Rita Wipes Out Cajun Riviera

Holly Beach, Louisiana, aka the Cajun Riviera and aka the Coonass Riviera, was wiped off the map by Hurricane Rita, including the Joe Nick's motel I was going to go on hurricane duty again for People magazine, matched up with a great photographer named Eli Reed (google him) until I took sick Friday night and spent quality time with the porcelain god until the pipes were totally blown out.

Maybe it was just as well. Eli reported that there was a limit to how far you drive in. In fact, the hardest hit area--extreme southwest Louisiana is still closed off by roads four days later. But an article in Wednesday's Washington Post, reporting from the air, said all that was left of Holly Beach and its bigger neighbor Cameron (pop 1900) were pilings.

Everything's gone. Including the Joe Nick's motel in Holly Beach. My buddy Leon told me years ago that such a place existed. I never knew another Joe Nick. So about three years ago, on my way to a tourism conference in Lake Charles, I drove the back way crossing the state line at Port Arthur and taking Hwy 82 a narrow two lane road constructed mostly of concrete slabs to Holly Beach. The village was mostly whitewashed clapboard and vinyl siding shacks on stilts--Cajun Cabins as they are affectionately described. Fishing is clearly the main form of recreation for the locals. I drove around the several blocks of buildings until I found it -- Joe Nick's Motel, a simple white shingled house. It was February, so the town was pretty quiet and it didn't look like anyone was staying in the place but the owners, an older husband and wife team who I could see through a window sitting at the table drinking coffee. I knocked. The man--Joe Nick?--came to the door. He was dark, a little swarthy with a day old beard, and a paunch accentuated by his wifebeater t shirt.

He gave me a funny look, like didn't I know it was the wrong time of the year to come knocking?

I handed him my card and told him I always wanted to meet another Joe Nick, and that I'd heard about him for years. We shook hands. He took my card. I drove on to Lake Charles through some lovely wetlands. I stopped and took a long walk in a national wildlife refuge.

I'm really bugged how people don't appreciate wetlands, how we in America have been destroying them at an alarming rate, how for all this talk of rebuilding after the hurricanes, no one's talking about wetlands restoration.

Wetlands really work. I saw it in western Mississippi after Katrina. Wherever there were manmade objects there was total destruction. Where there were wetlands and no manmade objects, except for a few fallen or snapped trees, it looked like nothing had happened at all.

Wetlands are a lot like rural areas of Mississippi and Louisiana after the hurricanes. The stories and the hype is in New Orleans or how Houston dodged a bullet. The destruction was in the countryside where people are hurting and relief STILL isn't on the way.

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