GRAND ISLE, LA. When Hurricane Ida blew over last Sunday, Scooter Resweber, the local police chief, gathered his 10 officers in his second-floor corner office where he thought they would be safest.
Behind his small desk, two massive panes of hurricane-resistant glass usually give Mr. Resweber a panoramic view of the houses on the island and a postcard of the Gulf of Mexico rippling in the sand a few blocks away. But that day, amid winds of 118 miles an hour, he and his staff saw nothing but destruction.
A two-story building across the street was quickly reduced to rubble, one of hundreds of buildings destroyed on Grand Isle. “I just saw it disappear,” he said. “The wind took it with it. Blow it apart.”
Mr Resweber, 74, and his officers survived, but the destruction to property and basic facilities on their fragile island was enormous. They lost all communication with the mainland for more than 24 hours after the radio tower used for walkie-talkies went down. Four days later, surveying the impact — no 911 service, no running water, no electricity — he succinctly summarized the situation. “We have nothing.”
Hurricane Ida caused hardship in the New Orleans area and many other parts of southeastern Louisiana: prolonged power outages and water outages, schools closed indefinitely, flooded roads, roofs blown away, homes destroyed. The destruction in Grand Isle was particularly painful because the small spot was already so threatened.
Part of an eroding chain of barrier islands along Louisiana’s southeast coast, Grand Isle is a narrow swath totaling just eight square miles, averaging about 800 feet wide. Like all of the land in this part of the Louisiana coast, the islands were formed by clay, silt, and sand deposited by the Mississippi River — a kind of earthen jello that is sinking even as global water levels rise, causing the region gets the dubious distinction of having one of the world’s highest rates of relative sea level rise.
An old sports and commercial fishing center, Grand Isle is a place where visitors on tour boats can spy on dolphins and pelicans, and where crowds of migrating songbirds stop to rest after crossing the Gulf of Mexico.
Officially, the city is home to 1,200 people, although the local school only enrolls about 150 children because few people live here all year round. The population could increase to 3,000 at the height of summer, Mr Resweber estimated, due to the families gathering to catch the sea breeze from “camps” perched high on stilts, ranging from two-room cabins to near-mansions surrounded by screen porches. . Many have themes or names painted on the front cover: “Must Be Nice”, “LeBlancs Whispering Oaks”, “Curtis & Norma”.
Grand Isle, the last inhabited barrier island in the state, has played a vital role in hurricane protection for the mainland, providing a “speed bump” for slowing down approaching storms. In recent years, the federal government has spent $15 million installing breakwater rocks and more than $52 million on a 3-foot-tall surge protector known as a “burrito embankment” — weatherproof fabric filled with 760,000 cubic feet of sand pumped from the deepening of the Gulf. Much of that sand poured into the island last weekend when Ida split the burrito in half.
Days later, residents were still reeling from the storm’s destructive power.
Ida’s wind had pulled Jim King’s door off its hinges and pulled it into the Gulf. “This is the worst I’ve ever seen,” said King, 74, as he looked at a sea of missing roofs and debris from his second-floor porch. “They’re almost all fucking gone,” he said.
On Ludwig Street, close to the very edge of the island, Chuck Raum, 56 — one of about four dozen residents not evacuated before the storm — pointed to Our Lady of the Isle Catholic Church. There, Ida had pulled large trees from their roots, placed a two-by-four in the side of the building, and smashed the upper windows of the vestibule of the church, leaving a headless stained-glass Last Supper.
Mr. Raum’s younger sister, Missy Raum, evacuated the interior, taking most of the family photos off the wall with her. When Ida arrived, he decided that he too had to leave his three-room house, built around 1958. “I didn’t know if this place was going to last,” said Mr. Raum, packing a rucksack full of toiletries, changing his clothes once and walking down Ludwig Street pulling a beige kayak on a rope until he came to a city building, where he beat the storm. exited a stairwell below the police station.
After the wind died down, Mr. Raum rowed home in the kayak, fearing the worst. When he found only a little water and mud on the floor, he fell to his knees. “I’m so grateful that this house survived,” he said. Astonished at a statement, but in ecstasy, he picked up a marker and a nearby bible and wrote on the cover: ‘Chuck! Maybe you are reading this!”
Mr Resweber — who moved here as a newlywed 50 years ago — estimates the storm caused significant damage to 90 percent of buildings outside a handful of newer subdivisions, which largely escaped damage, perhaps because of newer FEMA hurricane-resistant building codes, he said.
Much of the damage seemed random. Jay Carter, 38, a former Georgia firefighter who volunteered with a disaster relief group called the “Cajun Navy,” said he saw a Santa ornament perched high in the front yard of a completely destroyed home.
Ida has razed some apparently solid buildings to the ground, leaving the more rickety houses unscathed. In the Pelican Point subsection, Mr. Resweber’s house was the only thing that was destroyed. His right-hand man, Sgt. Jim Rockenschuh, 78, an islander since 1949, also lost his home. Both were uninsured; Rockenschuh’s previous homeowner’s insurance premiums had risen to $12,000 a year; the chief for $8,000.
While most of the visible damage on Grand Isle was due to the wind, Fred Marshall, 59, lost his trailer to “nasty, filthy floodwater.” Still, he said he had no intention of leaving.
“It’s in your blood,” he said, speeding past on his bike, with a quick wave to his neighbor Leoda Bladsacker, who was sweeping leaves and mud from her second-floor porch.
Bladsacker, 66, was born on the island, gave birth to a midwife, and so the island is part of her DNA in the same way. Although she was evacuated before Hurricane Ida, she was not feeling well until she returned on Thursday. “I needed my feet to touch this earth,” she said.