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A glimpse of hell

Paul Conrad/Aspen Times Weekly
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It was hard to believe that some places could make Pearlington look as if it were on the fast track to recovery, until we visited a thin peninsula of Louisiana south of New Orleans.

The towns of Port Sulphur and Buras are, for all intents and purposes, gone. They give meaning to the phrase, “There is no there, there.”We visited because of my curiosity. I worked in the oil and gas fields there during two summers between college years in the early 1980s. I lived with my sister’s family in Port Sulphur the first summer and stayed at a boarding house in Buras the next.Even if I were not relying on memories from 25 years ago, it would be difficult to recognize anything in Port Sulphur. The levee for the Mississippi is on one side; the levee holding back the bayou is on the other. The peninsula is split lengthwise by the Belle Chase Highway. There used to be several side streets to the west lined with modest homes and trailer houses. Now there are no side streets. All the houses are gone.The only structures remaining were two stately brick structures, a Catholic church and an office building of some type. We didn’t check to see if they were just facades – if anything remained inside the brick shells.The first hint that something is deadly wrong in Port Sulphur came about four miles north of town. We encountered our first massive FEMA-trailerville. Rows and rows of trailers were laid out grid-style, like a campground from hell.There are a few scattered trailer homes on individual lots around town, presumably where landowners were trying to recover a bit of their lives. But Port Sulphur is a long, long way from recovery. Even the firehouse has one end completely blown out. The other half is still used to park the machinery. I guess you make do.

Buras is downright depressing. It could be a village in Afghanistan or Iraq that had been blown to hell. Nearly every building still standing on the main drag was destroyed. A few homes on side streets are being rebuilt.



We talked to the proprietor of one of the few businesses operating in town, a small restaurant with a 12-by-12 kitchen and outdoor seating. The owner, a Buras native in his 40s, showed us pictures of his old restaurant. Across the street were his house and a gun shop. All were destroyed when the town was swamped by 35 feet of water, he said. Wind speeds exceeded 100 mph when the eye of the hurricane passed over.He and his wife have erected a sheet-metal building. His goal is to complete it with the restaurant downstairs and their home upstairs. He makes a heck of a good fried shrimp po’ boy sandwich.

He pointed out the old boarding house where I stayed when I lived in Buras. Sheffield’s had been converted into a single-family home and Christian bookstore. The ancient building appears to have survived the flood, somehow.At the center of the small town, which had a population of 3,358 in 2000, are the school, auditorium, government building and, across the street, the public library. A gaping hole had been ripped in the auditorium; the school is in shambles.But the bleakest symbol of Buras’ fate is at the fire station. “Rodent poison available, Mondays and Tuesdays,” said a sign out front.




All this 20 months after the storm. Buras will probably recover eventually, but with little help from the rest of the country.


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