EMPIRE, La. – The Mississippi River rose up and swallowed Tim Arceneaux’s trailer.
It dragged his cousin’s house 300 yards and dumped his neighbor’s double-wide at the foot of a bridge.
It lifted a pair of 200-ton menhaden boats onto the soaring Empire Bridge, where their propellers dug into the concrete median.
And it unearthed three coffins from a cemetery on the river’s east bank and dropped them onto Highway 23 on the west bank.
Together with the Gulf of Mexico, the Mississippi combined to drown Empire. Hurricane Katrina dumped walls of water from both the gulf and the river on Plaquemines Parish, a narrow strip of delta that stretches 100 miles to the gulf southeast of New Orleans. Empire and 10 other towns spread over 57 miles are now under 10 feet of water.
“They’re gone. They don’t exist anymore,” Deputy Sheriff Arceneaux said Wednesday as he guided a skiff over oil-fouled waters – the only way into Empire and points south. His journey took him by his former trailer, which he couldn’t see because it was submerged in churning floodwaters.
This string of fishing and oil towns was the first inhabited area to be hit by Hurricane Katrina. The parish took the full brunt of the storm, with thousands of homes and businesses either flooded or obliterated by high winds or storm surge.
Up and down Highway 23, the narrow ribbon of asphalt that winds through the bayous, shards of brick and frame houses litter the flat countryside. Mattresses and curtains and trousers are strung in the limbs of the few surviving trees. Fishing and pleasure boats are stacked three-high in the swamps. Massive barges were dumped atop levees that were overwhelmed by the storm.
“We got boats in trees down here,” said Darryl Couvillion, a contractor who was piloting his boat to Empire, 75 miles from New Orleans, Wednesday to check on the town’s damaged canal locks.
The flooding in New Orleans has been well-documented, but remote Plaquemines has endured widespread devastation in relative obscurity, with phone lines down and roads washed out. The parish issued a mandatory evacuation order two days before the hurricane, and the confirmed death toll stands at just three. But no one knows how many people stayed behind in inaccessible villages.
“They’re going to be pulling out bodies up and down this whole parish,” Arceneaux said as National Guard teams further north began searching houses, marking them with green “0’s” if clear and red “X’s” if not. The stench of decay cut the air in one part of Empire, and Arceneaux hoped it was a dead animal.
The parish towns are long and narrow, crammed between levees on either side. The hurricane breached those levees in several places, but it almost didn’t matter. The storm surge simply flowed over the tops of the levees, from the gulf to the west and from the river to the east. Eleven towns and villages virtually disappeared – from Happy Jack and Port Sulphur to Home Place and Venice.
The parish is home to thousands of commercial fisherman, who ply the bayou and gulf for shrimp, oysters and crabs.
All three local seafood industries are devastated, as are the area’s orange groves. Several residents said the area had only recently recovered from the destruction of Hurricane Camille in 1969.
Oil and chemicals from tankers, oil platforms and barges flowed into the floodwaters, said Lt. Robert Martin of the state wildlife and fisheries department.
“The waters are normally ‘green clear,’ but they went tea black and, now, milky brown,” Martin said. “It’s toxic – dead cows, dead horses, dead dogs, oil, chemicals.”
In Empire, Arceneaux pulled his skiff up to an abandoned oil platform, a handy parking spot in the shadow of the Empire Bridge. Behind the platform, the two 170-foot “poggies” – menhadden boats – named “Sea Wolf” and “Sea Falcon” were resting gently across all four lanes of the bridge below mid-span.
“It’s like a giant arm just swept across the earth like sweeping things off a tabletop,” said Donnie Kennair, who was escorted by Arceneaux to get his first look at his missing oyster boat, the 55-foot Galeb. He found it – the boat’s bow slammed down into another boat and its stern pointing straight up in the brilliant delta sunshine.
Arceneaux moved on, to a narrow spit of land next to the submerged residential and commercial center of Empire. He pointed across the floodwaters to where his trailer had once stood. He lost everything but a bag of possessions he took with him when he evacuated two days before the storm.
“It happened. It’s over. I’m moving on,” he said. “I got work to do.”
Like everyone in the sheriff’s department, Arceneaux has worked day and night for the past 10 days. He has helped lead rescue and recovery missions in the skiff, recovering three corpses – including those of an elderly couple he knew. He has also served as an informal information source for residents and fishermen desperate for news of their homes and boats in areas still underwater.
No one is allowed to visit the flooded areas, and one of Arceneaux’s primary missions Wednesday was to intercept anyone trying to slip in by boat. It is dangerous to travel through the toxic, debris-clogged waters, he said.
His skiff crossed the wake of an outboard manned by an old friend, a restaurant owner nicknamed “Mouse.” Mouse was in flagrant violation of the sheriff’s blockade, trying to steal into the closed zone with three confederates. Mouse had a cold Budweiser in his right hand and a pistol on his left hip.
“What are you doing, Mouse?” Arceneaux yelled. Two deputies on board the police skiff, dressed in body armor and black fatigues, cradled M-16 automatic rifles.
Mouse explained, belligerently, that he was trying to reach the site of his flooded restaurant. Arceneaux told him, firmly, that he did not have permission to be in the water and would have to turn back.
Mouse cursed. “Tim, you can’t do that,” he said. “I lost everything. I got nothing left.”
“I lost everything, too, Mouse,” Arceneaux shot back.
Mouse sat down his boat, deflated, and cracked open another beer. Later, he and his friends tried to slip away as the police skiff fell behind them, but Arceneaux tracked them down and led them back to a launching ramp.
The deputy jumped off the skiff, sunburned and exhausted. He lit a cigarette. The hurricane and its aftermath had left him feeling empty and depleted, he said.
“You know, I haven’t even cried yet,” he said. “That comes later.”