As Isaac morphed from tropical storm to category 1 hurricane, members of the United Houma Nation in six parishes near the Louisiana shoreline hunkered down or evacuated as the tribe braced for a direct hit seven years to the day after Hurricane Katrina.
“Pretty much everyone that’s gonna move has already moved or planning on just hunkering down,” said Principal Chief Thomas Dardar Jr., speaking from his home in Terrebonne Parish, directly in Isaac’s sights. As of Tuesday afternoon, he said, they had not yet seen the effects of the storm, which was scheduled to hit land late Tuesday or early Wednesday.
“Just the outer bands—wind, a little rain,” he told Indian Country Today Media Network. He said about 300 Houma Nation members living right near the Gulf of Mexico had evacuated. The 17,000 members of the United Houma Nation are spread across six parishes, all of which were under hurricane watch on Tuesday. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)'s National Hurricane Center was predicting storm surges of six to 12 feet in Mississippi and southeastern Louisiana.
Those outer bands were packing a wallop in and of themselves, with 50 mile-per-hour wind gusts, sustainable at 30, Dardar said. As it strengthened, it headed straight for Houma territory. All openings in the levees had been closed up, Dardar said, and sandbags and other infrastructure had been set up to hold back any rising tides. In addition, he said, shelters were open in Terrebonne and other parishes.
He emphasized that once the waters started to rise, anyone who hadn’t moved was stuck. “There’s only one way down and one way up,” Dardar said.
“Last time we had about 300 that live closer to there that moved,” he said. “So there’s probably about 300 of them who moved up, just due to the nature, the high tide.”
Several things were working in the Houma’s favor, Dardar noted. Lessons absorbed from previous hurricanes, such as Katrina, were being tested this time. “A lot of our homes since hurricane Katrina have been elevated and lifted.”
The tribal radio station was planning to keep broadcasting until the last possible moment, according to the Houma Nation website, taking down its tower when the winds got too strong.
“We’re hoping that it’s not going to be a real powerful storm, at least not right now,” Dardar said. They were hoping for minimal flood damage, and he noted that the elevated houses had yet to be tested by high winds.
“It will be interesting to see the homes that have been lifted up, see how they weather,” he said. As for the homes that are still at ground level, “Flood damage hopefully will be minimal. But there’s still some homes that are down, so we’ll have to check with tribal citizens and see how they fared.”
The damage that came with Katrina seven years ago hit after the storm. “It was the tidal surge that came in, because Katrina had already passed through in the night,” Dardar said. As that storm moved into the Mississippi, the wraparound effect caused the tidal surge to come in, destroying coastline homes with a combo of wind and water.
“The water went up the Mississippi River and breached the levy, then came back down to the Gulf, and that’s where they received their damage,” he said. “They could tell because the homes were shifted back toward the Gulf.”
Another concern for the Houma is the potential for oil left over from the BP oil spill of 2010 to be churned up and regurgitated, Dardar said. The dispersant that was sprayed had weighed the water-surface oil down and dragged it underwater, and he didn't know whether high winds could change that.
“This storm hopefully is not one that will kick it up and bring it on shore,” he said. “They capped some of it, they burned some of it… so it’s still there somewhere, it’s below the surface. This storm hopefully won’t churn it up and bring it up and bring it onshore with the tidal surge.”
Such flood damage from another source during Katrina forced the bulldozing of entire areas, with residents not allowed to go back inside and claim their possessions. “They lost everything. That’s one of the things we’re concerned with,” he said, adding that tribal authorities were telling people, “If you leave, take everything you really want, because if it all comes up you may not be able to go back and retrieve it. Make sure you take your pictures also.”
As of Tuesday afternoon there wasn’t much left to do but sit and wait.
“We’re not expecting it to be a Katrina,” he said. “We’re just hoping for the best. Preparing for the worst but praying for the best. There are lots of new levees in place since last storm, and hopefully they’ll do their job. If they do their job, we’ll be fine.”