Wilbert and Hilda Pitre moved a cypress house onto property on a small street they named “Pitre Street” in Delcambre. It was 1951, and Wilbert started his business, Pitre’s Shipyard, just across the street.
Like so many Cajun families, the Pitres and their children and their children’s children all lived close to one another. Over the years their son, Bryan, grew up, got married to Sandra and built his house across the street. He too joined in the work at Pitre’s Shipyard. Later Bryan and Sandra’s children, Bryan Jr. and Stacey, each married and stayed in Delcambre. Bryan Jr. and his wife Janet and Stacey and her husband Carl Pommier built homes close by.
Their property hadn’t flooded in a hundred years. But when Hurricane Rita slammed into the Gulf coast last fall that changed. Waters surged over the area, flattening the towns closest to the coast and carrying water and mud 15 miles inland and flooding nearly everything in its path.
By the time Hurricane Rita came through, Wilbert and Hilda, now in their 80s, were both in ill health but still living in their well-built cypress house by the canal in Delcambre with their children nearby.
Hurricane Rita and its accompanying storm surge hit all four homes and the shipyard business with a vengeance, but Wilbert and Hilda’s home and the shipyard were the worst.
When Lorna Bourg and Judy Herring of SMHA were surveying the damage in Vermilion Parish shortly after the storm, they met Hilda sitting under a tree not knowing what to do next. When asked what happened, Hilda said “They’re no more good cher. I went up and looked in the door and closed it.”
Hurricane Rita brought seven feet of salt water in the shipyard work area, ruining specialized tools made around World War II. Bryan Sr. is best known for his excellent repair work on wooden boats and served customers from several states who made their way down the intercoastal canal to have repairs made.
Southern Mutual’s Rural Recovery Task Force and its partners have been working to help the three generations of this family recover their business and their homes by helping line-up volunteers and providing grants for supplies.
Unfortunately Wilbert died this past spring before realizing his dream of returning to his home, which like those of his children and grandchildren had to be repaired and raised 9 feet to meet the flood zone requirement.
Since both Hilda, who is suffering from lung cancer, and Bryan Sr.’s wife, Sandra, who is in a wheelchair due to a stroke, will both require an elevator to access their homes, Bryan Sr. and Sandra have decided to move in with Hilda so only one home will have to be elevator-equipped. Stacey and Carl will move into Bryan Sr.’s home as soon as repairs are completed and Bryan Jr. is completing repairs on his home. They all have a target date to be in their homes by mid-October.
Terri McFadden, a volunteer from Beverly, Massachusetts, who came down with a First Baptist Church group and helped the family, observed:
“In the last 10 years, the expression ‘family values’ has become a cliché. Yet that seems to be what is keeping these people together in the face of enormous obstacles. The phrase ‘it’s home’ might strike the less rooted among us as banal. But these are people whose families have lived here for several centuries—since they were forcibly removed by the British from Nova Scotia in the 18th century. They have a vibrant and supportive culture that is worth saving.”
Speaking about the Cajun people she met, McFadden said, “I never heard a whine. They told their stories and made matter-of-fact statements about horrific things, without complaint. Even if you never meet them, our country is stronger for their perseverance. They still have a long road ahead, but we can make it smoother.”
Through its Rural Recovery Response, SMHA is working to do just that.