If America had an insatiable appetite for fossil fuels, then Louisiana was one of the workhorses providing them. And perhaps there was no greater demonstration of the state’s importance in this role than Port Fourchon. Little known outside of the region, this oil port at the southern tip of Lafourche Parish had been a critical cog in the supply chain of hydrocarbons for decades. In fact, as much as 18% of the nation’s oil supply flowed through Port Fourchon, and its facilities served as a nexus for nearly all of the deepwater oil production in the Gulf of Mexico. In all, 80% of deepwater oil production from the Gulf, alongside 50% of natural gas production, flowed into the port. It was a bustling location, where men and women took seriously their part in fueling America’s way of life. On a normal day, 1.5 million barrels of oil were transported through the port, while more than 400 large vessels moved into and out of its channels. Hence, there was never room for error in this symphony of hard work.
But Friday, August 27, 2021, began as an unusually hectic day at Port Fourchon. Preparations were underway for the arrival of Hurricane Ida, which, at that time, was forecasted to become a major storm by its imminent landfall. Ida was still two days away, but officials monitoring the track of the storm were not taking any chances. Port Fourchon, after all, was a dredged pocket of land penetrated by wide inlets to Bayou Lafourche and the Gulf of Mexico and surrounded by a vast swathe of marsh; nothing afforded the industrial complexes located there any real protection against the onslaught of a major hurricane. And so, the order went out, quite early in the day, for vessels to evacuate the port.
To move out of the path of the storm, many of the boats were relocating as far west as Galveston, Texas, and it was now the responsibility of crews at the port to prepare them for their journeys. One of the men on those crews was Nick Helmer. The thirty-three-year-old resident of Galliano had been on this job for just over two years, loading and unloading fuel, oil, and chemical onto and off these vessels. He was no stranger to this work – nor to the sense of urgency that came with the threat of a hurricane. Even still, he had a different feeling about this storm.
When forecasters predicted that Hurricane Ida would have become a major Category 4 storm, Nick began to worry. At the first opportunity, the fuelman made a phone call to his mother who had been living with him for a few years. MaryLynn was at home suffering with the mild symptoms of a Covid-19 infection, and Nick wanted to know, given her condition, how comfortable she felt about evacuating from their home, just a thirty-minute drive north, up the lonely stretch of road known as LA 1. He was prepared to leave, but as he explained to her, the decision rested with her.
“I’m not leaving,” MaryLynn told her son. “I trust this little house.”
It was a fateful decision that would change the way Nick thought about his safety every day after it was made. Not inclined to leave his mother behind, Nick made plans to hunker down. He bought a generator and provisions, just as parish officials announced a mandatory evacuation of Lafourche Parish. And as he watched his neighbors leave the area, he assured himself that things would be okay.
According to Nick’s recollection, the rain began falling on Saturday, August 28th, but the most consequential effects of Hurricane Ida arrived on August 29, 2021, the sixteenth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina’s destructive landfall. At first, things did not seem so bad. To be sure, the electricity was gone within thirty minutes of the winds picking up speed, but for the first three hours of the event, Nick watched the storm from the shelter of a neighbor’s porch. This storm seemed no worse than some others that he experienced in the past, he thought – but he soon learned that his judgment was premature.
By the fourth hour of the storm’s intense approach, the winds were becoming violent. By the fifth and sixth hours of the event, those same winds, now even more ferocious, had collapsed a neighbor’s shed and begun to rip roofs apart. His own roof was not spared, unfortunately. As the shingles tore from their placement, Nick thought the noise sounded like the constant ripping of construction paper. In total, the little house in which his mother had so much faith took a beating for approximately twelve hours – but this was still just the beginning of the trauma. By the seventh hour, MaryLynn wondered aloud if the town’s levees would hold. Nick wondered the same thing, and he went over to a window to locate a neighbor’s boat, only to watch it, in that very moment, be blown across the street.
The worst was yet to come. Nick recalled, “The wind was so vigorous that it was blowing water through the window seals and into the house, by feet!” The wind-driven rain stretched about twenty feet, across the Helmer’s living room and into their kitchen. And to make matters worse, the metal front door bent under the force of the barrage, allowing even more rain into the house, and a window in a bedroom broke, leaving that room drenched, as well.
“Give-up hit me. We can’t stop the water.” Nick recounted.
Strangely enough, rather than feeling anxious or defeated, his mother had a far different demeanor. Even as rain swamped the house and ruined furniture, MaryLynn remained calm – calm enough, in fact, to brew a pot of coffee. At first, Nick did not know what to make of this behavior, but he ultimately joined her to have a cup. Even with all the chaos swirling around them and encroaching upon their lives, the mother and son took a moment to enjoy each other’s company and remind themselves that, no matter what was lost, they still had their bond.
That special, if slightly odd, moment was, indeed, brief. Nick and his mother heard a constant drip from – of all places – the kitchen cabinets. Upon opening one of them, a flood of water cascaded down to the countertops and onto the floor. The ceilings of the house were clearly compromised, and now the race was on to soak up as much water as possible with every towel and article of clothing that the two could find.
As she tried sapping up the water, MaryLynn stood up. Her hand near her chest, she uttered, “Hey, Nicholas, something’s not right.”
“No! No heart attacks, right now!” he told her, jokingly.
“No,” she replied, “I’m feeling a lot of pressure.”
Nick was not buying it. “A’ight, hypocon—”
In that instant, before he could finish the words, Nick Helmer’s ears popped!
Almost instinctively, Nick ran to the front of the house, and moved the soaked shades aside to look out of a living room window. There, what he saw stretched the boundaries of his imagination. The roof of the neighboring Galliano Foodstore (often called “the IGA” by locals) was peeling apart, and large chunks of the debris were being lifted into the rainy sky. After dangling aloft for what seemed to Nick like a few, very long seconds, that debris rained down onto his neighbor’s house, at frightening speed, impaling the walls and roof, and smashing windows, in the process.
Then he saw the walls of his own house began to heave. Nick turned back to his mother, and he spoke with genuine certainty. “We are gonna die!”
The two immediately dropped everything and raced into a bathroom. From there, they watched in awe, as every window of the two-story home to their rear exploded outward. Nick marveled at the white drapes gliding in the wind. It was like something from a movie, he thought.
Fear was not an emotion that this rough oilfield worker easily conceded to feeling. In fact, while hunkering down in that bathroom, he resigned himself to a singular thought: “Whatever happens happens.” Alas, there were still hours before the most intense effects of Hurricane Ida would pass Galliano.
Even though Nick had a portable radio, there was very little information about his community and, more importantly, about where the storm stood with respect to them. Mobile service was spotty, at best, but he was able to get a text message from a relative, at 2:27pm CDT, showing the eyewall of the storm at Golden Meadow, a community to his south. Just shortly after that, he texted the relative to ask how much longer before it passed, adding that he was unsure if his house could take any more of a pounding.
Surprisingly enough, though, while MaryLynn’s faith in their little house was put to the test, that little house stood. Nick and his mother emerged from the storm unscathed. And while their home sustained moderate damage, it was repairable – a blessing, for sure, when compared to the losses sustained by so many others across the region.
Hurricane Ida made landfall at Port Fourchon, at 11:54am CDT, on August 29, 2021. According to officials at the port, the storm’s wind gusts reached 228mph, and it brought ashore a tidal surge of 12 feet. It was a force not seen in generations.
The region’s coastal communities – places like Dulac, Point-Aux-Chenes, Golden Meadow, Galliano, Grand Isle, Lafitte, Venetian Isles and Venice – were left in shambles by the time the storm made landfall in Port Fourchon. Then, as it pushed inland with Category 4+ winds, it tore through more populated areas of Terrebonne and Lafourche parishes. St Charles and St John the Baptist parishes felt some of those winds, as well, and in the city of LaPlace, the tidal surge into Lake Maurepas flooded dozens of homes and businesses. Further to the east, the Metro New Orleans area was left without power and, in some areas, without water, when transmission lines carrying electricity into the city collapsed into the Mississippi River. And as Hurricane Ida slowly moved north, it brought down hundreds of trees across the Northshore and in the western suburbs of Baton Rouge. Remarkably, though, the storm resulted in very few direct deaths.
Days after the storm, the full scope of Hurricane Ida was only coming into focus. Some 800 high-water rescues were conducted during the storm and in its wake. The storm brought down more than 30,000 utility poles – twice the number lost in Hurricane Katrina. As a result, more than 34,200 customers in Mississippi and 904,000 customers in Louisiana were left in dark for days – and even weeks for some. Hurricane Ida damaged some 500,000 dwellings, and after its remnants affected the Northeast, Accuweather estimated that the storm’s impact would come to $95 billion, making it the 7th costliest storm to hit the U.S. since 2000. (Comparatively, Hurricane Katrina costed insurers, government agencies, and property owners as much as $320 billion.)
Rebuilding a community crippled by such widespread devastation requires immediate action, but the politics and the bureaucratic wrangling of the day can undermine even the best efforts. Residents face the possible specters of job losses, battles with their insurers, an exodus of family and friends, and even changes to property values. In Houma and across the Bayou Region, the circumstances now come the recognition of living with significant vulnerability. Indeed, for this region, Hurricane Ida was its introduction to the possible effects of a climate in volatility – and this, after two major hurricanes, a freakish winter storm, and spring flooding had already caused billions of dollars in damages across Louisiana over recent months.
So, what does recovery look like, from this vantage point, particularly after the cameras are gone? Well, there is no one answer to this question. Recovering from disaster takes different shapes; it is a distinctly personal process, and it makes for a different story for different people. In the pages of this book, I will chronicle a number of these disparate stories, from different walks of life, over the course of several months, to assemble the varying answers to our central question.
And Every Day After hopes to paint a broad picture of the lives it details. A business owner and family man. A former politician and civic leader. A single father from a hard-hit and struggling part of town. A loving couple who moved back to the area to begin a quiet life. An oilfield worker caring for an aging mother. And a living wife and mother raised “down da bayou”.
The purpose of this book is to tell the stories beyond the headlines. Long after the media and their audiences shift away from these devastated communities and onto the next controversy or tragedy, the lives of people in the Bayou Region will still be here. A memoir of this type, I hope, could become a teaching tool for others experiencing their own disasters. More importantly, it will serve as a literary time capsule in this seminal moment for the Bayou Region and for an entire generation.
Though Port Fourchon took a direct hit by Hurricane Ida, the port returned to minimal operations in nine days. “We are Fourchon!” – the rally cry that its officials boasted, as they vowed not to be broken by the hurricane.
Nick Helmer also returned to work on September 8, 2021, and he worked continuously for weeks after that. Despite the devastation at the port, he and his team continued to service the vessels bringing crude into the country. This, to be sure, all while having to make repairs at his own home. When asked if he was exhausted, Nick answered, simply and quickly: “Hell yeah!”
He elaborated on how he feels about what he is witnessing in his community. “It is very strange,” he said. No one could become accustomed to seeing FEMA and Red Cross vehicles, standing in food lines, missing shuttered or destroyed businesses, or washing clothes in boiling pots of rainwater. “It’s like what you saw on television, in Joplin. Only, it’s right here, at home, all around you,” Nick explained. But this was what recovery looked like, immediately after Hurricane Ida, and he understand that. He also went further to describe the general mood of his neighbors, many of whom returned before the power was restored at the end of September. Their nerves were frayed, he admitted, and yet, while many talked about leaving, most were picking up the pieces and putting their lives back together, much as he and his mother had been doing, every day after the storm.
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