04 September 2008

Gustav Devastates Native American Communities: A First-Hand Account

The extent of Hurricane Gustav's damage is still largely unknown, in part because the media and officials seem to be downplaying its impact. The messages we're getting from the media--if any--are that state and federal officials finally got it right and the Gulf Coast dodged a Katrina-sized bullet. But while New Orleans may have been generally spared, we're hearing from our grantee partners that rural, low-lying coastal areas in the direct path of the storm were most certainly not.

Brenda Dardar Robichaux, Principal Chief of the United Houma Nation, tells it best in her own words. Founder of the United Houma Nation Relief Fund, a grantee of the Ms. Foundation's Katrina Women's Response Fund, she stayed in her community during Gustav. She has been trying to survey the destruction and the pressing needs of the Houma since it hit. There are more than 17,000 Houma living in different communities throughout Southeastern Louisiana. The highest concentration of Houma live in Terrebone and Lafourche, two of the bayou parishes that were expected to be hardest hit.

Brenda has been posting messages to the Nation's website as frequently as possible, which we share below. Her powerful first-hand experience and analysis of the situation demonstrates how painfully this crisis will exacerbate the already pressing needs of the Houma--many of whom were still struggling to recover from Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, not to mention centuries of entrenched discrimination and inequality.

Today, Brenda told us that many roads are still impassible, water mains are broken, power is out, but that they're still trying their best to prepare for peoples' immediate needs when they start coming back tomorrow.


About 20 of my family and friends has chosen to ride out Hurricane Gustav with us at our home in Raceland. Our home is on a high ridge right across from Bayou Lafourche. Last night was a relatively calm night with little wind and rain. But that soon changed. We lost electricity at 6:05 AM and are using batteries and a generator to stay in touch with what is happening throughout our communities. The wind has picked up considerably here to about 85 MPH. Some of us are sitting on the back porch watching in amazement how huge oak trees can bend and not break while magnolia tree branches fall. Others are glued to the TV listening intently for word of where Gustav is headed and the impact he is having. The latest update is my worst fear for the Houma People as it is learned that he is approaching the bayous in Terrebonne and Lafourche parish. I feel we have done our best to make sure everyone has evacuated safely. The rest is out of our hands.

Hurricane Katrina and Rita left Plaquemine and St. Bernard Parishes with barely a home left standing or livable. It has been a challenge to assist our People in these communities when there is nothing left to start with. Some are still living in FEMA trailers, with family and friends and a few are finally returning to a home. Terrebonne and Lafourche Parishes have been on the road to recovery for the past 3 years with lives just getting back to normal. My fear for the past three years has been “What if Terrebonne and Lafourche Parishes suffered total devastation as Plaquemine and St. Bernard Parishes? These are the communities with the highest concentration of Houma People. How would we recover knowing the challenges we still face in Plaquemine and St. Bernard?" I am paralyzed in fear that this is what is happening. The great people of the Houma Nation that I am so honored to represent, who have faced many challenges over the years are about to face one of our greatest challenges.

As I sit and write the winds are blowing and Gustav is approaching. I pray for protection, strength and courage to face what lies ahead.


Hurricane Gustav has come and gone but his impact remains...to what extent is still uncertain. Our home has a minimal amount of damages with lots of down trees. The Old Store which served as the center of our relief services in the aftermath of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita also suffered wind damage. My concern is to be able to repair the damages as soon as possible so that we may begin to provide relief services in the building. We are without electricity and have very limited cell phone services but do have internet and e-mail. There is a TV being run by a generator with rabbit ears wrapped in foil but can only catch one channel.

Although Hurricane Gustav made landfall in Terrebonne Parish, most coverage is about New Orleans again. We are very limited in the amount of accurate information on the damages to our tribal communities which is quite frustrating. We made an attempt to gain access to our communities to access the damages but were turned away by road blocks. Power lines are still down making the highways impassable. We receive calls from tribal citizens who evacuated the area seeking information on when they can return and the extent of the damages. We have nothing to share at this time. The unknown is agonizing.


Although we were turned away by road blocks as we tried to gain access into Terrebonne Parish, waiting and wondering was no longer an option. Determined, eight of us decided to venture "down the bayou" in order to see if we could get through to our communities in Lower Lafourche Parish. We made it through two road blocks by showing my dad Whitney's driver's license providing proof that he lived in the community. Many stops were made along the way assessing the damages to our People's home and property and then calling the homeowner with the news. Power lines and trees are down, but most homes are still in tact with wind damage, no flooding. My dad offered praise and glory to the creator as he realized his fishing boat was spared any damage. Although a fellow tribal citizen and friend's boat didn't do as well and has some cabin damage. Our last stop was the Old Indian Settlement School which serves as the UHN tribal center. It too has roof damage but remains in tact. The little building in the front built by volunteers in which we hope to house our future radio station didn't do so well and has extensive roof damage. Everyone breathed a sigh of relief that although there is wind damage, homes are left standing and can be rebuilt.

The next stop on our journey was to try to gain access to Grand Bois. We attempted to travel a wooded highway known as the Houma shortcut. After going approximately 10 miles around trees that lined the highway, one huge tree blocked the entire highway and forced us to turn around. So the damages to this community remains unknown to us.

We then made another attempt to gain access into Terrebonne Parish as we learned that Tier 2 people were being allowed into the parish. We made it through two road blocks and headed "down the bayou" to Dulac. Unfortunately, Hurricane Gustav was not as kind to this community. We traveled down the bayou on Grand Cailou Road and then made an attempt to head back up the bayou on Shrimpers Row but the road was impassable due to flooding, downed power lines and trees. With the smell of marsh water in the air, we traveled through water knee high in order to access the flood damages. Some homes were flooded the extent depending on the elevation of the home with the lower level homes receiving the most damage. The extensive damages to this community were mostly caused by wind. We witnessed everything from minor wind damage to total loss of use, with most homes in need of major repairs.

It is unknown when the People from this community will be allowed back home. The unavailability of re-entry causes a financial burden which has great cause for concern. It can be compared to an unplanned vacation with lodging, gas and eating expenses.

With extensive power lines and trees down, throughout our communities, it will be quite some time before electricity is restored. It's heartbreaking to see the Houma Nation community going through this again just three years after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

Today, we plan to journey to St. Bernard parish to access Hurricane Gustav's impact on this community.

These images were taken as we assessed the impact of Hurricane Gustav on the Dulac community.

--Brenda Dardar Robichaux, Principal Chief, United Houma Nation

Top photo: Back of Dulac Community Center, 9/3/2008
Credit: Brenda Dardar Robichaux, United Houma Nation

Bottom photo: Brenda Dardar Robichaux, August 2006
Credit: Leslie Parr

1 comment:

  1. Brenda, my heart goes out to you and your people. As a native of Bourg, I witnessed the fragmenting of the native American community over the last generation. Your people were pushed to the edges of the land by other people, and now that land is being taken away by coastal erosion. I hope and pray for only the best for your family and the Houma nation.