COCODRIE, LA – Lapeyrouse’s grocery store stood the test of time for more than a century. For three generations, the store has persevered through numerous storms, but it’s never seen anything like Ida, which blew through coastal Louisiana with winds of up to 200 miles per hour.
Now, the future of the 107-year old general store in the small fishing community of Cocodrie, Louisiana, is uncertain. The Category 4 hurricane tore down sheds, tossed gas tanks and beer coolers, pulled off parts of the roof, and buckled the floor of the century-old store, causing more damage than any storm to come before it. The old cypress board-and-batten building was flooded by 2.5 feet of water.
“We’re still here, but it needs a lot of work,” Cecil Lapeyrouse told the PBS NewsHour from the store’s front porch. “Now, we got a bunch of people calling and seeing if we’ll reopen. If I were not to open, they would not come back.”
Among other things, the store is known for an iconic Coca-Cola sign that still sits atop the roof, visible to residents returning to survey the damage. It’s a needed sign of hope for local residents, although Lapeyrouse admits his store will never be like it was. The last time it flooded was in 1926 during an unnamed storm. Longtime customers say they can’t afford to lose another piece of the bayou culture.
“I don’t want his store to survive just because I like going to his store. He’s an incredible resource for the history and the way that cultures have endured the changing landscape,” said Dr. Gary LaFleur, Jr., a professor of Biological Sciences at Nicholls State University. “His store is the landmark, but it’s really the knowledge that Cecil and Etta have that is the real valuable resource.”
The amount of damage before Cecil is daunting. “The floors are buckled. Flood mud still cakes the floor, and it’s starting to mildew,” he said. “I’d like to be able to be open today, you know, but it’s just not possible that soon with this amount of damage,” Lapeyrouse tells customers as they swarm him with phone calls.
It’s a tough sight for customers like former State Senator Norby Chabert, who is a self-proclaimed “bayou dweller.” He grew up along the coast and represented the area for 11 years. He’s watched much of the coast fade away and longtime residents call it quits.
“I mean, your heart just breaks. We’re losing all of these iconic things that built our culture and built our community. If they don’t come back, it will be another nail in our cultural coffin,” Chabert said. “I hope that they can repair it and I hope they don’t give up. If they do, I hope that their family members carry on the torch. Lapeyrouse Grocery has been around a long time. I hope it don’t die.”
The store was built by Lapeyrouse’s grandfather, Gustave, in 1914, at the far reaches of Terrebonne Parish, where the road meets the Gulf of Mexico. Cecil inherited the store from his father, Chester Lapeyrouse, in 1987.
Visiting can feel like a trip backward in time. Antiques hang from the ceilings, and penny candy containers line the counter near a vintage register. It’s part grocery, part boat repair shop, part knick-knack shop, part sporting goods store, and part anything-else-you-might-need store. Customers like to sit and just watch the beauty of the bayou and its people.
“That place is a little more magical than most,” LaFleur said. “There are people who come there that are real coastal fishermen. They’re buying bait and you get to ask them where they’re going fishing. You see several generations of the same family fishing on the same boat. You watch it all unfold from the swing on his porch as they engage with Cecil Lapeyrouse. He gets a diverse set of customers and he can talk to all of them in a gentle way. He’s a gentle badass.”
But during his lifetime, Lapeyrouse has seen the storms intensify, and Louisiana’s coastline erode, taking a toll on his community.
“Local faces are fewer. Many people have been forced to move because of the storms. There used to be more land and more homes,” he said. “Now, there are mostly camps, and it’s more fit for shrimping and crabbing. The pastures and sugar fields are gone, replaced by saltwater intrusion.”
Before the storm, the store, with its historic charm, was a staple for locals and a destination for tourists. It was a place to grab a Coke and a snack and feed your soul while relaxing on a porch swing overlooking the bayou. A month after the storm, it remains closed.
“I passed the other day and I was glad it’s still standing. I was hoping to see the red siren light turning which tells you that they’re open,” LaFleur said. “I was hoping against all odds that it would be on, but it was not on; so, I was a little saddened by that.”
Lapeyrouse and his wife, Etta, say it may be next year before they reopen, although they realize how important it is to the recovery of this part of Louisiana’s Sportsman’s Paradise. However, they are not alone; community members have raised over $11,000 through a GoFundMe fundraiser to help the Lapeyrouses.
“It’s part of the community. People depend on us. It unites us. It’s where we all meet,” he said. “It’s a bad situation, but we’ll be back. It will just take us a while. We’ve withstood through the years and people don’t want to lose the tradition. It’s our livelihood. It’s our life.”