A Devlin couple was in Louisiana earlier this month lending their hand to help victims of Hurricane Rita—a Category 5 hurricane that made landfall along the U.S. Gulf Coast back on Sept. 24.
Rita caused $10 billion in damage and all but destroyed parts of southwestern Louisiana and southeastern Texas.
Betty and Wayne Salchert headed down to Louisiana at the beginning of March to see if there were any victims who could use their help.
“[It’s] something we have always wanted to do,” she noted, adding they were able to commit a few weeks for the first time.
“We wanted to seek out a small town, rather than a big city,” she wrote in an e-mail home. “New Orleans and Hurricane Katrina have been getting the majority of the news coverage.”
The couple—now in Texas helping an aunt and uncle—had planned on calling the Red Cross or Habitat for Humanity and setting something up, but did not get that done.
It was a Sunday when they left, so they decided to just go down to some of the worse-hit areas on the coast and talk to people there.
The Salcherts stopped at the Louisiana tourist information centre, which suggested helping the Cameron Parish area, south of Lake Charles. Heavy damage and flooding were reported there as the hurricane’s eye came ashore with a 15-20 foot storm surge around 2:30 a.m.
“Many communities were entirely destroyed, reducing rows of homes along the shoreline to nothing but splintered remains and empty foundations,” Betty Salchert described.
“Because the hurricane-hit area had been evacuated ahead of the storm, no human lives were lost,” she added.
But 98 percent of the houses were gone into the swamp, or so badly damaged that they couldn’t be made livable again.
It’s estimated up to 2,000 head of cattle either were lost, drowned, or washed out into the Gulf. Also, an estimated 200 graves had popped out of their burial plots, though most of these were recovered.
“What we saw was total destruction,” Salchert added. “It looked like a war zone. There were houses in the middle of the marsh that, we found out later, had floated 12 miles from the original location.”
Salchert said the waves reached as high as 13 feet and came on shore at 50 m.p.h., powered by 150 m.p.h. winds.
“It is like taking the area from Fort Frances to Rainy River and demolishing all the houses along the river, leaving debris and belongings in the trees and ditches,” she described.
“An empty tanker truck ended up sitting in the top of two big old oak trees after the water receded.”
The couple went to the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) camp, where they were welcomed and taken to sign up as volunteers.
Salchert noted they worked with a church group from Michigan, individuals from North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Philadelphia, as well as groups of college students taking their spring break and youth groups from Ameri-Corp.
“[It’s] amazing what 52 pairs of hands can clean in a few hours,” she remarked, noting they were given various jobs, such as checking and repairing house wiring, painting, replacing windows, and replacing ceiling tiles.
They also installed a temporary electrical service, enclosed and weather-proofed rooms, cleaned muck and debris from inside the buildings, cleaned debris from yards and pastures, and handed out food and supplies at the distribution centre.
“We worked for a police constable and various other families, for an older retired couple, for a local church, and for a musician that toured with Waylon Jennings for six months,” Salchert noted.
She described how everyone there is nice and encouraging.
“No one is down about their situation,” she stressed. “They say, ‘Don't look back, only look ahead.’”
And the Salcherts received many invitations to come back to visit, as well as to go shrimp and crab fishing.
“It has been very rewarding for us to be able to help,” she enthused. “It was a great experience and quite an eye-opener.
“I am sure that these people will be a long time getting everything back to a ‘normal’ living condition,” she added.
“I know that they are very aware of the hurricane season and all its implications and have accepted that as part of life, but to have everything totally wiped out is a nightmare.
“Right now, it is almost like living in the middle of a garbage dump.”
In fact, Salchert said you don’t realize the extent of the devastation until you see it.
“Even the pictures don’t show the extent of the damage,” she remarked, noting she and her husband hope to return this fall to help some more.