LIFE ON A BARRIER ISLAND
Photographed by Steve Wewerka
Five-year-old Mica takes careful aim, leans into her pitch and tosses the metal washer down the hole in the plywood box 15 feet away. Every night she plays with her dad and a handful of other Grand Islanders here at the pavilion at Bridge Side Marina on Grand Isle. They play washers for four hours at a time while the radio cranks out lively music, the squawking seagulls dip and dive and the ocean breeze tosses your hair and your cares away.
Life is simple on Grand Isle. The camaraderie of tossing metal washers night after night is plenty of entertainment.
I learned during the first few hours of my visit that the residents of Grand Isle march to the beat of a different drummer. It is a place where up to 100 golf carts drive the streets, sharing the road with the automobiles and trucks, albeit on the roads’ shoulders.
Locals include an array of such characters as Leon, who years ago grew tired of driving his skiff around the far end of the island to go fishing, so he got out his hand shovel and dug a 1-foot-by-1-foot trench and let the current do the rest. Within one month, you could pass with a 4-foot-wide boat. Now there is easy access to fish the bay through Leon’s Cut. This is “island-making” at its best.
Grand Isle in southern Jefferson Parish is separated from the mainland of southern Louisiana by more than a narrow isthmus of water. They sport a separate mentality, an alternative way of thinking and looking at life.
They are in their own world.
Maybe that is because the residents deal with a boatload of challenges. If you just kept score with what the weather doles out to them, you’d count 12 disasters in the past six years. They continually get their butts kicked while living out on the only inhabited Louisiana barrier island. It just goes along with the territory. So maybe they take liberties wherever they can.
These people know how to do hurricanes; it’s practically routine for them. It is part of their molecular makeup. They seem to work together on auto pilot, as one organism, when the hurricane warnings go into effect.
Many evacuate to the town of Thibodaux, 80 miles away. When it is safe to return but before electricity is restored, they all cart their food down to the fire station where they can access water and everyone cooks outdoors like the extended island family that they are.
You would think they would tire of this lifestyle, but Grand Islanders are tough and resilient. The Gulf oil disaster, however, was the first time cracks appeared in their strength. But these amazingly resourceful people did not wait until Washington, D.C., studied their situation to come up with an “official” plan. They rolled up their shirt sleeves, drove to Home Depots on the mainland and purchased Shop-Vacs with their own money. They swept and sucked up the black goo on their own. They pulled 3 miles of floating vinyl booms around the oil and corralled it, pumping 1,400 gallons of it into trucks that they carted away. This was all before the White House gave them instructions or permission to make a move. The oil was threatening their island, their home, their wildlife and fish, their beaches, and they believe in taking care of their own and doing whatever it takes to get the job done.
Grand Isle is 7 miles long and 1 mile wide – “depending on which day they measure it,” as the local joke goes – and its entire south side boasts a beautiful sand beach.
It may be most famous for its excellent angling and fishing rodeos, with more than 20 held a year. The rodeos benefit local scholarships, tree-planting, beatifying the beach and creating sport fields. They are a huge draw, with the largest being the International Tarpon Rodeo dating back to 1928. “It’s an experience,” the locals claim. They line their pickup beds and fill them with water, creating “Cajun Jacuzzis,” and lounge back there sucking on cold ones. It is a family event, however, and there are plenty of events just for kids.
Life here is laid-back. Residents drive their golf carts and four-wheelers to the Starfish Restaurant for breakfast. Sporting their alligator cowboy boots, they feast on grits and flaky biscuits and share the gossip of the day over endless cups of coffee. For dinner, we feast on seafood poor boys and seafood platters at Sarah’s Restaurant. One of the waitresses is Miss Grand Isle, and she’s gearing up for Miss Louisiana. We ask her to practice walking the runway with our teetering plates of grub. Great food and entertainment are never in short supply on Grand Isle.
The message coming out of the town right now is that Grand Isle is alive and doing well. They want the oysters to come back, and the shrimpers and fishermen are happy to get back to work. The fishing is great, and Louisiana seafood is the safest in the world right now because there are so many tests being conducted on it!
Driving around the island, you can easily spot which buildings were constructed after Katrina. They soar 15 feet into the air and are up on pilings. They’re covered in storm sheathing, and some are even made of concrete – “function over fashion,” they say. The pilings are buried 10 feet into the earth. The steel roofs have strip asphalt roof shingles ,which are held in place with special O-rings like cap screws, all as an attempt to combat the hurricane-strength waves and winds that habitually batter the island.
Buggy Vegas, who owns the Bridge Side Marina, tells me that the hardest part of the hurricanes is seeing everything break up – all your hard work and dreams. Every time you put a nail in, you know it will be pried out by the wind and waves. One dozen times he has rebuilt. “You actually mark your life by hurricanes,” he says.
We make a stop at 150-acre Grand Isle State Park and learn about the 280 species of fish that make their home off the coast of Grand Isle. We follow the long pier to a stellar view of the beach. Pelicans fish in groups, diving torpedo-style into the sea for a bite to eat. We make a note to return when the Migratory Bird Celebration is held in the early spring, honoring the numerous bird species flying through Grand Isle on their way back north. The Nature Conservancy of Louisiana also has a 41-acre property on the island where they maintain the Grand Isle Birding Trail.
A visit to historic Cheniere Cemetery, the burial site of the 1893 hurricane victims, is in order. The hurricane wiped out the tiny island of Cheniere Caminada, killing more than 750 of its nearly 1,500 residents. Metal straps hold down the stones; statues pray with lost hands; a headless Jesus stands vigil.
Grand Isle Fire Chief Aubrey Chaisson, or “T-Black,” as he is affectionately called, is taking us on a tour of the island’s waters. Chaisson is half-American Indian and half-Creole and is a mechanic by trade. A colorful island character, he sucks on cigarettes nearly nonstop, works his muscles hoisting crab traps and allows his long dark ponytail to whip in the wind as he cruises the Grand Isle backwaters. He conducts tourist boat rides on the side and is able to derive a decent additional income from crabbing. He harvests 100 crabs every two days and places his traps way back in the marshes “where the crabs are big.”
Chaisson shows us the old graveyard, where all the leftover debris from Katrina was dumped. He points out Cow Point, where all the resident island cows congregate to catch some wind and keep the mosquitoes at bay. He knows every fishing boat, and each captain seems to be related to him.
Dolphins follow our boat’s wake, hoping the propeller hits a flounder and kicks up an easy meal. Chaisson taps the side of the boat because they are attracted to the sound and come in close. “Come on, Mama, show us your babies,” he says.
He teaches us how to spot fish schools underwater, pointing out a disturbance in the surface. Chaisson circles Fifi Island, where the Chinese worked their shrimp-drying business for years, and also drives around Fort Livingston, built after the War of 1812, which was also the home of the infamous pirate and smuggler, Jean Lafitte.
Since I can’t get enough, Chaisson promises to take me out in his mud boat to run crab traps. He skillfully maneuvers the tiller through the back narrows, stopping at the painted cork balls, which indicate a prize below. Pulling up the trap, he aggressively shakes off the gunky mud and looks for the male blue crabs. He turns them over, and in one minute, they fall asleep. After he empties the keepers into a bin, he loads the trap with bait – freshwater catfish heads that he buys by the box –and leaves two crabs in for decoys.
GOLF CART TOUR
Before departing the island, my new friend, Leoda, wants to give me an early morning tour of the old historic section of town, down quiet streets shaded by giant oak trees that are more than 100 years old. These homes were built in the 1800s and remain intact, largely because of the protection of the trees. The residents planted them when they first settled to gain shelter from the wind. Their masonry chimneys further anchor them to the ground. She shows me the old general store, the homes that are haunted as “many storms swept people away, and their souls are lost.”
She tells me that her family came to Grand Isle and lived off the land and the sea – eating bananas that grew on the trees, fishing, crabbing and clamming. No one could come to Grand Island and starve. Over time, they built up their soil with the dusty remains from the shrimp-drying industry.
The graduating class of 2010 had five students.
Most kids go to college, but her son tried to move away and then said, “Mom, I just don’t know if I’ll be happy 40 miles away.” He grew up on a shrimp boat, had a playpen and a car seat on it right from birth He’s back, shrimping on the bay like he was raised. Leoda’s daughter lives two streets away with her family.
People on this island feel like an extended family. Because there is only one main road, Leoda passes the same people 10 times a day and waves hello to them all.
“We’re in a world all our own out here,” she says. “It’s such a free way to live. Some wonder how we can stay, hurricane after hurricane, but we’ve always said, ‘To Grand Islanders, it is God’s paradise.’”