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Checking in with Hurricane Ida survivors, 1 year later

SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:

Thick layers of smoke are blanketing the American West right now because of wildfires. More than 80 million people on the East Coast are under flash flood warnings. And just about a year ago, Hurricane Ida devastated much of the Louisiana coast. Virtually no part of the country seems immune to the effects of climate change. And the people who face the devastation - they live with it for years after disaster strikes. People like Benny and Tammy Alexie - Tammy, his wife, and their family lost almost everything to Hurricane Ida, including their home in a part of the bayou called Barataria, which was still flooded when we visited a month after Ida hit last year.

BENNY ALEXIE: What made New Orleans is the seafood that's cooked in it, which comes from the bayou people down south.

MCCAMMON: Benny has been a fisherman for 41 years. He primarily catches shrimp. They've been living in a FEMA trailer for about six months now.

B ALEXIE: It is three-bedroom, but the bedrooms are really small. But it's manageable, you know?

MCCAMMON: Five of them live in the trailer permanently. And some of the days of the week, it's seven people, including two grandchildren.

TAMMY ALEXIE: One is 7, and the other one is 2.

MCCAMMON: And how do you keep them busy in that space?

T ALEXIE: They have toys. We kind of, like, walk over toys all the time. But we just play, and we do a lot of puzzles and games together. We draw.

MCCAMMON: Her grandson is in school now, but the local elementary school was severely damaged by the hurricane. So he takes the bus an hour and a half each day to a nearby town.

T ALEXIE: It's hard. It's hard. It's not always air conditioned or things like that. Like, what's bad is my grandson - he gets carsick. So the hour and a half is very hard for him. And it's kind of scary because it's a high school. So they putting all these little kids, you know, in with these middle, high. And they're adapting. They're adapt. We were just hoping they would have a more permanent situation by now. But they don't.

MCCAMMON: Immediately after the hurricane, Benny was sure he wanted to stay and rebuild and train his son to take over the family fishing business. Tammy was more uncertain, and that still hasn't changed.

T ALEXIE: I mean, we're very grateful to not have lost the boat through this because this is our livelihood. But we're struggling - our lives, our house, trying to sell the shrimp - to make money to stay here, to deal with inflation. But we're going to stick it out because, I mean, at our age - and my son's just coming into this, and we're trying to put our family back together. So our first step is staying and trying to get a house to put us in. But it is very hard, very hard. I think our little community down here is taking a beating being as we're so close to the coast.

MCCAMMON: I know there have been a lot of months of uncertainty and instability in the industry. There was a long time when you couldn't go out at all, right? How did you get by? How have you been getting by through all of this?

B ALEXIE: Depleting savings. I've worked 41 years in this business, and it's really, really been tough. I mean, losing what we did lose with the hurricane and everything and now depleting savings that I've had, it's going to be a long haul for us to get anywhere back to normal. I mean, it is just a lot. It really, really is.

MCCAMMON: When we last met, you both were in different places about that. Benny, you didn't want to go. Tammy, you, as I've mentioned, were conflicted. I just want to play back some tape from our conversation.

T ALEXIE: Actually, if y'all can peek out right there, you see him when he's out there fishing. My son - he's fishing. That's his joy. And that's why we're going to stay. And I'ma (ph) stay - may evacuate for anything that comes, though, because I'm scared. But we're going to say.

MCCAMMON: You've made peace. You're making peace with the idea of staying.

T ALEXIE: I guess because I don't think he's going to leave. He never wanted to leave.

B ALEXIE: I'm not going.

T ALEXIE: Never wanted to leave.

MCCAMMON: How do those conversations sound these days?

B ALEXIE: I still have the same feelings about it, me. I mean, this was a - hopefully a once-in-a-lifetime deal. It may happen again, but to be honest with you, I don't honestly think I'll be here to see the next one like that. I'm thinking it's just that far away.

T ALEXIE: We hope.

B ALEXIE: Right. Well, Mother Nature is its own thing, you know? I mean, whatever it's going to decide to do, it's going to do.

MCCAMMON: How hopeful are you, though, Tammy?

T ALEXIE: Just listening to myself talk like that, you know, I don't know. It's emotional kind of thing. He actually - my son actually went out and took the boat for the first time by himself. It was a good experience for him. And I think being in new in the business, he is getting a very hard lesson on all the debris and the trees, the islands of mud. He is experiencing that from the beginning. He has not had a chance to go out there and see what the fishing is - the joy, the easier part of it, which is not easy. But he did great. He really stepped up. He's learning. And it makes me feel like I can't cheat him of that. This is what he wants to do. And I really hope that he could do this for the rest of his life. But I'm not sure the coastal Louisiana and the government of how they're trying to save our coast is going to let him do that. And that's what scares me.

MCCAMMON: You know, I don't have to tell you coastal Louisiana is a place that gets big storms, and that's only accelerating with climate change. Aren't you afraid of another big one, if not for yourself, for your son?

T ALEXIE: I am. I am. I am because of - I tell Benny all the time, we're hoping for no hurricane to come hit us. That would be great to have a year or two to try to rebuild and do things. But we really don't know even what a minor hurricane will bring us here until we get one.

MCCAMMON: Benny, I want to ask you. Tammy says she is afraid of the next big hurricane. Are you?

B ALEXIE: No. No. It's Mother Nature. I mean, you can't predict it. You can't stop it. I've always been taught that from my dad down to when I was a little bitty kid working on a boat with him and you'd see the weather come up on you. And he says, it don't pay for us to go anywhere, son. You can't run from weather. Sooner or later, it's going to find you.

T ALEXIE: It found us.

B ALEXIE: If it's meant for me, it's meant for me. And, I mean, that's the way I look at it.

MCCAMMON: Benny and Tammy are thinking about the future differently, but they plan on staying and rebuilding as soon as they're able. In the meantime, they're finding moments of joy where they can, including celebrating 36 years of marriage.

T ALEXIE: We actually got away to Mississippi. We went and found us - I found us a nice little room with a big soak tub so I can go and lay down and soak and relax - you know, bubbles everywhere. It was good. And we miss it. We miss the littlest things. But when you dealing with everything we had here - the mud, the water - we still don't have level ground. Our bodies ache. We're getting older. So me myself, I enjoy just soaking in the tub. But we enjoyed the time just to be alone.

B ALEXIE: It was very nice.

MCCAMMON: Benny and Tammy Alexie speaking to us from their hometown of Barataria, La. That commitment to place - that's something we heard about when Gulf States Newsroom reporter Shalina Chatlani introduced us to Donald Caesar last year. He and his uncle Melvin live in Laplace, La., a city outside the New Orleans levee system that was pummeled by Hurricane Ida's floodwaters and wind. Shalina talked to Donald as he watched over the moldy, broken and asbestos-filled remains of his family's ancestral home and the remnants of a tree his great-grandparents had planted over 100 years ago.

DONALD CAESAR: This tree was like comfort. It was like a comfort zone. It was always joyful. It was to feel like a chimpanzee to try to climb it. This is where everybody came together.

SHALINA CHATLANI, BYLINE: A year later, the yard, the home and the tree are still unrecognizable. On a warm afternoon, Melvin and Donald Caesar sit outside their new campers, the ones they say they got from FEMA. On this day, they're in good spirits and happy to give me the exclusive tour.

Let's check it out.

MELVIN CAESAR: Oh.

CHATLANI: Yeah. You don't want to - we're not doing a tour.

M CAESAR: You want an escort? Go ahead in there.

CHATLANI: Yeah.

M CAESAR: You've been around here too much. You've been around us too long now.

D CAESAR: (Inaudible).

M CAESAR: You're family.

CHATLANI: Donald and Melvin's campers are next door to each other and just inches from the uninhabitable family house. But they're making the best of it.

M CAESAR: There's food up in there, the refrigerator, cooking stuff. I'm cool, all right. All I just want them to come do something.

(SOUNDBITE OF METAL RATTLING)

M CAESAR: This is hollow.

CHATLANI: Melvin Caesar bangs on the hollowed-out frame of the family's house. He's content to be living in the camper, but it took six months to get it. We head inside the family home. It's gutted with overfilled toilets, dirt and broken glass strewn about.

How do you feel when you look around and you see this?

M CAESAR: I don't even talk about it. I feel like - I look like I'm getting left alone because they ain't doing nothing for me. Look at this house. Look at it.

CHATLANI: You decided to come back to Laplace.

M CAESAR: Yeah.

CHATLANI: Why?

M CAESAR: Born and raised here. My mother and father - they built this house. They tried to get me to go here. They tried to get me - I'm not going nowheres (ph). I'm going where I was born and raised at.

CHATLANI: Melvin says he didn't have insurance on the home since it's always just been passed down. Donald says his uncle just needed help figuring out what to do, and he hasn't gotten it yet.

D CAESAR: This is, like, a family house, so he didn't have the actual paperwork to really do everything that he wanted. It was like all the money wasn't coming to him, so it was all kind of red tape.

CHATLANI: Despite the uncertainty about the future, Donald and his uncle are committed to staying, remaining positive and believe the situation will get better.

D CAESAR: Well, I just thank God, and I know that he's going to come and give us something else. He going to come and - you know what I'm saying? - because he know how we endured.

CHATLANI: And when it comes to the 100-year-old tree the family loves so much, the Caesars are just as hopeful about its future.

D CAESAR: That tree - that was, like, the strongest tree on the block. You feel me? But it going to grow, and it going to come back some kind of way. You know what I mean? Or we just move on to another tree.

CHATLANI: And like the Alexies, that resilience is fueled by the love of their home, which continues to keep them there. For NPR News, I'm Shalina Chatlani in Laplace.

MCCAMMON: The Caesars and the Alexies - just two of the countless families living with the very real and often devastating effects of climate change.

(SOUNDBITE OF MYCHAEL DANNA AND DEVOTCHKA'S "THE WINNER IS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Sarah McCammon is a National Correspondent covering the Mid-Atlantic and Southeast for NPR. Her work focuses on political, social and cultural divides in America, including abortion and reproductive rights, and the intersections of politics and religion. She's also a frequent guest host for NPR news magazines, podcasts and special coverage.
Jonaki Mehta is a producer for All Things Considered. Before ATC, she worked at Neon Hum Media where she produced a documentary series and talk show. Prior to that, Mehta was a producer at Member station KPCC and director/associate producer at Marketplace Morning Report, where she helped shape the morning's business news.
Courtney Dorning has been a Senior Editor for NPR's All Things Considered since November 2018. In that role, she's the lead editor for the daily show. Dorning is responsible for newsmaker interviews, lead news segments and the small, quirky features that are a hallmark of the network's flagship afternoon magazine program.
Lauren Hodges is an associate producer for All Things Considered. She joined the show in 2018 after seven years in the NPR newsroom as a producer and editor. She doesn't mind that you used her pens, she just likes them a certain way and asks that you put them back the way you found them, thanks. Despite years working on interviews with notable politicians, public figures, and celebrities for NPR, Hodges completely lost her cool when she heard RuPaul's voice and was told to sit quietly in a corner during the rest of the interview. She promises to do better next time.
Shalina Chatlani