effort to unload the large ornamental concrete horse from a trailer. After pitching in, Tricia Gaspard, 36, walks across the road back to her own home. Her arms are wrapped tightly around her son Luke, who was only 6 months old when Rita made landfall.
"We lost seven homesteads that day," Tricia says. "We were the only ones in this area that didn't get water. It was a very horrible feeling."
Tears roll down her cheek, and her lips quiver. Tricia says the family members who lost everything were able to seek shelter at her house, since it was left unscathed. The fact that everyone is alive and her property is intact provides Tricia with immeasurable joy, but the sight of her family's losses has also weighed her down with guilt. She ticks off a list of casualties -- "Dad's house, his camp, my grandfather's house, Christian's camp..." -- and the tears intensify.
Scottie Gaspard, her husband, comes walking from around the side of the house where he's repairing a water well and places an arm around Tricia. Thirty-six-year-old Scottie rubs his wife's back, and Tricia smiles and shifts Luke to another arm.
In Mouton Cove, God and family are always on the tip of someone's tongue. When Lafayette pioneer Marin Mouton reportedly bought the settlement from an Indian chief in 1802, he wrote that he wanted to "form a compact settlement or neighborhood of persons, most of whom were connected in their families with each other." True to Mouton's wishes, many families have been in Mouton Cove for generations.
"We lost everything," Tricia says, leaning on Scottie. "But we have each other."
SEVEN HUNDRED INFANT ALLIGATORS are either stuffed in burlap sacks or are three deep in large plastic containers. Workers handle them briskly, and it's a busy day at the Vermilion Gator Farm.
Most of the reptiles are 3 to 4 feet in length. When you walk near a bin, a dozen heads leap and strain to snap the tape around their jaws. Occasionally, one of the gators breaks loose, only to skid clumsily across the floor as its claws hit smooth concrete. These alligators will eventually be set free in Cameron Parish and other locales per state law, but normally they're processed at a later stage for skins and sometimes for their meat. It's another way the community makes money, in addition to cattle ranching, farming, commercial fishing and oilfield jobs. There's even a modest tourism market for birdwatchers. The fields along the east side of Prairie Road offer some of the best viewing opportunities for waterfowl and shorebirds, and thousands of birders converge upon Mouton Cove each year in March and April. But alligator farming is still Mouton Cove's claim to fame.
At Vermilion Gator Farm, operated by Wayne Sagrera and his sons, more than 120,000 alligators are processed each year. Sagrera has been in the gator business since 1984, but Rita challenged him in ways he never imagined.
The hurricane pushed more than 2 feet of water into Sagrera's warehouse, destroying millions of dollars worth of equipment and livestock. A batch of young alligators was lost, as well as a great deal of other inventory. Because gator eggs are part of a long-term investment, Sagrera's financial losses will increase for several years, and it will take another few years for him to get a firm handle on the bottom line.
"We'll be trying to outrun these losses for a long time," says 62-year-old Sagrera. "I went from semi-retired and having no debt to spending all this money."
Rather than waiting on government agencies like the Small Business Administration and FEMA for assistance, Sagrera tapped into his personal savings and got a bank loan. He started from scratch and rebuilt his business to the point where it can now employ up to 45 people during certain times of the year.
Many of those workers are from Mouton Cove, which was one of the driving forces behind Sagrera's decision. The people who process his alligators are not only employees but also his friends. It's also the reason he gave his neighbors carte blanche access to his fleet of airboats as Rita moved inland. "Nobody was waiting for the governor or anyone else to come down here and help," he says. "We've done everything on our own -- from when the storm came in 'til now. It's time to take Rita off the back page and Katrina off the front page."
Ask anyone living in the devastated region around Cameron and Vermilion parishes, and they share that sentiment. For instance, the Louisiana Recovery Authority, formed in the wake of Katrina to handle the influx of federal dollars and other hurricane-related issues, waited until a few months ago to form a special task force for the southwestern part of the state. Recorded deaths attributable to Rita have likewise been handled differently. Rather than keeping an official tally on the state level, parish coroners were asked to gather that information. As a result, there are still reports being published that no one died in Louisiana as a result of Rita, which isn't true. According to his death certificate, Lawrence Blanchard of Chauvin died Oct. 26 from an infection he contracted after entering floodwaters caused by Rita. Additionally, a report issued by the National Hurricane Center in March referred to another death "due to drowning near Lake Charles."
It's a bitter pill to swallow for people like Sagrera, who are reminded every day of the storm's brutality, even though national headlines don't reflect it. No matter how hard he works, no matter what he does, Rita's shadow is hard to escape. But as he looks around at his workers tagging alligators and wrapping them up for delivery, Sagrera manages a smile and pumps a fist lightly into the air.
"We're going to rebound," Sagrera says. "People in south Louisiana are survivors."
JOE TESSIER KEEPS A PICTURE OF HIS flooded-out home in a frame. Before Hurricane Rita brought the Gulf of Mexico into his front yard, Tessier had lived there for roughly 40 years -- from his birth through adolescence, to a time not long ago when his wife and little girl moved in.
Tessier has one bit of good news that many others don't. Thanks to cooperation from his insurance company, creditors, the SBA and FEMA, his financial losses are covered. "I've been lifted of a lot of debt, and just about everything has been paid for," he says. "If you look down deep enough, I find that good always comes from bad."
If only it were that simple. The morning Rita made landfall, Tessier joined a caravan of boat owners who plied floodwaters from the courthouse in Abbeville into Mouton Cove. He abandoned his own boat to allow a team to enter the settlement through a series of rice ponds, only to join another group of men several hours later. The entire time, Tessier never bothered to check on his own home, which still has visible water marks. And no amount of money can erase the shock from when he first saw his house.
For months, Tessier's family rented a place to stay in Lafayette and made frequent visits to his devastated homestead. Even today, he is conflicted about how to get on with his life. "It's just so surreal," he says. "One day you go down to your corner grocery store and the Red Cross is handing out meals..." Tessier's breathing becomes labored, and his chest is heaving. He takes off his sunglasses and wipes his eyes, then stomps a boot to the ground and apologizes.
"You're there getting food from the Red Cross and you can't help but think you're bad off if they're around. They were giving out ice to us, too. I mean, they were pushing it on us, making us take as much as possible," he says while sobbing. "The label on the bags said New York, and I kept thinking that somebody in New York bagged that ice for me, and I couldn't believe it. I still can't believe it.
"It still touches me," he continues. "We're all hard-working people, and we've made it through this the best way we knew how."
So, in the end, the Tessier family -- like Bertha Levy, Ernestine Moore, Wayne Sagrera and the Gaspard family -- isn't leaving Mouton Cove. But when it comes to rebuilding the family home or tearing it down, Tessier is paralyzed by indecision.
"This is really emotional for me," he says with a shaky tone, pausing to collect his thoughts through the tears. "Everybody wants a new house, but I grew up in this house. It's hard to let go of. I'll live here, but I don't know if I'm going to rebuild. I wish I had a dollar for every time I thought I was going to rebuild, though, and another dollar for every time I changed my mind. Ah, who knows? I just know I'm going to stay."