By: Matthew White
Cameron Parish, near Creole, LA 5/06
The above photo shows a man and his granddaughter tending to a small garden near the town of Creole in Cameron Parish. I was driving along the front ridge road that parallels LA-82 when I noticed this nice looking tree line. I stopped in front of the man's house and asked him if I could photograph his trees. He had no problem with it, but I snuck this shot in while he was preoccupied in the garden and it turned out to be my favorite of the small bunch I took in this spot. Though it looks as if the tall green grass stretches on forever here, the Gulf of Mexico is only a mile away, just beyond the horizon. It's interesting to consider that only nine months prior, this pastoral scene was completely buried under Hurricane Rita's 20-foot storm surge.
Cameron Parish is the largest parish in Louisiana, but also one of the most sparsely populated, covering the southwest corner of the state. It has made its reputation on its fine hunting and fishing, as well as being an excellent getaway for those who appreciate beaches uncrowded by high-rise hotels and noisy midways. In fact, up until Rita hit, Cameron Parish was probably the only place left in the entire country where you could build a house on the beach for less than $60,000. That way of life, however, has been put in serious jeopardy by the storms of 2005.
My photo trip to Cameron Parish took place over Memorial Day weekend of 2006; I worked out of a hotel room in Sulphur, an independent city that shares a line with the much larger Lake Charles, about 30 miles north of the Gulf. I'd rise up as early as possible and head south down LA-27 and spend my day running back and forth along LA-82, which cuts right along the coast through most of Cameron Parish, heading west to the Texas border at Sabine Pass.
The same area described also happened to be Hurricane Rita's ground zero. Not much was left standing here. Holly Beach, a community of 500 or so camp homes built right on the beach, vanished entirely. Not one single structure survived. Slightly to the east is the town of Cameron, the parish seat, which suffered a similar fate; although many homes were left standing, and though the courthouse survived just fine, every home, school, and store was flooded out and for the most part trashed. Oddly enough, Rita's destruction was a note-for- note repeat of 1957, when Hurricane Audrey struck the parish. The difference this time around was that for Rita, the entire parish was successfully evacuated; for Audrey, warnings were underplayed, inaccurate and ignored, which resulted in one third of the parish's population drowning in the surge.
Cameron, LA 5/06
Visiting the town of Cameron was a polarizing experience. On one hand I found myself energized by all the townsfolk scooting around with loads of wood and drywall, looking very focused on rebuilding, with an obvious sense of pride; on the other hand I almost felt sick at seeing all the destruction. The high school had been reduced to a bare steel frame; the only restaurant and bank in town were both working out of trailers. I did not snap too many shots in the center of town, as I felt it was somehow disrespectful, and for some reason I can't explain, I found myself getting choked up just seeing a banner over the bank-trailer that read "Capital One - Proud To Be Back In Cameron." It was the little things that tore me to shreds. I can't deny, however, the surge of determination and pride that I sensed from everyone who was there. No one was sitting around lamenting, no one was waiting on FEMA -- there was hard work to be done, and no one was going to tell these people they could not rebuild their town.
Holly Beach, La. 5/06
Pulling into Holly Beach was an even more surreal experience. This shot looks west across town -- nothing is there. Prior to Rita there would have been rows of camp houses extending to the horizon. Now there are only bare lots, punctuated occasionally by a trailer holding someone who was bold enough, as well as attached enough to this place, to come back and tough it out on the beach. Standing in a spot like this, it takes a while for the enormity of the event to sink in: an entire town was simply erased.
Meaux's Seafood, Holly Beach, LA 5/06
Nine months later and ninety degrees to the right of the last shot stands a small glimmer of hope. Meaux's Seafood was the first business in Holly Beach to reopen after Rita. The proprietor waited for no one. Somehow he had managed to come back, tow a double-wide onto his empty slab, build his icehouse, import a few soda machines, plant a palm tree, get his power hooked up and get on with life. Meaux scurried around attending to business, even while he talked and joked with anyone who came by to buy a bag of ice. It was mid-afternoon, the hottest part of the day, and I was tired. I asked Meaux if I could take a rest here ("Go right on ahead,") and he kept on his work while I sat in the white chair, propped my feet up on the post and fell asleep for a half-hour.
Meaux asked if I needed anything before I left, so I got some bottled water for the road. To me, Meaux seemed to sum up the spirit of Cameron Parish -- people who work hard and play hard and were going to keep on doing just that; no storm was going to stop them. Seeing things such as Meaux's store is to see an understated miracle; despite that fact that I was standing in a federal disaster area, I almost envied Cameron's population -- these folks who do it their own way, with their camps and stores, all here in this wide-open, dreamlike landscape by the sea, like some strange out-take from Fellini's Amarcord.
Toward Constance Beach, LA-82 5/06
The next day, after rising up in Sulphur, I headed west along LA-82, stopping for this view, the only part of LA-82's 142 miles that runs directly on the beach. It had been scoured away by Rita and was newly paved. Here was a view once cherished by residents of Holly Beach, which is right to my back. A few miles past the horizon here, the coast juts out a bit more so the usual distance between beach and highway resumes, through the town of Johnson Bayou, and finally reaching the Texas border at Sabine Pass. I decided to tag Texas to pick up some goodies for the rest of the day's drive, and stopped on the Texas side of Sabine Pass to take a shot looking back at Louisiana.
Louisiana From Texas, Sabine Pass, 5/06
This was a beautiful place, albeit a place that might cause anyone superstitious to raise an eyebrow; the center of Rita's eye travelled right through here, as did the eye of Hurricane Audrey, almost 50 years earlier. The result both times was the same; Cameron and Holly Beach were flattened. Both towns were rebuilt, as I'm sure they will be fully rebuilt again; these places are "built to be rebuilt," as the locals say, and the cycle goes on. The risk of hurricanes is the price to pay for a chance to live here, and after seeing Cameron Parish in person I wouldn't blame anyone for wanting to stay here. I wouldn't even think to question them.
After the day's shoot was done, I took one last spin past Holly Beach to get some good time in with the Gulf before heading back to Sulphur for the night. I took a long walk on the beach and kept looking back at the presently invisible town. It looked as if Meaux was getting ready to close up for the day. Further down the beach, a few people had come out of their trailers to sit on their lots and wait for the sunset, a ritual they had probably performed a thousand times. I sat down in the sand and waited for it also. Even though everyone I'd seen here seemed positive considering their predicament, I wished it hadn't happened, and wondered how, in a presumably decent world, it could have happened. Perhaps the few residents of Holly Beach were wondering the same thing; as I walked back to the highway I noticed the trailer beach dwellers still sitting there, looking out to the Gulf, which had no answers.
Gulf of Mexico, Cameron Parish, LA, 5/06
Matthew White is a native New Yorker who made Louisiana his home and his artistic focus in 2000. For five years he photographed nearly every notable location on the Louisiana coast. Hurricanes Katrina and Rita changed the landscape, but not Matthew’s vision and desire to show Louisiana’s unique beauty. While hundreds of others have documented the tragedy wrought by the storms, Matthew’s body of work captures the beauty that the storms of 2005 could not erase. Rather than clichéd incongruity and depressing devastation, Matthew’s photos capture a landscape touched by and triumphing over catastrophe. Matthew shares the same vision as blogger Margaret Saizan, looking “Beyond Katrina,” and lending a silent voice to disaster and recovery.
All Images are property of M.W. and may not be linked to another website, copied, or reproduced without permission. To see more photographs visit his website at http://rigolets.blogspot.com/. To view more of his photo-essays at Beyond Katrina, go here. Matthew White’s fine prints are available through email@example.com.