Touring Louisiana's Cameron Parish

Hurricane Rita devastated many small towns along the southern border of Texas and Louisiana. Lt. Gen. Russell Honore, head of the military response mission, tours one of the hardest hit areas, Cameron Parish.

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Over the past few days, it's become clear that the area hardest hit by Hurricane Rita is the town of Cameron, Louisiana. Cameron is a small place and its 2,000 residents fear that the entire city has been wiped out. NPR's Alix Spiegel has the story.

ALIX SPIEGEL reporting:

Lieutenant General Russel Honore came down to Cameron Parish to survey the damage. He was one of the first people there to see the destruction from the ground. Honore is commander of military relief operations after Katrina, and as he drove down Route 27 in a convoy to the town of Cameron, his truck had to swerve past full houses blocking the road and mile after mile of dead cows. At one point, he saw a live cow, the only one, looking nervous as if it didn't know where to go, and the general called out.

Lieutenant General RUSSEL HONORE: Keep going, mama cow. You're going to be all right.

SPIEGEL: Though Hurricane Rita's effects weren't as devastating as those of Katrina, the general said that here in Cameron, the damage seemed extreme.

Lt. Gen. HONORE: I think this compares with Biloxi-Gulfport area as far as the destruction, things being destroyed. See, it lifted that marsh out of the water. That's a powerful surge.

SPIEGEL: Everyone in the general's truck was quiet for a while, taking it all in. Then one of the cameramen from a local station named Mike Sellers(ph) started calling out familiar landmarks.

Mr. MIKE SELLERS (Cameraman): I grew up straight south of here in a trailer on the ridge. And from what I've been told from people who have flown over there, nothing's out there anymore. I grew up 300 yards from the beach.

SPIEGEL: Sellers had volunteered to film the tour because he was anxious to see his parents' home and also to see for himself what was left of his town. For the rest of the ride, he gave a tour of a community that was no longer there.

Mr. SELLERS: Yeah, this is United Methodist Church. There's nothing left, just the A-frame. And the public waterworks is back that way. There's nothing left of that building, either. Coming up here on the south side, well, this used to be the Cameron Motel and Outrigger Restaurant. Right here is the Cameron Elementary auditorium. No walls left, just a roof. Pat's Restaurant, gutted. Wow.

SPIEGEL: At one point, the scale of it all seemed to get to him. His voice became strained and tears came to his eyes.

Mr. SELLERS: Right here in front of the school is where I first had fat alligator(ph) as a kindergartner, five years old. This was the kindergarten.

SPIEGEL: The convoy finally arrived in Cameron city and was met by Clifton Aberry(ph), a man who is helping with the cleanup and who, like everyone else in town, had watched the TV helicopter shots of Cameron but was seeing it from the ground for the first time. Aberry said he was shocked by what he found.

Mr. CLIFTON ABERRY: Looking at it from the air, you see a rooftop, and from 500 feet, you say, `OK. Well, there's a house standing,' but I can tell the people that after driving through here, there's not a house standing. There may be a rooftop or, you know, there may be some studs there, but there are no structures left in Cameron Parish.

SPIEGEL: As the general met with other military commanders, Mike Sellers set off to see his parents' home. It was tough going. There was at least a foot of dark water everywhere, and in places, there was so much debris it was almost impossible to pass. Making his way, Sellers met up with a couple of local workers there to help with cleanup who were also wading through the watery streets to visit their former homes.

Mr. SELLERS: Yeah, I'm trying to get over to my mom and dad's.

Mr. AVERY PETERSON(ph): Who's your dad?

Mr. SELLERS: Paul and Cindy Sellers(ph), Kojak(ph).

Unidentified Woman: Yeah.

Mr. PETERSON: OK.

Unidentified Woman: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah, I recognize you.

Mr. PETERSON: I recognize you now.

Mr. SELLERS: Yeah.

Mr. PETERSON: I live over there on the corner, Avery Peterson.

Mr. SELLERS: OK.

Mr. PETERSON: What you can do is...

Mr. SELLERS: Go through here and...

Mr. PETERSON: ...walk through here.

SPIEGEL: Finally he rounded a corner, and suddenly Mike Sellers got very quiet.

Mr. SELLERS: That's not good.

SPIEGEL: Though the house was still there, it had been moved from its foundation several feet. There was so much debris it was impossible to reach the door and a dead horse was smashed up against the garage, its head covered by siding. Sellers just stood there, looking.

Mr. SELLERS: Oh, if they can pick the house up and move it back onto the foundation, that would be one thing. It's hard to tell.

SPIEGEL: Sellers stood for a few minutes more, then made his way back to the truck. Another group of workers was gathered in the small staging area, talking about the graveyard. They said the water had pushed mausoleum doors open, and bodies were lying everywhere. The men agreed that today they would return the bodies to their resting places. They didn't know which bodies went where, but they said they would try all the same.

Alix Spiegel, NPR News, Cameron Parish, Louisiana.

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