Hurricane Laura: As they prepare, Vermilion Parish residents remember Rita's devastation

Leigh Guidry
Lafayette Daily Advertiser
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FORKED ISLAND — Sandy Touchet, 56, saw several feet of water in her south Vermilion Parish home after Hurricane Rita passed through Forked Island in 2005.

She had lost her husband two years earlier, so she and the two kids evacuated north to Port Barre to ride out the storm with extended family.

When they returned, they found the home flooded.

"For Rita we were dumbfounded," Touchet said. "We were fine until the surge."

More:As Hurricane Laura takes similar path, here's a look back at Rita's 2005 damage

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The 2005 hurricane was weakening as it made landfall as a Category 3 near the Louisiana-Texas border, along a similar path that Hurricane Laura appears to be taking.

"But it drove an enormous storm surge," said Ryan Truchelut, co-founder and chief meteorologist at WeatherTiger. "Like Katrina, it delivered a surge that was more like a category 4 or 5."

That's what hit Touchet and the small community of Forked Island, located about 15 miles from the Gulf Coast. She said the water "came and went pretty quick," but the home was destroyed.

"We never went back," Touchet said.

Sandy Touchet, owner of Stelly's Grocery in Forked Island, talks about how she is preparing for Hurricane Laura and how Hurricane Rita effected her family Tuesday, Aug. 25, 2020.

The family did return to the community, now living in a different home "on the other side of the (Intracoastal) bridge)," she points out.

On Tuesday she and her daughter, 26-year-old Shaina Rodriguez, were bracing themselves for a new storm that hints at being a lot like Rita. 

Hurricane Laura is expected to make landfall late Wednesday or early Thursday along the Gulf Coast, forecast to become a potent Category 3 storm with winds of 115 mph.

Touchet and her family are taking no chances this time, packing up and preparing to evacuate Wednesday morning. They spent Monday night inside their business, Stelly's Grocery on Highway 82.

"We've picked up everything outside," Touchet said. "Tomorrow morning we're going to turn on the generator and we're leaving."

They served as many people as possible before taking off.

"My family's more important than the business," Touchet said. "But everyone here's family. We'll stay open as long as we can.'

Rodriguez said the last three days with threats of Tropical Storm Marco and Laura have been crazy busy, calling Monday the craziest. People have stopped for gas or food, pulling campers or trailers loaded down with tractors or cattle.

"People have moved cattle and then moved it again," Touchet said.

Some have come from as far as Cameron Parish, which issued a mandatory evacuation for the entire parish Tuesday morning.

Shaina Rodriguez talks about how her and her mom Sandy Touchet are preparing for Hurricane Laura inside their store, Stelly's Grocery in Forked Island, Tuesday, August 25, 2020.

But Rodriguez is two weeks from her due date and was scheduled to have her baby boy next Friday — "if I don't have him before then," she adds.

Both their husbands are in Texas working on tug boats, so it's just the three of them — Touchet, Rodriguez and 2-year-old Landrei Rodriguez — holding down the fort until Wednesday.

They hope to be back in the store Friday, but they know they will have to wait and see. They didn't own Stelly's in 2005, but as Forked Island residents, they knew it well.

The store took on water from Rita's storm surge then, and Touchet remembers not being able to cross the Intracoastal Bridge to get to the building or anything beyond it.

"We're just hoping and praying we don't get that again," Touchet said. "I don't wish it on anybody, but how much more can we take?"

Down the road, Lydanna Fontenot and her family made similar preparations Tuesday at Bait, Feed and Seed.

"We needed to find a generator at the last minute," Fontenot said. "Everything that can't take water we're raising up on shelves."

Fontenot, 32, and her husband bought the business in March. They found a generator Tuesday in Broussard to keep the freezers running and the bait intact after they close the store Thursday.

While they've come to the business more recently, the building has made it through Rita and Hurricane Ike in 2008. Then it was Ma and Pa's Bait Shop and owned by Douglas Frederick, who still lives nearby.

Bait, Feed, and Seed pictured on a hill in Forked Island, Louisiana Tuesday, Aug. 25, 2020.

"I got a lot of advice from him," Fontenot said. "The water never came in (during Rita or Ike). We're high enough. But you had to have a boat to come in across the parking lot."

She remembers that, having lived with her parents in Forked Island when that storm hit in 2005.

"Rita passed at night, and the surge didn't come until the next day," she said. "We stayed in Kaplan. My dad came check on everything, came back to get us and we were headed back when he got a call that said to turn around, the water's rising."

Lesson learned: "You've got to stay gone a few days," she said.

Her parents' home had about 10-12 inches of water in it then, and her parents now are evacuating to their son's home in Maurice. Fontenot will be with her family in Mulvey, another small community in the parish, while the shop is closed Thursday and Friday.

"You never know what will happen," she added.

More:Hurricane Laura: Lafayette Parish releases routes for voluntary evacuation

Truchelut, the meteorologist, said Forked Island residents are not wrong to be worried about Laura and the projected storm surge of more than 10 feet. He expects this storm's surge to be "very serious" but perhaps not as bad as Rita's.

He said the two storms are "a pretty close match" when it comes to their angle of approach, tracks and speed of motion make them, but that a key difference between Rita and Laura is how they are getting to the Gulf, which impacts the eventual storm surge.

When Rita was where Laura is now, Truchlet explained, it was a category 5 with 180 mph sustained winds, having crossed only over water. It wasn't slowed by crossing land like Laura has.

"Laura, by virtue of being a little smaller and not as strong for as long, while the storm surge is very serious, even if the max intensity is greater or equal to that of Rita, the surge may be just a touch less," Truchlet said. "It doesn't have the inertia Rita did crossing the Gulf."

While the surge might be less, the Laura's winds could be worse. It might have "destructive winds" further inland than Rita did, he said.

Because Rita was weakening when it made landfall, "it didn't get as big of a punch of wind," he said.

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