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Evacuated residents get first look at Louisiana town nearly obliterated by Hurricane Laura

Buildings and homes are flooded in the aftermath of Hurricane Laura Thursday, Aug. 27, 2020, in Cameron, La. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

CAMERON, La. - As floodwaters from Hurricane Laura began to subside, Highway 27, the lone road leading south into this tiny coastal town, finally became passable Sunday. Many living here were able to see their homes for the first time since Laura crashed through, and the level of destruction made it clear that officials’ warnings of the storm’s “unsurvivable” nature were accurate.

The houses that remained standing seemed far beyond repair, and most were still surrounded by - or fully submerged in - murky floodwaters. Concrete foundation slabs were all that remained of other homes.

There often was no rubble to sift after winds strong enough to smash brick coupled with a towering storm surge to wash away structures and their contents as if they had never existed.

On the side of the main road through Cameron, Nancy Miller, 57, was weeping, unable to look at her property. Floodwaters had crushed her trailer, covering her life’s possessions in mud. The yard beneath the trailer’s 14-foot elevated platform was still covered in knee-deep water.

“This is our third time with this. I don’t know about coming back,” Miller said as she cried. “I really don’t know this time. I love Cameron. Everyone here went to school together, and our moms and dads went to school together before that. It’s a long generation of families that live here.

“But we’ve had Rita. Then Ike. And now Laura. Three times is really hard.”

Tracy Miller, 60, carries an item through floodwater that is left after Hurricane Laura devastated Cameron, La., last week. (Photo for The Washington Post by Callaghan O'Hare)

The unrelenting series of damaging hurricanes in such a short period of time has underscored the notion that this area is a fragile coastal paradise, its slate wiped clean multiple times in one generation.

Bridget Jones-Curtis, 49, also was born and raised in Cameron, and after Laura passed through, she found her home on a satellite image and was pleased to see it was one of the few in town still standing. But when she arrived here and saw it Sunday, she immediately noticed what the satellite could not: An entire side of her house had been obliterated. Water had poured into the open wall, and wind gusts took most of her things.

A trailer had blown beneath her elevated house, and the two cars her family left parked there before the storm were missing.

“We don’t even see them nowhere,” she said. “They’re gone. Totally gone.”

The stairs to Jones-Curtis’s home had swept away, so her 28-year-old son, Nathaniel, vaulted up into the open side. His mother’s kitchen chairs were still tucked in around the table, he said, but all of the pictures in the house had blown off the walls. The bathroom was untouched, but many irreplaceable items were either missing or drenched beyond repair.

“Babe, the closet is gone!” Jones-Curtis yelled to her husband.

Bridget Jones-Curtis, 49, looks at what remains of her Cameron, La., house after Hurricane Laura struck it last week. (Photo for The Washington Post by Callaghan O'Hare)

She and her family do not have insurance, and they had to scrape together gas money just to drive here. Jones-Curtis lost her job at a hospital when the coronavirus pandemic hit. Her husband, Claude Curtis, a certified pipe fitter, was set to start an offshore refinery job in two weeks. But when the family got to Cameron on Sunday, Curtis, 43, realized the tools he needs for that job had disappeared.

“Lord, I don’t know what we gonna do,” he said. “We’re in bad shape, I tell ya.”

They’re not going to leave Cameron, that much was certain.

“I have eight children. My two youngest got to be raised up where I was raised up at,” Jones-Curtis said. “I’m coming back here. This is home.”

It appears most people in Cameron and surrounding areas heeded dire evacuation warnings, and the death count in Louisiana has held relative steady - 12 statewide, with seven of those deaths coming after the storm and due to the use of generators during power outages. Nearly 400,000 customers in Louisiana remained with power Sunday, including 99% of those in Cameron Parish and 98% of those in neighboring Calcasieu Parish, which includes Lake Charles, according to a senior leadership briefing compiled Sunday by the Federal Emergency Management Agency and obtained by The Washington Post.

Despite the obvious devastation, Kevin Dupke, the Cameron Parish coroner, said no storm-related deaths had been reported in Cameron as of Sunday. But with many residents coming back for the first time, that number remained uncertain, and authorities warned that there could be storm victims who have yet to be discovered.

“We’re just penetrating the parish now,” he said. “And I haven’t gotten any calls.”

Dupke spent Sunday touring the town’s graveyards, looking for coffins swept away by the storm. In a local Catholic cemetery, he had already counted five. This was significantly better than in Hurricanes Ike and Rita, he said, when 750 coffins were displaced.

Connor Theriot, 16, stands on the slab of foundation that held his family's Cameron, La., home before Hurricane Laura. (Photo for The Washington Post by Callaghan O'Hare)
A dog walks past a home in Cameron Parish, La., that was destroyed after Hurricane Laura made landfall. (Photo for The Washington Post by Callaghan O'Hare)

Adley Dyson, 70, walked along a flooded Cameron street with his son, Adley Dyson Jr. Both men lost their Cameron homes. The elder Dyson said he plans to rebuild, but not here.

“That’s four houses since 2003,” he said. “That’s too many.”

His son agreed.

“There ain’t nothing to come back to,” he said. “I’m 47 years old. I had to start over in my late 20s. I had to start over in my 30s. This is my fourth time starting over. I don’t want to have to start over again.”

If they leave as planned, the men - the elder is an oysterman and the younger fishes shrimp - will break a long tradition of Dysons living in Cameron.

At age 7, Dyson Sr. survived Hurricane Audrey, the 1957 storm that killed about 800 people, by taking refuge in a boat with his father.

Dyson Jr. said he had “no clue” where he will move after this, but he is sure it will be far from the path of hurricanes. “If I’m making the exodus,” he said, “I’m staying far away from here.”

Much of the land sits at sea level, where wetlands expand for miles in every direction, and where homes are exposed to the open Gulf of Mexico. In nearby Holly Beach, residents vowed not to let Laura push them out.

“My plan is to rebuild,” said Craig Broussard, 67.

Broussard’s family has resided in Holly Beach, directly on the gulf in the south of Cameron Parish, since the 1940s. Broussard has lived there since he retired. He is one of about 35 full-time residents in the 70-home weekend community, affectionately nicknamed the “Cajun Riviera.”

Holly Beach was devastated by Hurricane Rita in 2005, but it seems to have fared better this time around. Houses here are built at great elevation - Broussard’s home is 21 feet above sea level - and they are mostly constructed of materials meant to withstand hurricane-force winds.

The damage in Holly Beach appeared less than in towns to the north, where winds ripped out trees and tore down buildings. Almost every home in Holly Beach suffered damage from Laura, but even amid the obvious debris, it seemed no one had lost a house completely.

Bobby DeDear, 39, Broussard’s son-in-law, joined him in returning to Holly Beach the morning after Thursday’s storm.

“It looked like a bomb went off,” DeDear said.

Floodwaters cover the street under downed utility wires Friday, Aug. 28, 2020, in Cameron, La., after Hurricane Laura moved through the area Thursday. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

On Saturday afternoon, Holly Beach’s streets were littered with the hallmarks of life in this gulfside community: fishing line, beach chairs, umbrellas. Laura had also blown stranger items into the streets: two microwaves, strings of Mardi Gras beads, a dead sheep.

Storm surge waters had receded, but sand still covered roads half a mile inland.

Laura’s winds tore off much of Broussard’s roof, and whipping power lines wrapped around his house, punching a three-foot hole into his walls.

Broussard spent the weekend beginning repairs with the help of family and friends. Heirloom furniture that survived the storm was brought downstairs to dry off outside. Broussard’s first cousin, a general contractor, already had workers up on the roof.

“I have to get a roof on to dry everything in,” Broussard said. “Once it’s dried in, I can slow down. All I want is my house back whole. That’s it.”

This cycle of destruction and renewal is one Broussard said he is willing to accept for the trade-offs of life in Holly Beach.

“It’s beautiful here. Another day in paradise,” he said. “I will never leave.”

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The Washington Post’s Lena H. Sun in Washington contributed to this report.