The shrimp and fish are gone. The oysters are mixed with mud. Hurricane Katrina took not just Dwight Reyes' house, but the livelihood he has known as a shrimper since he was 11.
The future is filled with uncertainty for people across Plaquemines Parish, the 100-mile sliver of land through which the Mississippi River twists and curls on its way to the Gulf of Mexico. Some estimate that half the 27,000 residents will not come back.
Two-thirds of the parish was made uninhabitable by hurricane damage, and more than half of it remains flooded. Citrus groves, celebrated at an annual festival, are brown from the deluge of salt water. Many of the oil and gas workers who live here are homeless and out of work.
Dana Smith, a registered nurse, wonders how the community can recover from the loss of jobs — particularly for fishermen. Nearly everything needs to be rebuilt.
"The boats, a majority are destroyed," Smith said. "They lost their livelihood along with the land."
In this isolated place on the edge of the ocean southeast of New Orleans, people know not to mess with hurricanes. When birds left in flocks that looked like white clouds, nearly all the residents fled, too.
Reyes gathered 40 of his relatives — ranging in age from 2 to 92 — and sailed north for eight hours in his family's shrimp boats. He barely got the boats tied up in a canal next to a levee when the storm's fiercest winds started bearing down on them.
"It sure gave us a big scare," said his brother-in-law Louis Thompson, 61.
After the hurricane passed, barges from the Mississippi River rested on a nearby levee. Coffins from a mortuary were scattered along the main road and herds of cattle were dead. Within days, the New Mexico Army National Guard moved into the area. Soldiers wearing fishing waders, gloves and surgical masks began daily searches for the living in the ruins of houses.
The storm turned the peninsula into a bathtub, flooding houses, grocery stores and churches, and rocking them from their foundations. At least four of those who remained died. One man told a soldier how he swam for his life, then survived for two days on a can of Vienna sausages and two bottles of water.
In the northernmost part of the parish, considered part of metropolitan New Orleans, residents were allowed back on Sunday to begin picking up the pieces. But they could not go south past Port Sulphur, 50 miles from New Orleans, because the highway is underwater.
"They start crying and get mad, but over all, they have pretty high spirits from all they've been through," said Spc. Anthony Bustillos, 27. "It's pretty overwhelming."
Rebuilding in Plaquemines Parish isn't an option for residents such as Keith Delahoussaye, a self-employed oil and gas mechanic with three grown children. Though he has owned his house for 20 years, he and his family plan to move to another Louisiana community with others of Cajun descent — perhaps Houma, 90 miles away.
It's just a matter of time before he hears of someone he knows from the parish who is dead, he said.
"Why keep going through this?" Delahoussaye asked. "We knew this was coming sooner or later. We didn't expect it to be so catastrophic."
Others are determined to stay.
Reyes and Thompson said they hope the shrimp and other sea life will return in a year or so. For now, they and their families are eating military rations and living on their boats until they receive insurance money from their lost houses.
"We are fishermen," Thompson said. "It's going to be hard to do something else. We don't have much to live on. We take care of one another. We're survivors."
By Kimberly Hefling