Home is a Lonely Place

Home is a Lonely Place


Struck by hurricanes and endangered by higher seas, Cameron Parish has become sparsely populated. Is there a future for the largest parish in Louisiana?
By C.E. Richard

Riley Marks, 17, paused to get her bearings, trying to recall where exactly her tall lifeguard chair had stood overlooking the deep end of the public swimming pool.

“We’re not exactly sure where, but it was somewhere over here,” she said, gesturing across a featureless patch of sand and seashells. Already, long runners of grass had begun to creep across the bare ground from the pasture nearby. Before long, it will be hard to tell that there was ever a pool here at all.

But Riley and her friends, Jancy Lalande and Ceyanna Brown, both 17, retain vivid memories of the place that had once been a boisterous center of community life, especially for the young people of South Cameron Parish. As the head lifeguards, Riley and Jancy had spent many long afternoons keeping watch over their neighbors and teenaged friends splashing in the pool’s sparkling water.

Cameron High seniors walk on the fragile beach near their homes. Fierce storms and rising seas are causing flight from the parish. | Tim Mueller photo

There had been a concession stand here called the Tiki Hut, Jancy remembered, peddling popsicles and ice cream sandwiches to the families that would gather poolside on long summer evenings. She recalled that, in the pasture adjacent to the pool, a pair of horses would charge back and forth along the fence line, intensely curious about the raucous crowds of children playing in the water. The horses are gone, and an unearthly silence hovers over the place now.

Hurricane Laura struck Cameron Parish on August 27 of last year, followed by Hurricane Delta six weeks later. The little village of Creole took the full brunt of it. Nothing here was left standing, and the Creole Pool had been transformed into a filthy hole in the ground, jumbled with dangerous debris. It was clear that it couldn’t be salvaged, and the cherished community swimming pool was filled in with dump truck loads of sand from the nearby beach.

“We don’t have anywheres to hang out now,” Jancy said, standing on the storm-scoured slab where the Knights of Columbus Hall used to be. Situated between the pool and the road, the KC Hall was where locals would come to celebrate graduation parties, baby showers and the other mile-markers of ordinary life.

But little of life in Cameron Parish is ordinary anymore and residents have spent the last year grappling with the same kinds of questions that people in other coastal parishes are now contending with in the wake of Hurricane Ida. Chief among them, “Is there still a future for us here?”

Youthful defiance
At South Cameron High School, there are 16 students in the senior class, seven boys and nine girls. It is a big school, built to accommodate 500 students, but it feels mostly empty; today, there are only 205 enrolled there across grades K – 12. Reconstruction and repairs are still ongoing.

On a Friday afternoon six weeks into their senior year, Riley, Jancy and Ceyanna gathered around a big table at the school with seven of their classmates. They unpacked and ate their lunches, sharing stories about their lives since Laura upended everything a year earlier.

“Driving back down here was probably the worst feeling ever,” Riley said. All the familiar places that she and her friends knew were gone. Passionate about athletics, Riley said that the hardest part of all was seeing their school’s beautiful new gymnasium, built less than a year earlier, reduced to a pile of rubble. “I could cry right now, thinking about it.”

The hurricanes of 2020 had scattered the senior class across Texas and Louisiana. Some students bounced between homes for a while, staying with relatives and friends. Jancy and her classmates, Heaven and Brenlee, tried attending Bell City High School in Calcasieu Parish, but they were there for less than a month. “People would ask me, ‘Why didn’t you stay?’” Jancy said. “And I was like, ‘It’s a good environment there, but it wasn’t home.’”

Home is a much lonelier place now that so many of their storm-worn neighbors have packed up and moved away.

Jancy Lalande hangs out with Drops, an 18-month-old Bradford bull | Tim Mueller photo

“Down Little Chenier is where all my family was— cousins, aunts and uncles, grandparents,” Riley recalled. “Now, the only real family I have down here is my aunt and Heaven,” Riley nods to her classmate, who is also her cousin.

“We were going to move too, but I begged my mom to stay,” Riley continued. “After Laura, I relocated to Grand Lake and I stayed there maybe a week because I cried every day to come back here. My mom finally said we wouldn’t leave so I could keep going to school here.” She paused, then added, “Yeah, it was rough.”

The other kids told similar stories about pleading with their parents to come back. Chase James is a basketball player whose mother lives and works in Crowley, more than an hour away. He persuaded her to let him move in with the family of his best friend, T-Wayne Smith, seated across the table from him. “My house got destroyed, so now I live with T-Wayne because it’s the only way I could go to school here.”

His classmate, Aaliyah Labobe, nodded. She convinced her folks to let her go back to school here too. “We’re still living in campers for now,” she said, knowing that changes are coming. “My family has decided that after I graduate, they’ll end up moving somewheres else.”

Many of these students had been in class together since pre-K, but their connections to each other run even deeper than that. Just about everyone around the table was related to each other across generations of kinship dating back to the original founding families of Cameron Parish. “We’re all basically cousins,” Riley explained.

Coming back to South Cameron High School was not easy for them. Classes resumed there in December 2020, but little was like it used to be. “When we got back here to school, we were all like, ‘We can’t do this, Ms. Lindsey,’ Riley said, referring to SCHS’s principal, Lindsey Fontenot. “We just can’t do it.”

For the first couple of weeks, the students walked the quiet hallways in shock. “We were just sad about everything. We would cry every day,” Jancy said. “But at least we were back here.”

They’re back, and not without struggle. But with graduation on the horizon and, beyond that, the wider world of adult life, the question on the minds of these young people is, what comes next? The official motto of the Cameron Parish School System is “Building the future of Cameron Parish one student at a time.” What kind of future awaits them in a place that, increasingly, the grown-ups around them regard as uninhabitable?

Over the hazy horizon
For nearly eight years, T-Wayne Smith’s family owned a small seafood restaurant called Anchors Up, located a few miles down the road from the high school. Like most everything else, it was destroyed by Hurricane Laura. However, his parents didn’t give up on their family business; instead, they adapted.

Now Anchors Up is on wheels, operating as a food truck parked on the slab where the restaurant used to stand. With outdoor seating at folding tables, it’s one of the only places left where folks in Cameron Parish can still sit down together and eat. T-Wayne’s friend and housemate, Chase James, helps out at Anchors Up. It does a brisk business, selling plate lunches and po-boys to the yellow-vested workers at the nearby Cameron LNG plant.

Some of the seniors from SCHS gathered there for lunch on Saturday. Standing in line for their order, the kids recognize Gatlin Welch, whom they knew from school. Gatlin had been a senior at SCHS four years earlier when they were freshmen. He was born and raised in Oak Grove, just a stone’s throw from the high school. When he graduated, he chose to stay, taking a job at Cameron LNG. But like so many people in Cameron Parish, he makes his living in other ways too— alligator farming, crabbing and taking visitors out in the marsh for airboat rides. Whatever it takes to get by in a place of narrowing opportunities.

“The hurricanes definitely put a hurt on us,” Gatlin concedes. “But the ones that did come back and get to stay, it just shows how much heart we have and how much we want to live down here,” he said proudly. “No matter what life throws at us, we’re going to come back stronger.”

Talk to young people in other parts of rural Louisiana and you’ll hear about the insatiable itch to escape the confines of small town life and chase down their dreams in big cities like Houston or Atlanta. Not the seniors at South Cameron High School. Like Gatlin, they know where home is—even if they’re not sure what kind of work they’ll find.

One of the girls wants to study to become an RN and work in nearby Lake Charles. Another talked of becoming a psychologist or social worker because, recognizing the trauma she has experienced in her life, she believes that she can help others cope with their own. Still another hopes to go to cosmetology school and come back to open a beauty shop somewhere here in the area.

Jancy Lalande knows what she wants to do too. She plans to study agriculture and ranch cattle, the way her family has done here since the days when Cameron Parish was first settled. After lunch at Anchors Up, she brought her friends to the barn where she keeps Drops, her Grand Champion prize-winning Braford bull. It’s a breed of beef cattle that combines the virtues of a red Hereford with the heft and weight of a Brahman, she explained.

Jancy started showing cattle in livestock shows in fourth grade through the 4-H Club, one of the main pastimes for kids at SCHS, along with basketball. Jancy even rode in rodeos for two years, she said.

She coaxed the gentle bull out of the barn on a lead and into the sunlight so her friends could get a better look at her pride and joy. The bull was sleek and clean, brushed and ready for a livestock show the next afternoon on Sunday. Jancy has kept Drops, so named for the teardrop markings under his eyes, for nearly two years since he was a calf. The enormous bull nuzzled her hand and affectionately pushed his body against hers, apparently unaware that he is no longer a baby.

“He’s fourteen hundred pounds now,” Jancy smiles. “And he’s only going to get bigger.”

Her friend Ceyanna Brown has plans to go to vet school so that she can come back to Cameron Parish and service the cattle industry, which has long been a mainstay of life along the coast. Like Jancy, Ceyanna was active in 4-H from an early age. She started out showing rabbits, which she still raises, but during one of the livestock shows she encountered a Zebus and immediately wanted some of her own.

“It took me about two years of begging my mom before she finally gave in and I got my first Zebu,” said Ceyanna. “I’m the first one in my family to show cattle.”

One of the smallest varieties of cattle in the world, the Zebu originated in India where they are regarded as a holy animal. Ceyanna’s prized cow, Kenna, is fully grown at only 400-lbs and is mother to a beautiful red calf, seven months old now and born no bigger than the family dog.

The frequent hurricanes mean having to move cattle to safety whenever the weather threatens. “It’s always a concern,” Ceyanna said, noting that her animals had to be evacuated ahead of Laura. “So you always have to have a plan.”

Senior year of high school is all about planning and preparing. That’s especially hard for students living in coastal Louisiana, though, where just surviving the challenges of the present make the future much harder to imagine. The kids at South Cameron High School have few places where they can gather with their peers to talk about the lives that lay ahead of them.

More and more, these friends find themselves at the beach, which is separated from their high school by a stretch of marsh a quarter of a mile wide. The school is raised on tall concrete pilings, high above the inward rush of storm surges when hurricanes come. From this lofty perch, the students can gaze out the windows to watch shrimp boats plying the Gulf. No longer congregating around the community pool for carefree days, these young men and women now look out uncertainly on much wider horizons.

There are fewer students like them now than there used to be, but that doesn’t shake their determination. “Something like half our community has moved away,” Riley Marks said. “But this is still home. And it will always be home.”

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