Storm-Stricken La. Town Fears Losing Residents

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One of the towns hit hardest by Hurricane Gustav was Montegut, La. Local officials say it could take weeks to bring electricity back to the community, and some worry that residents, tired of weathering hurricanes, will leave for good.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Now, let's go outside New Orleans now to some of the small towns that were directly in the path of Gustav. Montegut, Louisiana is about an hour southwest of New Orleans, and it's only 15 miles inland from the Gulf Coast. It's an oil industry and fishing town, and it could take weeks for crews to restore electricity to the 1,800 people who live there.

NPR's Jeff Brady reports.

JEFF BRADY: Nearly all of Montegut's residents left town for Hurricane Gustav, and few have been allowed back. Some basic services will have to be restored first, but that's going to take a long time because Fire Chief Spencer Rhodes feels like the world has forgotten him.

Chief SPENCER RHODES (Fire Chief, Montegut, Louisiana): We need food. We need drinking water. We need diesel food. We need communications, because my smoke signals don't look like it's getting up north where they need it.

BRADY: Tuesday afternoon, Rhodes could be found mopping the flooded floor of his fire station - suffered significant damage to the roof, so it's been leaking water. And if there's a fire in town, Rhodes has to duck under downed power lines in front of the station to reach his truck. Even then, there's no guarantee he'll be able to drive it.

Mr. RHODES: I had to go beg, borrow and steel to fill up a fire truck a while ago. It was running on a quarter of a tank.

(Soundbite of sweeping)

BRADY: A mile or so down the road, Selina Penell(ph) is sweeping some wet leaves off her patio. She's feeling a bit better and pretty lucky because her house was spared - just a few flower pots tipped over.

Ms. SELINA PENELL: And usually, the levee breaks. They didn't have the break in the levee this year.

BRADY: Penell says living in hurricane country requires some preparation. When she heard Gustav was coming, she filled the bathtub and picked up some drinking water from the supermarket.

Ms. S. PENELL: We fix up with water. And I got a drum in the back I used to have for my garden. So that I can use for the commode, you know. We get a bucket and flood the commode with it.

BRADY: Penell's daughter Mitsy(ph) has been driving around town checking out the damage. She says the post office is gone. She expects in a few months some of her neighbors will be gone, too.

Ms. MITSY PENELL: Every hurricane they got a couple of them that just get enough of it and move. But, you know, majority comes back. It's home.

BRADY: Her mom definitely counts herself among that majority. Selina has lived here her whole life and doesn't see any reason to leave.

Ms. S. PENELL: Oh, no. We will stay here. We're not moving from Montegut. You go somewhere else, you got tornado in Mississippi and all that.

BRADY: And Mitsy agrees.

Ms. M. PENELL: We staying. We ain't going nowhere else.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. M. PENELL: Thank the good Lord we're here.

(Soundbite of motor running)

BRADY: A few miles north, Steven Bagerron(ph) has a generator running to keep food in his refrigerator cold. Unfortunately, that's not enough power for an air conditioner, which feels like a necessity in 93 percent humidity.

Mr. STEVEN BAGERRON: We trying to clean up after Gustav passed by. Part of my roof got ripped off, so I got pots and pans and all kind of stuff collecting water in my house.

BRADY: Tuesday morning, Bagerron says water dripping on his head woke him up. He's getting that fixed. And now the yard is mostly clean out. It'll take many more days like this, but that's how you recover from a hurricane: crossing one thing after another off your to-do list.

Jeff Brady, NPR News, Montegut, Louisiana.

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