• The San Juan Daily Star

Athletes in a ravaged Louisiana town try to run back to normalcy

Grand Isle School Coach Denny Wright timed Londyn Resweber on a training run after Hurricane Ida damaged Grand Isle, La.

By Jeré Longman

On an afternoon in late October, Londyn Resweber, 14, ran into the twilight of disaster. Little was intact two months after Hurricane Ida pummeled Louisiana’s only inhabited barrier island with sustained winds of 150 mph and a storm surge measured as high as 11 feet. Almost everything that holds a town together had been blown apart.

Resweber ran past Grand Isle School, which may not reopen for in-person learning until after Christmas. Past dunes of sand bulldozed from the main road. Past a Green Lantern action figure that someone placed on the beach in seeming hope and defiance, as if only a superhero could protect this resilient but vulnerable place against the next major storm.

For Resweber, running is one of the few things that remain familiar, habitual, customary. The Louisiana high school cross-country championships are Monday. Grand Isle is a power among the smallest schools: The Trojans won a boys’ state title in 2016 and finished as runner-up in 2019 and 2020. Last year, as an eighth grader, Resweber finished fifth in the varsity girls’ race. She aspires to win this year, training daily, posting her times online with her teammates, who remain scattered like roofing shingles across Louisiana, Texas, Alabama, Mississippi and Ohio.

Seven miles long, Grand Isle is a hive of rebuilding, hope and blue-tarp uncertainty. It serves as a vital storm-surge buffer for New Orleans, located about 50 miles north across a vast estuary, and is renowned for its fishing and birding. But, in being battered regularly by storms, the island has become a stark symbol of the challenges that Louisiana faces with climate change: rising sea levels, coastal erosion, more muscular hurricanes, rapid intensification, heavier rainfall.

The runners, their coach and school officials hope that competing in the cross-country championships will signal, in some small way, that this drowned island is determined to regain its buoyancy.

“You’ve got to pick up the pieces,” Resweber said.

Fortunately for her family, their home, built nearly 20 feet off the ground, sustained relatively minor damage. But most everything on the island seemed battered and oddly rearranged when they returned after evacuating to Mississippi. An aluminum boat was creased and folded like a dollar bill. Two-by-4s had blown off a nearby roof and stuck into the side of their home like arrows. For a time, the family flushed the toilet and washed their hands with treated water pumped from the swimming pool. They bathed with boxes of water heated on the porch by the sun.

“They looked like boxes of chicken broth,” Resweber said.

Her grandfather is the police chief of Grand Isle and her father is a state trooper, both bound by duty to be here while the island tries to recover. But Resweber was the only member of the cross-country team to have returned by late October. Perhaps as few as 150 of the town’s 1,400 permanent residents were back, according to the mayor. Almost every home sustained damage; 25% were destroyed.

The regional energy company had restored electricity with mega-generators, but Grand Isle’s water was still not drinkable. Donations of bottled water were available at the school. Internet connections remained spotty. Fifty-two of the 136 students who attended Grand Isle School before the hurricane in pre-K through 12th grade had enrolled elsewhere.

People here are adaptable and deeply rooted, but it is anyone’s guess how many dispersed students will return to Grand Isle when school reopens. Only 20 children could be located for a community Halloween party. Christine Templet, the principal, fears that virtual learning — forced last school year by the coronavirus pandemic and this year by the hurricane — will be insufficient.

“I really worry about their ability to have this learning stick with them,” she said.

Local, state and federal officials are facing hard questions about what resources should be put into restoring the island. A recent headline in The Times-Picayune/New Orleans Advocate asked a searing question: Is Grand Isle worth the cost of protecting against another storm with the destructive power of Ida?

“People are devastated mentally, emotionally, financially,” said Denny Wright, 70, a physical education teacher at Grand Isle School and coach of the girls’ and boys’ cross-country teams and the boys’ basketball team. “I know the island is coming along. But what coming along means, I don’t know.”

For 48 years, Denny Wright has been a coach, mostly of basketball at the college and high school level, “always calling a timeout somewhere.”

He sat in the shade of his carport and, using his laptop and a hot spot, taught a physical education class to eighth graders. With the state cross-country championships approaching, he told Jaide McCullough, 13, and another of his evacuated runners: “Y’all need to pick up the pace. We need to make sure we’re pushing ourselves.”

At a recent meeting of the Louisiana Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority, its chairman, Chip Kline, said the federal government needed more creative ideas to shelter Grand Isle. During Hurricane Ida, the sand levee melted in spots like sugar in coffee. Many scientists have expressed support for programs to assist people in relocating from Louisiana’s vulnerable coast, where federal resources for recovery and rebuilding could drain away as storm damage becomes more widespread.

“It’s not a question of if Grand Isle at some point becomes completely unlivable; it’s a question of when,” said Torbjorn Tornqvist, a coastal geoscientist at Tulane University. “That applies to a lot of places in Louisiana. Ultimately, that applies to New Orleans as well.”

Bobby Jackson, 15, a sophomore cross-country runner and basketball player at Grand Isle School, was training five days a week before the storm. He evacuated with his grandparents to Robertsdale, Alabama, and planned to compete in the state meet even though he had lost enthusiasm to train for it.

His father, a fisherman, has remained in Grand Isle. Jackson said he will join him if his grandparents do not return once school reopens. He hopes to play basketball.

“I refuse to go anywhere else but the island,” Jackson said. “To me, it’s perfect.”

The Reswebers feel the same unwavering attraction. As Londyn ran several miles through town in late October, she passed a reopened restaurant whose marquee was a spray-painted door scavenged from the storm. Green street signs were scoured white by wind and sand. Narrow streets felt like tunnels of devastation.

She would try her hardest to improve on her fifth-place finish at last year’s cross-country championship, Resweber said.

“If I don’t, I’ve been through a lot,” she said. “It’s OK.”

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