Church community rises to challenges of Dulac’s Hurricane Ida recovery

Published 12:01 am Saturday, November 13, 2021

A golden sliver of sunshine offered welcomed light through the bleakness of disaster.

Embedded in its brightness, however, was a cruel irony. Those few rays were peaking in through the open slats of a roof wearing the scars of Hurricane Ida.

“I’ve never been in a position like this,” said Belle Johnson, as she cast her eyes to the mold that was forming on the ceiling of her Dulac home.

Johnson’s story is like many others in this small fishing community, where Native Americans, many who reside on the outskirts of poverty, comfortably mingle with those who maintain camps or second homes that they used as they enjoyed the immense outdoor sporting activities the area has to offer.

Two months after Ida passed directly over Dulac on its way to Houma and pointed northward, the carnage stains what is typically an idyllic setting that could rival any Hallmark town. Streets are lined with mountains of debris, their peaks archives of lives destroyed.

People continue to live in their vehicles or worse, in blue tarp tents, a primitive hot stove serving as their primitive kitchen. Air condition is a fantasy.

Where homes once stood, there is only rubble; where children played, empty slabs stand as ghosts.

Yet, there is no thought of leaving, their heritage deeply embedded in the marshes where generations of their ancestors have made a living. It’s an area where evacuation meant leaving one’s home to brave gusts of 150 miles per hour to go to a neighbor’s house.

But there is hope, a hope offered through the overwhelming generosity of St. Joseph Church in Ponchatoula, St. Margaret Queen of Scotland Church in Albany and one man who has opened his heart and checkbook to offer relief.

Three towns, three diverse cultures, one united goal.

“Beautiful things are happening down there,” said St. Joseph pastor Father Paul McDuffie. “There is a lot of church work going on. (Parishioners) are giving from their heart and definitely living out the Gospel.”

“Our parish has been phenomenal. They are giving to help people who are hurting badly.”

St. Joseph raised more than $20,000 in three weeks during collections at Mass to assist those suffering, and the donations are continuing. Father McDuffie now wonders what’s next.

A similar story has evolved at St. Margaret, which has adopted Holy Family. Pastor Father Jamin David said the parish immediately donated $10,000 to the parish in the aftermath of the storm and has committed to make a monthly monetary contribution for at least a year.

Additionally, two groups representing St. Margaret provided hot meals to Holy Family parishioners, including 500 rotisserie chicken meals and another 1,000 hot meals in a subsequent visit.

Donations also included such necessities as AC units, cleaning supplies, air mattresses and 300 gallons of gas. Even today, gas is not always accessible, as mangled skeletons are grizzly reminders of what were once service stations.

This comes while St. Margaret and many of its parishioners deal with their own recoveries.

“These difficult times, for me, are ripe times for evangelization, and I could not be more proud of how our parishioners respond in adversity,” Father David said. “The most edifying thing for is our parishioners know that ‘church’ isn’t confined for us to a building off of I-12 or in the geographical boundaries of eastern Livingston Civil Parish.  Our ‘church’ extends far beyond where we have made intimate connections with the people of God.”

Heroes typically arise from the ashes of every cataclysm and in Dulac they have come in the form of Father Antonio Speedy, an Australian native who is the administrator at Holy Family Church, and Mike Fulmer, a Ponchatoula businessman and St. Joseph parishioner who defines his life by the Gospel message. Among Dulac natives, Fulmer has become a hero of sorts, a man who has taken them out of their trucks and makeshift tents and put them into trailers featuring the creature comforts of air conditioning, a stove and most important a mattress to lay one’s head to enjoy a few hours of respite from the daily calamities of recovery.

“I’m so grateful for Mr. Mike,” said Johnson, who admittedly was scared during the aftermath of the storm while being alone with her  young girls. “We did not have a place to stay. I was sacred somebody would attack us.”

Fulmer, who owns an RV dealership in Ponchatoula among his several business interests, for the past 17 years has owned a camp in Dulac, where priceless memories have been formed with his family, his  daughters and now, as a few gray hairs began to seep into his blondish hair, his granddaughters. He has formed a close relationship with Father Speedy who has been at Holy Family for the past three years.

Shortly after the storm, Father Speedy, who does not drive and walks or hitchhikes wherever he goes, made his way to Ponchatoula.

Fulmer said Father Speedy walked into his office and said the people had no place to live and what could be done. Fulmer immediately donated 10 RVs from his dealership to help families get into homes while they wait for FEMA trailers.

As so often happens in times of disaster, one act of kindness becomes contagious. Not  only have St. Joseph’s parishioners responded but the recovery effort has become ecumenical.

Upon hearing of Fulmer’s donations, Dr. David Cranford, senior pastor at First Baptist Church in Ponchatoula, appealed to his congregation and they quickly answered, funding a trailer for a needy family.

Bishop Emeritus Sam Jacobs of the Diocese of Houma-Thibodaux donated $10,000 of his own money and asked for someone to match it. That match came in the form of a donation from St. Joseph Church in Houma.

“It’s become a huge thing where people are trying to take care of the people (in Dulac),” Fulmer, a New Roads native and graduate of Southeastern Louisiana University who now lives in the Springfield area, said. “People need temporary housing. Hopefully some might be able to rebuild but that is still a year away.”

“RVs provide a temporary shelter for them to get out of the weather,” he added. “Plus, they can park in their driveway, work on their homes and not be 10 miles away.”

Fulmer, working with Father Speedy, has brought nearly 20 trailers that have been funded through numerous donations to the area.

“For the first six weeks FEMA was not there so the Catholic churches and other churches in the area supported these people,” Fulmer said. “People will not leave. It’s the only life they have. They want to live on the edge of the marsh.”

Father Speedy, who rarely tires and is warmly received by all residents, identifies those families in need and directs Fulmer as to who should receive a trailer. Even in the best of times, he works among the poor, but what they lack in material riches they make up for in their own spiritual wealth, their faith never wavering.

“What we have been doing is rebuilding a town,” Father Speedy, whose spiritual enthusiasm is infectious, said. “It’s like living in a third world country. We are bringing people out of misery to poverty.”

On a recent sun-splashed morning Nicole Boudreaux fought back her emotions as Fulmer deftly wielded his truck through a tight spot to park a trailer in her yard. For two weeks she had not slept in a bed, only on a sofa or a chair in the homes of relatives.

But on this night she would be able to turn down the covers of a fresh mattress in her new home, climb into her own bed and ponder an uncertain future, since Ida took her mobile home.

“Amazing” is the only word that would leave her lips as she toured the trailer.

“I would like to thank the people (of the Diocese of Baton Rouge) for their generosity for helping me get back on my feet,” Boudreaux said. “It’s been hard.”

Fulmer recognizes recovery is only its early stages and has no plans to abandon the community he has come to love and embrace. At least once or twice a week he will drive down to Dulac to hook up trailers to anxiety-ridden residents, the grateful smiles of suffering people his only reward.

“All I know is they are thirsty, they are hungry and they need help right now,” he said. “They are glad we are there. I have not heard one single complaint, which is testimony to their faith.”

“I told my wife those people need help, we need to do something. And she said do it,” he added.

“I can’t believe it,” Johnson said as tears crept down her face.

To make donations or mail check to Holy Family, P.O. Box 87, Dulac, LA 70353.