GRAND ISLE, La. – When Hurricane Ida hit last Sunday, Scooter Resweber, the local police chief, gathered his 10 officers in his corner office on the second floor where he believed they would be safest.
Behind his small desk, two massive panes of hurricane-resistant glass usually give Mr. Resweber a bird’s eye view of island houses and a postcard view of the Gulf of Mexico lapping the sand a few blocks away. But that day, with winds of 118 miles per hour, all he and his staff saw were destruction.
A two-story building across the street was quickly reduced to rubble, one of hundreds of buildings that were destroyed on the Grand Isle. “I watched it just go away,” he said. “The wind took it. I tore it up. “
Mr. Resweber, 74, and his officers survived, but the devastation of property and basic services on their fragile island was immense. They lost all communication with the mainland for more than 24 hours after the radio tower for walkie-talkies collapsed. Four days later, he assessed the effects – no emergency call, no running water, no electricity – and summed up the situation succinctly. “We have nothing.”
Hurricane Ida plunged the New Orleans area and many other parts of southeast Louisiana into distress: persistent power and water outages, schools closed indefinitely, streets flooded, roofs blown away, houses destroyed. The destruction on Grand Isle was particularly agonizing because the tiny patch was already so endangered.
Grand Isle is part of an eroding chain of barrier islands that line the southeast coast of Louisiana. Like all of the land in this part of the Louisiana coast, the islands were formed from clay, silt, and sand deposited by the Mississippi – a type of earthen jello that sinks despite global water levels, giving the region the dubious distinction: one of the world’s highest relative rate of sea level rise.
A long-standing sports and commercial fishing spot, Grand Isle is a place where visitors can see dolphins and pelicans on tour boats and where crowds of migratory songbirds rest after crossing the Gulf of Mexico.
Officially 1,200 people live in the city, although the local school only enrolls about 150 children because only a few people live here all year round. The population could grow to 3,000 in midsummer, Mr. Resweber estimated, as families gather to catch the ocean breezes from “camps” perched on stilts that range from two-room cottages to mansions-surrounded by almost mansion-screen verandas. Many have painted themes or names on the front: “Must Be Nice”, “LeBlancs Whispering Oaks”, “Curtis & Norma”.
Grand Isle, the state’s last inhabited barrier island, has played a critical role in hurricane protection for the mainland by providing a “speed bump” for slowly approaching storms. In recent years the federal government has 15 million soils of the Gulf. Much of that sand flowed onto the island last weekend when Ida split the burrito in two.
Days later, residents were still suffering from the destructive force of the storm.
Ida’s wind had ripped Jim King’s door off its hinges and washed it into the Gulf. “This is the worst I’ve ever seen,” said King, 74, as he gazed from his second-floor porch at a sea of missing roofs and rubble. “They’re almost all gone,” he said.
9/3/2021, 2:38 p.m. ET
On Ludwig Street, near the very edge of the island, Chuck Room, 56 – one of about four dozen residents who had not been evacuated before the storm – pointed to the Catholic Church of Our Lady of the Island. There Ida had pulled large trees from their roots, set two by four into the side of the building and smashed the upper window above the anteroom of the church, leaving a headless stained glass image of the Last Supper.
Mr. Raum’s younger sister, Missy Raum, evacuated inland, taking most of the family photos off the wall. When Ida arrived, he decided that he should also leave his three-room family house, which was built around 1958. He changed his clothes once and walked along Ludwigstrasse, pulling a beige kayak on a rope until he came to a town house where he was in riding the storm down a stairwell below the police station.
After the wind subsided, Mr. Raum rowed home in the kayak, fearing the worst. When he found little water and mud on the ground, he fell to his knees. “I am so grateful that this house survived,” he said. Puzzled after an explanation, but enthusiastic, he grabbed a marker and a nearby Bible and wrote on the cover: “Chuck! You could read that! “
Mr Resweber – who moved here as a newlywed couple 50 years ago – estimates the storm severely damaged 90 percent of the buildings outside of a handful of newer subdivisions, most of which were spared damage, possibly due to newer hurricane-resistant FEMA building codes. he said.
Much of the damage seemed accidental. Jay Carter, 38, a former Georgia firefighter who volunteered with a disaster relief group called the Cajun Navy, said he saw a tall Christmas ornament in the front yard of a ruined house.
Ida razed some seemingly solid buildings while leaving more rickety looking houses intact. In the Pelican Point subdivision, Mr. Resweber’s house was the only one that was destroyed. His right hand, Sgt. Jim Rockenschuh, 78, who has lived on the island since 1949, also lost his house. Both were uninsured; Previous Rockenschuh homeowners’ insurance premiums had risen to $ 12,000 a year; the boss to $ 8,000.
Although most of the visible damage on Grand Isle was caused by wind, Fred Marshall, 59, lost his follower to “vicious, nasty floods.” Still, he said, he wasn’t going to go.
“It gets in your blood,” he said as he rolled by on his bike and waved to his neighbor Leoda Bladsacker, who was sweeping leaves and mud from her second-floor porch.
Bladsacker, 66, was born on the island, delivered by a midwife, so the island is part of their DNA too. Despite being evacuated before Hurricane Ida, she didn’t feel right until she returned Thursday. “I needed my feet to touch this earth,” she said.