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What's next for Louisiana's LaPlace Parish residents after weathering repeated storms

SARAH MCCAMMON, BYLINE: I'm Sarah McCammon in LaPlace, La., where, several weeks after Hurricane Ida slammed into the Louisiana coast, the devastation it left behind remains in neighborhoods still heaped with debris and lined with row after row of houses covered in blue tarps.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: There is no comparison. Ida - it's over 30 days, and I haven't found the word for it. It's indescribable what it looked like outside.

IRIS RIVERA: I think this storm is the worst. And in my experience, I think I never see so much destruction.

DONALD CEASER: And I think it just caught a lot of people by surprise - you know, the magnitude of everything.

MCCAMMON: The power is mostly back on for the region, but that's little consolation to the many people whose homes are still in desperate need of repair.

I RIVERA: The roof is inside the house (laughter).

MCCAMMON: Inside the house.

I RIVERA: Yeah. There's (unintelligible) inside the house. Yeah. The ceiling inside their house, water all over the place.

MCCAMMON: That's Iris Rivera. She's one of many LaPlace residents still waiting for help from insurance companies, state and local officials or the federal government. And others are facing difficult choices about whether to continue making a life here. This week I toured LaPlace, along with Gulf States Newsroom reporter Shalina Chatlani. We saw floodwater that has yet to recede weeks after the storm and areas where the winds had peeled back rooftops and walls, leaving whole neighborhoods and the lives of many of the people who built them in shambles.

SHALINA CHATLANI, BYLINE: Donald Ceaser Jr. is one of those people. He's lived in LaPlace all his life. But since Hurricane Ida ripped through this area, he's been spending most days and nights in his red truck, keeping watch over his 82-year-old uncle's house. The roof was ripped off, and it's now completely unlivable. A month later, Ceaser walks inside the house.

CEASER: The only difference is the electricity.

CHATLANI: Along the walls, they're stinking black mold. The floors are wet and dirty. Flies circle around garbage.

CEASER: You know, they had a lot of water damage. You know, we were - the water was high. But, you know, like, we just don't have nowhere to go. So we - you know, we just have to deal with it, you know?

CHATLANI: This house has been in Ceaser's family for generations. Another uncle who lives down the street takes off the list of his ancestors who have lived in LaPlace.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Ferdinand Ceaser (ph), Joseph Ceaser (ph), Jonas Ceaser (ph), Paul Ceaser (ph).

CHATLANI: Are you a Ceaser, too?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: I'm a blue-blooded Ceaser.

CHATLANI: Ceaser says his great-grandparents migrated here from Africa in the early 1900s.

CEASER: My great-grandmother - she went to see all her family on one street. She accomplished that because most of this land was hers.

CHATLANI: But now much of the family-owned property is destroyed. Ceaser gets emotional as he looks at the yard and a massive pile of rotting trash made up of the contents of the family's home - sofas, mattresses, heirlooms all wrecked by the storm. And then there's the tree his grandfather planted about 100 years ago that didn't survive Ida's wind and rain.

CEASER: It was always joyful. I always used to feel like a chimpanzee to try to climb it, you know, and see if we can get to the top. But this is where everybody came together - Fourth of July, Easter, Christmas. The functions was in his yard. This tree - it was like a comfort zone.

CHATLANI: The city of LaPlace sits in St. John the Baptist parish between New Orleans and Baton Rouge. The region is home to numerous former plantations. Many Black families that either descended from formerly enslaved people or migrated here, like the Ceasers, acquired land and have been here for more than a century. Looking around his neighborhood now, Ceaser says it's devastating to see so much destruction within this Black community that has weathered so many storms, and that's raising difficult questions about what to do next.

CEASER: A week ago, my mom caught a heart attack. They told me stress. You know, she shouldn't have been back there so long. That's a question that she's asking herself right now. Should she leave, or she just call it quits, you know?

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing in Spanish).

MCCAMMON: Just down the street from the Ceasers is Iglesia Pentecostal Providencia Divina. Like the Ceasers' home, the church was gutted by Hurricane Ida, the entire back concrete block wall ripped away by a big tree that was uprooted by the storm. A month later, Pastor Wanda Rivera has moved the church, or at least its people, to the back porch of her home about 15 minutes away.

WANDA RIVERA: We clean everything as much as we can. And we put it - we fill it up with chairs that looks like a church. And we have, like, a music stand that will be our pulpit. And this is where we are congregating right now because our building was destroyed.

CHATLANI: You used to meet here, right?

W RIVERA: My church started right there in my living room.

CHATLANI: That was back in 2013. The church's name in Spanish refers to God's providence or guidance, and Rivera says she felt God lead her to this community and this house.

W RIVERA: We were - me and my husband, we come from St. Croix, the Virgin Islands. And God told us in the long term that we were going to leave the island and we were going to start a church.

MCCAMMON: From her house in LaPlace, Rivera says she began passing out Christian tracts or pamphlets, sharing her faith. She says she started getting invitations to preach sermons all around the area, and soon she was holding bilingual services, forming a community of Spanish-speaking church members with roots from Puerto Rico to Colombia. The congregation met here and then another location until six years ago, when Wanda and her husband were able to rent the building that became their church's home on a major street that runs through LaPlace. Church members and friends worked together, using whatever materials they could find and a lot of elbow grease to turn the simple building made of concrete blocks and corrugated metal into a church.

W RIVERA: God works in mysterious ways. And we had - I could show you pictures, the before and after that building. We had everybody that was in our church picking up every single nail that we saw. We reused that nail. Any piece of wood, we took, and we piled. It was pieces that we took to build that wall.

MCCAMMON: Now the nails, the concrete blocks, sheetrock and even the roof are scattered in broken pieces on the ground, and the people of Iglesia Pentecostal are back where they began.

What did that place mean to your church?

W RIVERA: It was our house of worship. It was everything for us.

MCCAMMON: During the Sunday service, Rivera moves in and out of the house, greeting church members, stepping out on the back porch to join the service and then back inside.

W RIVERA: You could open it. Can you open it? You want a red one? OK. And then a juice...

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: Thank you.

W RIVERA: You got a juice?

MCCAMMON: Several children are sitting around the kitchen table, snacking on Cheetos and Jell-O. Before Hurricane Ida, they had their own Sunday school classrooms. Rivera has tried to salvage what she can, storing odds and ends in a garage behind the kitchen. There's a drum set and speakers, empty aluminum casserole dishes, even a giant prop in the shape of a Bible that her sister painted for an event at the church.

W RIVERA: This is what it says in the altar in my church. It's Revelations 22:20. Certainly, I come shortly. Amen.

MCCAMMON: But with the loss of the physical church has come the loss of many services provided to people in the congregation and beyond. Rivera says church members use the building to store clothing and food that was given to people in need. It's also been a place for undocumented people to get help, she says.

W RIVERA: When President Trump was talking about deporting people, we brought a lawyer, and all Hispanic in the neighborhood met there. It was more than 3,000 people in that church with that lawyer who wanted to know their rights, their fears and things like that. And I didn't even know there were that many Hispanic in LaPlace.

MCCAMMON: Did you say 3,000? They could fit?

W RIVERA: It was standing hallway outside. The door's open for everybody.

MCCAMMON: In the aftermath of Hurricane Ida, Rivera says undocumented people in LaPlace are especially vulnerable. She says she's been trying to help those with limited English skills understand their rights and navigate systems designed to help with storm recovery. FEMA officials say you need legal status in the U.S. to apply for cash payments, but families with mixed immigration status can use, for example, a child's Social Security number. FEMA has become almost synonymous with disaster relief, but public affairs officer John Mills says the agency's main focus is emergency shelter, not permanent rebuilding.

JOHN MILLS: A lot of people are going to rely on the good work of charitable, voluntary and faith-based organizations that are actively working in a lot of communities now.

MCCAMMON: Pastor Wanda Rivera's church is trying to fill some of those gaps, using her backyard now to prepare food for distribution in the community. She admits with so much loss, she sometimes imagines leaving LaPlace.

W RIVERA: I have nothing to hold me here. And I was praying, and I was like, you know, I don't have a really reason to stay. I love these people. I love these people. I love the ministry. God, do you still want me? Is this a sign for me to leave?

MCCAMMON: For the time being, Rivera and her congregation are staying. They're renting space from another local church.

CHATLANI: Jaclyn Hotard is president of St. John the Baptist Parish, where LaPlace is located. She worries not everyone will choose to stay.

JACLYN HOTARD: It is a consideration if people will leave. But where do you really go, right?

CHATLANI: But as he stands outside his home, where his family's 100-year-old tree used to be, Donald Ceaser says he's been there all his life. It's all he knows, and he's going to stay. And he believes his family, some of whom have left because of the storm, will be there, too.

CEASER: They're resilient people. They're going to come back. They're going to rebuild. The tree might not be, but the house will be back.

CHATLANI: Ceaser says it's just a matter of when they can start picking up the pieces.

For NPR news, I'm Shalina Chatlani.

MCCAMMON: And I'm Sarah McCammon in LaPlace, La.

(SOUNDBITE OF BEACH HOUSE SONG, "BLACK CAR") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.