JEFFREY KAYE: Residents of Terrebonne Parish on the Gulf of Mexico were largely spared the full brunt of Hurricane Katrina a month ago. But they weren't so fortunate when Hurricane Rita hit. Storm surges generated by the hurricane swamped coastal communities in the parish erasing boundaries between bayous and neighborhoods. Floodwaters as deep as nine feet damaged thousands of homes.
MAN IN CAR: We are always going to get some water from hurricanes but nothing -- not this bad.
POLICEMAN: Last time I'll tell you; you're holding up traffic. Thank you.
JEFFREY KAYE: Police directing traffic kept residents, sometimes irritated ones, out of the worst-hit neighborhoods. But overall, the people of bayou country have responded to the floods with stoicism. These are wetlands and its residents are no strangers to water, both to its perils and its opportunities. Many here fish or work on offshore oil and gas rigs. Houses perched on stilts are testament to the dangers of storms and floods.
LANNY DARDAR: Got to come back and start over again, you know. I mean, that's the best way to put it. You know, everything is dried up and we'll clean up and start over like the rest of the world, you know.
CLEO CALLAIS, Asst. Fire Chief, Montegut Fire Department: Here it is where all the kids played Power Hills, you know, little Pee Wee League football.
JEFFREY KAYE: Cleo Callais is assistant fire chief in the Montegut Volunteer Fire Department. He took us through his water-logged community out to the bayou; on the eve of the hurricane, he and other locals rushed here to try to heighten the levee with sandbags.
Did the water top this levee right here?
CLEO CALLAIS: After awhile it did. You can see all the debris and it is wind driven. But the piles of driftwood wouldn't have got it up there without the water having topped it after.
JEFFREY KAYE: So it held but it was topped?
CLEO CALLAIS: Yeah it held but it was topped later in the night.
JEFFREY KAYE: But the big problem came when a 100-foot section of metal wall gave way; it was just one of numerous levee breaches throughout this low-lying area, where water rushed in and turned streets into canals. Callais says this area has flooded five times in the past 10 years.
CLEO CALLAIS: You know, once okay, twice, maybe but five times in 10 years, you know, somebody's got to do something about it.
JEFFREY KAYE: Many residents say the scope of the flooding could have been reduced. For one thing, wetlands and outlying islands that serve as barriers to storm surges have eroded due to both human and natural forces.
ROBBY NAQUIN: And whenever you get no barrier islands protection, without the barrier islands' protection, to stop the current flow from coming north, then the people in the north's going to be flooded.
JEFFREY KAYE: You sound angry.
ROBBY NAQUIN: I am angry at everybody.
JEFFREY KAYE: Others are angry about what they see as an inadequate levee system. Unlike New Orleans, the flood walls and ditches around here were engineered to contain rainwater. They are no protection from hurricane-sized storms.
KIRK TROSCLAIR: -- the rain and take care of the water. When the levee broke it was too much water to take care of and just overflowed it; it ain't gonna drain all the water coming through the levee right now.
HAROLD LAPEYRE, City Councilman, Terrebonne Parish: I've been in office now for 12 years. We have been screaming about this for 20 years.
JEFFREY KAYE: Harold Lapeyre is a Terrebonne city council member. He says his parish's longtime pleas for assistance have gone unanswered.
HAROLD LAPEYRE: We have been asking the state and the federal people to understand our plight, to give us the necessary resources, the necessary engineering and to start building, rebuilding our coastline.
JEFFREY KAYE: Lapeyre promises to redouble his efforts but in the meantime parish officials are now assisting evacuees from two hurricanes. The civic center in Homer is jammed with some 400 evacuees from New Orleans 45 miles away. And now South Terrebonne High School is housing and feeding some 360 locals.
Vivian Sevin, who runs the cafeteria at the high school, had been cooking in the civic center for evacuees from New Orleans.
VIVIAN SEVIN: And the whole time we cooked, we kept saying this could be us, this could be us, knowing that we were spared water and wind damage.
JEFFREY KAYE: And now?
VIVIAN SEVIN: And now yesterday morning it was us. I have five feet of water in my home. But I am back in my cafeteria and I will cook for those that evacuated from my community and feed those that evacuated from my community.
JEFFREY KAYE: For those who have sought shelter at the high school, many of them veteran's of previous floods, leaving this vulnerable area is not an option. That's the case for shrimp packer Norma Naquin and her family.
NORMA NAQUIN: It's home, yeah. It's home to us. And that's where we live. This is all we've known -- all we have known. I haven't been out of Louisiana. This is it.
HAROLD LAPEYRE: The storm came in over here. The Rita came in --
JEFFREY KAYE: Protecting this area is in the national interest says Councilman.
HAROLD LAPEYRE: 26 or 27 percent of all of the oil and gas operations in the Gulf of Mexico come from this area. God put all of the resources in the Gulf and put all of the seafood, all of the oil and gas in one place. We have to get the natural resources from somewhere. That's why we're here.
JEFFREY KAYE: Officials expect that over the next couple of days north winds will push flood waters out of residential areas. But in the wake of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, questions are rising over what can be done and how much should be spent to prevent future catastrophes in southern Louisiana.
GWEN IFILL: Our second report comes from a hard-hit community in Texas. Elizabeth Brackett of WTTW-Chicago filed this story from Bridge City. Almost all of its 8,000 residents evacuated ahead of the hurricane.
ELIZABETH BRACKET: The two dramatic bridges give the small Texas town its name. Bridge City sits near the Louisiana border, where hurricane Rita made landfall Saturday morning. There were few buildings in this town of just over 8,000 that didn't suffer some kind of damage. Downed trees and power lines blocked streets. Some buildings were nearly destroyed; others just damaged by the fierce winds of Rita. Bridge City escaped flooding when the feared high storm surge didn't materialize, and there were no deaths or injuries since nearly everyone got out before the storm. The city's 12 police officers, led by Chief Steve Faircloth, were the first to return to face the daunting task of making their small town livable again.
STEVE FAIRCLOTH: I'm pretty proud of what we've done so far. We had a good plan. It's working.
ELIZABETH BRACKET: Though this town has pretty much done it all on its own.
STEVE FAIRCLOTH: Yes. Yes, we have.
ELIZABETH BRACKET: The first problem the town faced was getting the water running.
JERRY JONES: It's empty. It's drying, yeah. The valve -- the valve broke, and when it broke the valve, it emptied the tank, and it emptied the system.
ELIZABETH BRACKET: The emergency generator should have kicked on, but the shed housing its controls collapsed. Public works director Jerry Jones wasn't waiting for any state or federal help. He just went to work.
JERRY JONES: The first priority is to get these tanks filled so that if we do have a fire, we'll have something that we can use to put the fire out.
ELIZABETH BRACKET: While the small crew tried to prop up the shed's wall, electrician Wayne Herin looked at the damage to the control panel.
WAYNE HERIN: I'm going to do a little more checking until they get ready.
ELIZABETH BRACKET: Can it run if it's dirty and wet?
WAYNE HERIN: Oh, yeah. There's a limit, though, and we're pushing that limit.
ELIZABETH BRACKET: You're going to be a little nervous about the first start?
WAYNE HERIN: I'm not going to stand in front of the switch. I'm going to stand off to the side. (Laughs)
ELIZABETH BRACKET: After hours of work, it was time to try the generator. (Generator starts up) When it roared to life, Herin made the final preparations to flip the switch that would start the water flowing.
ELIZABETH BRACKET: Are you pleased?
JERRY JONES: Well, yeah. We'll have the system back up. Everybody will have water by tonight, and we'll have the pressure back up tomorrow. It took a little longer because of all of the southern engineering we had to do, but, yeah, it's fine. We'll -- if somebody catches the house on fire or whatever, the fire department can put it out without any problem.
ELIZABETH BRACKET: But they won't be able to drink the water?
JERRY JONES: No. We'll -- we've already issued a statement telling them to boil the water if they want to drink it.
ELIZABETH BRACKET: With the water on, the next priority was to clear the streets so emergency vehicles could answer calls, though some trees were just too much for the town's backhoe. Lyn Greenwell was one of the few residents who had stayed throughout the storm. A former cook in the Navy, she handled the grill for Jerry Jones's tired water department crew.
LYN GREENWELL: Well, in Texas this is the way we do it. When we have a hurricane or something, whoever has the food just leaves the door open, and we just go in and get the food. It's going to waste anyway because we probably won't get electricity for about three or four days.
ELIZABETH BRACKET: Cooking also calmed her nerves after her harrowing night listening to the howling winds and slashing rains of the hurricane.
LYN GREENWELL: If they have another one, we won't be staying. I don't care what category it is.
ELIZABETH BRACKET: So what did you think when you drove around town this morning?
LYN GREENWELL: I thought it looked like a war zone, and it was very devastating. And it's going to take a lot of money to rebuild and a lot of time, it really is. But I learned a lesson: Don't play with Mother Nature. ( Laughs )
ELIZABETH BRACKET: The exhausted police chief was using his office as his bedroom as well as his briefing room. He hadn't heard anything from FEMA, but had gotten his first offer of outside help late Saturday night.
ELIZABETH BRACKET: How did you get the state police, how did you get them notified that you needed help?
STEVE FAIRCLOTH: Actually they finally came to me last night. A trooper walked into my office and said, "I'm here to help." I said, "thank God."
ELIZABETH BRACKET: On Sunday Faircloth used the state police to set up roadblocks into Bridge City, both to prevent looting and to keep residents away from what was still a very dangerous situation. Not only did power lines dangle across streets, the town's volunteer fire department could barely keep up with the constant reports of gas leaks. Crystal Estillette and her partner used every technique they could think of to block the flow of gas hissing out of this broken pipeline.
CRYSTAL ESTILLETTE: These are the only ones that we can get to, the ones that everybody's hearing and calling in about. I'm sure there's a whole lot more in here that we haven't even -- we don't even know about.
ELIZABETH BRACKET: What Bridge City residents wanted to know was when they could come home. Not until power is restored, said the police chief. By Sunday the power company had people out doing a damage assessment, but said it would be one to two weeks before repair crews could even begin what will clearly be a major repair job.
POLICE DISPATCHER: No, sir, not for about a week. It's really dangerous here. It's not a safe situation.
ELIZABETH BRACKET: That was not the news Bridge City citizens wanted to hear. They overwhelmed the town's only police dispatcher with calls.
POLICE DISPATCHER: There's no public access to the town for another week or so for your safety.
ELIZABETH BRACKET: At the end of a long day, the water crew was more than ready for their grilled dinner. Before eating, they did ask for a little outside help.
SPOKESMAN: Father, let us not get discouraged about what we have seen here, and, Father --
ELIZABETH BRACKET: But everyone here knew it would be a long time before Bridge City became the vibrant community it had once been.