The Houma Nation Digs Out

Last Sept. 1, as Hurricane Gustav blasted the coastal Louisiana homeland of the United Houma Nation, tribal chief Brenda Dardar Robichaux hunkered down with friends and family members around a television with foil-wrapped bunny ears. They watched newscasters report with great relief that New Orleans had "dodged a bullet."

Meanwhile, the winds and rains of Gustav crushed mobile homes, felled trees, sheared away roofs, flooded roads, and washed elevated wooden houses from their pilings across the isolated swamplands occupied by the 17,000 Houma (pronounced HOE-muh) roughly 50 miles southwest of New Orleans.

Twelve days later, while the Houma were still assessing the damage, Hurricane Ike flooded the region. Structures that Gustav spared were fouled with mud and mold. It was the second time in three years that a one-two combination of natural disasters rocked the Houma Nation. In August and September of 2005, Hurricanes Katrina and Rita wreaked similar devastation on the Houma's bayou communities.

"I can't believe this is happening again," Robichaux said. "Even when you're in the middle of it, addressing needs, you're still in somewhat disbelief, two, three months after the hurricanes hit. It makes you stand back and evaluate what is our future. Where is our future?"

The Houma would prefer to remain at the land's edge, where they were forced to migrate centuries ago by conflicts with other tribes along with the colonial pressures of English and French settlers. The tribe's crest became a red crawfish, symbolizing its connection to the bayous and their bounty. Before roads, the Houma traveled by pirogue -- small, narrow, dugout-style watercraft. Many Houma today are small-scale commercial fishermen, though rising costs of ice, fuel, and boat maintenance, combined with lower catch returns and prices, are making it more difficult for them to make a decent living, let alone rebuild after hurricanes.

In the past, household farming supplemented the food and income brought in by fishing. But the same forces that heightened the impact of hurricanes in recent years -- coastal erosion and vanishing wetlands -- have diminished the yield of the Houma's yard-sized plots by allowing more frequent deluges.

Further complicating recovery efforts is the Houma's lack of status with the federal government. Although they are recognized as a tribe by the state of Louisiana, speak their own dialect of Louisiana French, and have unique traditions, including a style of palmetto weaving, the use of local medicinal plants, and their annual Elders Fest, the Houma are not recognized as a tribe by the federal government. "That means the tribe as a whole can't apply for [Federal Emergency Management Agency] funds," explains Robichaux. "We don't have the status, and therefore we don't have a government-to-government relationship. Other tribes in the state that were not as heavily impacted are receiving resources that we can't even request for infrastructure, for recovery, for disaster preparedness, all of which we desperately need. But we don't qualify."

After Katrina and Rita, the Houma benefited from the army of volunteers drawn to southern Louisiana by the widespread publicity of the destruction and the Bush administration's bungling. For months after the storms, Robichaux could look out her front window at tents sheltering hundreds of volunteers. They cleaned up debris, repaired and rebuilt homes using donated materials, and constructed an entirely new home for Miss Marie Dean, a Houma elder and talented weaver who lives alone. "It was ?Extreme Home Makeover,' Houma style," says Robichaux.

Sadly, Gustav and Ike destroyed Miss Marie Dean's new home, along with others that were fixed up after Katrina and Rita. Some of the former residents of those houses are now living in storage sheds. Others are crammed into single-family dwellings housing two to three families each. Approximately 7,000 Houma were directly affected by both the 2005 and 2008 storms. But this time around, there's no tent city outside Robichaux's window. The Houma chief blames the dearth of volunteers on the comparatively scant media attention the 2008 storms received once it became clear that New Orleans was out of danger. Another factor is what has been dubbed by the mainstream media as "hurricane fatigue."

But a silver lining emerged in the storm clouds over the Houma nation: The tribe's recovery experience following Katrina and Rita left the Houma far better prepared for Gustav and Ike. Between the sets of storms, the Houma rapidly developed their institutional capabilities by combining their time-honored survivalist resiliency with a newfound knack for modern networking. They went from raising funds with a food booth at New Orleans' Jazz Fest to accessing major national and international grant makers and community initiatives.

In 2006 and 2007, the United Houma Nation applied for and received more than $300,000 in grants from nonprofits, including: $100,000 for building materials from Church World Service; $25,000 from Veterans for Peace; $10,000 from the Rockefeller Gulf Coast Fund; and $30,000 from Neighborworks America, a nonprofit created by Congress to promote community-based revitalization efforts.

Part of that money went to the Old Store Relief Center, an old general store that was transformed into an intake and distribution center for emergency supplies. Those efforts blossomed into the now-extensive United Houma Nation Relief Office. In 2008, the UHNRO provided crisis relief in the immediate aftermath of Hurricanes Gustav and Ike and followed up with ongoing community outreach and services.

Through the relief office, mini-grants of up to $1,000 are available to tribal citizens who apply for a home-repair or fishing-vessel-repair grant. If a home is not repairable, the grant may go toward a down payment on a different house.

UHNRO program manager Samantha Shaffstall's desk has been piled with 90 to 100 case files at any given time since Gustav and Ike. An extensive database tracks the services that have been received by more than 2,500 Houma. Because Jim Crow laws prevented Houma children from attending public schools until the mid-1960s, and the few "Indian schools" only went up to the seventh grade, many older Houma today have trouble accurately completing disaster-relief paperwork that's confusing by any standards.

To combat this problem, Shafstall often traverses the six-parish service district, meeting with tribal citizens to help them navigate the red-tape labyrinth of insurance claims and applications for disaster relief to the Federal Emergency Management Agency and Road Home, the state of Louisiana's program for home-owners displaced by the 2005 storms that's been so ineffectual that frustrated residents dubbed it "Road to Nowhere."

The Houma recovery effort is further bolstered by the tribe's partnership with community organizations in the Lower 9th Ward and the Carrollton-Hollygrove neighborhoods of New Orleans. These groups joined with Tulane Law School's Tulane Institute on Water Resources Law & Policy in July 2008 to form How Safe, How Soon? The project focuses specifically on hurricane preparedness, along with such issues as evacuation and return, and policy questions regarding levees and coastal restoration. It also boasts an educational component, emphasizing ecologically sound building and rebuilding methods and simple tricks like deploying hurricane straps on roofs.

Even with increasing hurricane damage because of poor or absent levee protection, and advancing coastal erosion, Chief Robichaux says that with centuries of history in the area, it's "frustrating" when others suggest the answer to the Houma's problems is simply to abandon their land.

"We've had generation after generation who lived in these same communities," she says. "People can tell you stories about their fathers, their grandfathers, their great-great grandfathers, and some of the things that they did. So, for us it's a strong sense of community and ties to the community, ties to the land, ties to the area, ties to the lifestyle, the culture. It's not like where today people leave and buy a piece of property in a subdivision."