Hurricane Gustav leaves Louisiana tribes with severe damage

by Terri C. Hansen
Environment and Science Reporter

Gustav hit the rural Terrebonne Parish and the United Houma Nation communities southwest of New Orleans the hardest, causing heavy damage before moving into St. Mary Parish and causing wind damage to the Chitimacha Reservation.


The Chitimacha Tribe of Louisiana on the Gulf Coast took a direct hit from Hurricane Gustav just after noon on September 1. Reports confirm the eye of the storm struck Morgan City 30 miles east of their reservation causing heavy damage before moving northwest directly at their reservation at near 15 mph, with top winds of 105 mph. Damages to the reservation in Chareton, St. Mary Parish, have not been reported but early Monday morning power outages were reported throughout the parish.


Tuesday morning telephone calls to their tribal police department were not answered nor was there voice mail, indicating a power outage in the area.


Reports coming in indicate the United Houma Nation in LaFourche Parish 60 miles east of Chitimacha also sustained serious damage with downed power poles and trees, and news reports of roofs ripped from buildings. Residents of the parish were under mandatory evacuation.

The tribal police force of 22 officers stayed, as did the fire department. “We secured the casino, and boarded up the government buildings," tribal firefighter Earl Tyler said Sunday, who had “strongly" suggested tribal members leave. The school and an assisted living center were potential shelters after the hurricane passed, though the extent of the damages was not yet known.

Chitimacha Chief Lonnie Martin said Sept. 3, that some power to the reservation was returning, and most of the residents who evacuated had returned. “A lot of trees are down and there are some roofs damaged but thankfully, no flooding,” Martin said. The BIA provided federal relief with bottled water and MREs “which our police officers are distributing to the residents as we speak.”


Martin said the non-federally recognized Houma tribal communities in Terrebonne received the brunt of the storm with high winds, tornado activity, and flooding. Hurricane Gustav has been declared a “major disaster,” meaning those residents are eligible for federal funding for housing and recovery from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which could include money for home repair, temporary housing, and other recovery costs, although it was reported after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita that they had difficulties accessing those funds.


Houma Principal Chief Brenda Dardar Robichaux blogged Sept. 3, that they were without power, but a generator enabled their communication by Internet. Robichaux traveled to every Houma community that was accessible by car, reporting extensive damage with power lines and trees down. The most extensive damages were to their community of Dulac, where, “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 will be allowed back home. The unavailability of re-entry causes a financial burden, which has great cause for concern – compare to an unplanned vacation with lodging, gas, and eating expenses. It's heartbreaking to see the Houma Nation community going through this again just three years after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.” Immediately after those storms hit their situation was dreadful enough that the National Congress of American Indians rented a plane to fly local leaders of their communities and what they saw was nothing. At the time Robichaux said, “People’s homes looked like they never existed; their homes were simply gone. They are all fishermen, and their boats were ashore, somewhere inland.”


Gustav made landfall as a Category 2 hurricane, with hurricane-force winds extending outward up to 70 miles from the center, and tropical storm force winds extending out 200 miles. A tropical storm warning with possible hurricane conditions was still in effect for the area as of 4:30 pm Monday, with winds of 45 to 55 mph with gusts to around 75 mph, decreasing to 30 to 40 mph with gusts to 50 mph after midnight. The storm is forecast to weaken as it moves inland further during Wednesday.

The Chitimacha tribe is in the bayous on the Gulf Coast in South Louisiana, 100 miles southeast of New Orleans. About 350 of their 900 tribal members live on the reservation. Buses were provided to evacuate those with no transportation, said tribal police Officer Ellen Hebert.


She said 60 to 70 percent left.


Hurricane Gustav was building into a massive, major hurricane as it moved closer to the Gulf Coast, but by the time it got within striking distance of land, it had been downgraded to a Category 2 storm. By Monday afternoon after it moved over land, it was only a Category 1, but dangerous winds and heavy rain still had officials worried.


According to the National Hurricane Center in Miami, Hurricane Gustav entered the Gulf of Mexico as a Category 4 storm. It slipped back to Category 3 on August 31 with sustained wind speeds of 120 mph, but had been expected to regain Category 4 strength by landfall on the Gulf Coast on Monday, Sept. 1 on Labor Day. To the relief of many, that did not happen.


The Coushatta saw steady winds of 25 to 30 mph, and gusts to 40 mph. Both tribes – whose offices were closed for the holiday weekend – had expected heavy rainfall, and thunderstorms to last several days.

The United Houma Nation Relief Fund, set up after Katrina, is still active. To donate visit their website.