LIANE HANSEN, host:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen.
It's been more than a year since the town of Cameron, Louisiana was virtually wiped out by Hurricane Rita, and still only about half the residents have come home. Those who returned say they've had to face one problem after another, from insurance battles to federal regulations that make it too expensive to rebuild.
NPR's Rachel Martin paid a visit to Cameron and filed this report.
RACHEL MARTIN: Brian Richard knew what to expect the day he came back to Cameron after Hurricane Rita. Only the skeletal frame of his church was left standing. His neighbors' homes flattened. And here on Beach Street, the three bedroom home where he was raised, and where he and his wife raised their own three children, was just gone.
Mr. BRIAN RICHARD (Cameron Resident): Just wasn't anything anywhere, you know. But, you know, it was hard. And - but, of course, you know, the first thing I said was, you know, everybody else has the same problem as I do, you know. I'm not going to feel sorry for myself, for sure.
MARTIN: So like most of the other 3,000 residents who've come back to the southern part of Cameron Parish, this construction worker and his wife put what belongings they salvaged into storage, put a trailer on their property and moved into the 12 by 34 square foot space, until they can figure out how to rebuild.
Ms. CARLA RICHARD (Cameron Resident): This is a one bedroom, a portable bath. It's not a huge tub but it does have a tub.
MARTIN: His wife, Carla, shows me around the carefully decorated unit that's been home since January.
Ms. Richard: I'll let you go in first. We're living little but we're living.
MARTIN: Before the storm, Cameron was an established coastal town made up of oil field workers and fishermen. And as the parish seat, it was alive with the hustle and bustle of civic life. Now, a year after Hurricane Rita, there are only a handful of permanent structures in Cameron, and the place feels hollow. Almost everyone lives in trailers; even the bank and the café on the main street operate out of small white campers. It's the only alternative, says Brian Richard.
Mr. RICHARD: That's the only way people can get home quickly, you know. They can afford maybe to buy a trailer, but they can't afford to build a home.
MARTIN: Parish officials say a combination of insurance battles and new, strict federal regulations on rebuilding have brought redevelopment to a standstill. The Richards are one of several families that have filed suit against insurance companies, because their homeowners policies didn't cover damage caused by Rita. And residents say the Federal Emergency Management Agency has made rebuilding even more expensive, because now homes have to be built on pylons that elevate houses between 10 to 20 feet in the air.
Brian Richard says these restrictions will make rebuilding costs prohibitive for the elderly and the handicapped who have to put in elevators. Richard himself lost a leg in a motorcycle accident and uses a prosthetic that makes it hard for him to climb stairs.
Mr. RICHARD: And I have pride at living here, you know. And there's a lot of old people that are that way. And they can't even consider coming home because, you know, they - first place, they can't afford it and...
Ms. RICHARD: And they can't live like that. They can't...
Mr. RICHARD: They can't climb the stairs and, you know, and all these things.
MARTIN: Cameron officials say they're trying to lure back residents by getting their economy on track again. Federal money has helped rebuild things like schools and roads. And corporate donations have helped jumpstart bedrock industries like fishing and shrimping.
On this afternoon, dockworkers help a local shrimper unload his morning catch on the banks of the Calcasieu River.
(Soundbite of fishermen)
MARTIN: They weigh the day's catch, pour the shrimp into huge crates. They cover them with layers of ice from a new plant donated by Shell Oil just a few weeks ago. A fisheries expert with the Louisiana State University, Kevin Stavlock(ph), comes down to the docks every once in a while to check up on the shrimpers who came back after the storm.
Mr. KEVIN STAVLOCK (Louisiana State University): A lot boats were destroyed during the storm. They were either washed up on the bank or they sunk. You can see across on that island over there, there's a mass sticking out; that's a 95 foot shrimp boat, steel old boat in the middle of those trees. And that's not the only one.
MARTIN: While Hurricane Rita destroyed most of the boats around here, the storm has also given shrimpers what they describe as the prettiest season in recent memory; big white shrimp with bright red eggs, prime quality and lots of them. Stavlock says the storm destroyed five key flood control structures designed to protect nearby marshlands. With those structures gone, the shrimp that were washed inland by the hurricane stayed there, fed on the organic materials and multiplied.
Mr. STAVLOCK: It just a huge crop of shrimp. The problem was our infrastructure is so badly damaged, we're having trouble taking advantage of it.
MARTIN: But even though business is good, like everyone else in Cameron, these shrimpers won't feel like things are getting back to normal until they can go home and rebuild.
Mr. CHRIS BERG(ph) (Cameron Resident): My name is Chris Berg.
MARTIN: Are you from Cameron? Where you live?
Mr. BERG: Yeah. I live over there.
MARTIN: Okay. And you...
Mr. BERG: You know where over there is?
MARTIN: No. It doesn't look like anything is over there.
Mr. BERG: They had a ferry here and the ferry sank during the storm. And the state don't want to bring the ferry back. I got my house and land is over there, and I ain't been over there in a year. You know, I could go over there but we can't get back to our property.
MARTIN: It's these kinds of concerns that prompted Brian and Carla Richard to start a community group that meets with city and parish officials. On this night, about 10 residents gather in the flood-damaged Cameron courthouse with a Parish official, and Carla Richard asks him a pointblank question.
Ms. RICHARD: We'd like to know what you know about the plans for the rebuilding of Cameron.
Mr. ERNEST BROUSSARD (Executive Director, Planning and Redevelopment Agency): I want to thank you guys...
MARTIN: Ernest Broussard is the executive director of the Planning and Redevelopment Agency for Cameron Parish. He listens to the group's concern that changes are coming too slowly, but he assures them that things are moving forward; first the courthouse and town square will be rebuilt, then the docks, he says, then come plans for a pier with restaurants and a boardwalk that could draw other business and even tourists.
Broussard admits all this won't do much to bring back many of the people who were displaced by the storm, but he says it's the only viable solution.
Mr. BROUSSARD: If we create the job opportunities, the business opportunities, we're going to get new faces. They may not look the same. They may not be the same relatives that we were traditionally used to, but it's going to be in investment groups, it's going to be developers, it's going to be industry sectors that is going to look at us as way - it's a new frontier. That's how you rebuild.
MARTIN: It won't be easy, but some say it's a tradeoff Cameron has to accept.
Captain RON JOHNSON (Chief Deputy Sheriff): You know, people have to deal with that. We got to accept that and move along.
MARTIN: Captain Ron Johnson is the chief deputy sheriff of Cameron. He says despite insurance battles and FEMA regulations, the people who return to Cameron have the strength and spirit to rebuild. But he says there are days when even he gets momentarily derailed by a sense of loss and the slow pace of reconstruction.
Capt. JOHNSON: It's going to change or has changed lives forever, communities forever. If your community is not there, and you been there all your life, you raised your kids there, it's all gone. Until it gets rebuilt. I mean, it'll be - it'll be better, hopefully, you know.
MARTIN: Cameron officials have petitioned FEMA to ease restrictions on the rebuilding codes so more of its residence will come home. But FEMA officials say virtually all the inhabitable land in the southern part of the parish is now designated as flood plain and any exceptions to the rebuilding code would jeopardize public safety and any federal assistance when the next hurricane hits.
Rachel Martin. NPR News.
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