Abbeville welcomes mercy mission

Local prisoners unload furniture and tools donated by Bainbridge Islanders and trucked to Abbeville, Vermilion Parish, La., to help the hurricane-ravaged town. - KEVIN DWYER photo
Local prisoners unload furniture and tools donated by Bainbridge Islanders and trucked to Abbeville, Vermilion Parish, La., to help the hurricane-ravaged town.
— image credit: KEVIN DWYER photo

Still reeling from hurricane damage, Louisiana residents are glad for help.

Abbeville, La., is a far cry from Bainbridge Island, geographically and economically.

Add the damage inflicted by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, and the chasm is even greater.

In a gesture of sisterly love, Bainbridge Islanders collected money and a wealth of goods that nearly filled the 48-foot rig Steve Hill of Hill Moving Services drove to Abbeville. The donations arrived last Saturday and several islanders, including Linda Owens, Franklin Chu and Kevin Dwyer, were there to help distribute the bounty and meet some of the town’s residents.

“To see the moving truck drive in and park, that was reality,” Owens said, adding it meant that the idea from a lot of people became a reality.

The area is “pretty devastated still,” Dwyer said, adding that all the towns there are at sea level or below.

“People are starting to get their lives back together. They’re poor to begin with,” said Dwyer, who returned to the island on Monday. “Many people are crayfish farmers or worked in the oil and gas industry.”

Dwyer and Owens also visited Pecan Island, Cow Island and Intercoastal City, bayou towns that, like Abbeville, were flattened and robbed of livelihoods. The saltwater that surged 40 miles inland killed their crayfish and rice, too. The salt is too heavy to pump from the pens and the fields.

“What they’re praying for is rain to wash away the salt,” Owens said. “It rained while we were there, and I said, ‘We brought the rain from Bainbridge Island.’ They said, ‘Can you bring some more?’”

Executive director of the Bainbridge Island Chamber of Commerce, Dwyer had traveled to Abbeville a couple of days prior to see the destruction in that town and surrounding areas firsthand.

He brought with him a check for $13,000 in relief funds, in addition to proceeds from the $5,000 auction of Chu’s Super Bowl ticket.

The money will help refurbish the town’s community center, which has been pressed into service as a school once again. Recently, students in kindergarten through 12th grade started attending classes five days a week.

Dwyer flew to Lafayette and drove to Abbeville, where he spent one night in St. Anne’s Catholic Church, where the truck was unloaded. He met with Father Bill Rogalla, whose parish was hard hit.

He called his four-day stay a “definite eye-opening experience.” What was shown on television after the hurricane does not do the reality of the situation justice, he said.

Dwyer saw houses and foundations that were blown away, trailers that were totally shredded and huge oak trees downed and yet to be removed.

A TV crew from Lafayette and local newspaper reporters were on hand as the truck from Bainbridge Island was unloaded by prisoners from a nearby jail in bright orange garb.

Dwyer explained: Next to the rectory was the sheriff’s house. The sheriff contacted the minimum security prison and arranged for the help.

“The (members of the media) were impressed that we came a long way,” Dwyer said. “We talked about the connection with other island communities and the Super Bowl.”

Father Bill, as he is called, told the assembled Abbeville residents to “grab what you need.”

As 100 or so people selected pots, pans, building supplies, lamps and other necessities, they expressed their thanks to the Bainbridge contingent.

One woman started to cry and Owens expressed her concern for what had happened. The woman dried her eyes and said she didn’t want to talk about that. She just wanted to thank everyone on Bainbridge Island.

The donated freezer and meat slicer stayed at the community center for use in the school.

“They were all grateful,” Dwyer said. “Their houses got flooded. They didn’t have flood insurance or insurance at all. The further toward the Gulf (of Mexico) you were, the worse it was.

“It’s a part of the country that’s so different than here,” he added. “The average household income is about $31,000 in Vermilion Parish, compared with close to $90,000 on Bainbridge.”

There is still much work to be done to bring the area back to some semblance of normalcy. Rubble is everywhere and the bayous are filled with floating debris.

To Owens, it looks like “absolute devastation, but Father Bill said this is really much better.”

The residents are dealing with the loss of their homes, grappling with mold and arsenic in the water and worried about talk of industries red-lining the area – meaning they may not locate there there for fear of what may happen in the future. Some companies already have requested climate data, Dwyer was told.

“They’ve been through the worst. They’re independent spirits. They’re resilient,” Dwyer said. “There seems to be a real closeness in the community.”

And, according to Father Bill, they “didn’t complain about the government that much.”

Dwyer said discussions are taking place about what role Bainbridge may play in hurricane relief efforts now.

“The initial feeling was let’s try to help these some fund-raising and help them,” he said.

Now Abbeville is getting help from other cities, so maybe Bainbridge will extend a sisterly hand to another parish.

“We’re thinking, ‘Do we want to do something else?’” Dwyer said.

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