When Theresa and Donald Dardar returned to their home in Pointe-Aux-Chenes, Louisiana, to survey the damage from Hurricane Ida, the couple saw what looked like a war zone.
Roads were littered with fallen trees and debris from buildings. Most of the streets were still flooded and impassable.
The Dardars are members of the Pointe-Au-Chien indigenous tribe, and 68 out of their community’s 80 homes were destroyed.
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“This was the big one,” said Theresa, 67, who has lived for nearly 50 years in this coastal village about 90 minutes southwest of New Orleans. “It broke my heart to see our homes like this.”
Hurricane Ida left over a million residents of Louisiana without power and caused over $95 billion in damages, according to AccuWeather, a weather forecasting company. Early recovery efforts were focused on New Orleans and other cities, leaving smaller communities like Pointe-Aux-Chenes to wait for help and to fend for themselves.
The Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw tribe, neighbors of the Pointe-Au-Chien and relatives of the Mississippi bands of Biloxi, Chitimacha and Choctaw, lost all their homes on Isle de Jean Charles.
Weeks after the storm, they are still without electricity or water, and most of the tribe has left the coast.
But the Dardars were lucky. Their house sustained only minor roof damage, and their horse, Pretty Girl, survived Ida’s Category 4 winds. The tribal building was also spared; only the backdoor was blown open.
After a fitful sleep on their first night home, the Dardars set to work. Donald, the tribe’s co-chairman, started up his tractor and began pushing trash off the roads. Theresa made her way to the tribal center and began making calls.
“Our house was spared, so we didn’t have to worry about that. We had time to help out others,” said Theresa.
She called all the friends she knew who could help. Soon, donations started coming in: toilet paper, soups and canned vegetables, cereal, water, soft drinks and, importantly, gas to power generators at night.
“We have seniors who need oxygen to breathe. Without the gas, I don’t know how they’d survive,” said Theresa.
The Dardars began to organize the one-room tribal center into a supermarket. Toiletries and diapers toward the front. Canned goods to the left, near the soft drinks and juices. Cereals in the back. Water and gas canisters outside.
Donald named it the Free Shop, and anyone affected by Hurricane Ida is welcome to come and take what they need.
“It’s everyone’s disaster,” said Donald. “It’s not just one tribe. Everyone has been hurt. This is to help everyone.”
Samantha Boudreaux, a member of the United Houma Nation tribe, has shopped for herself and her adolescent children at the Free Shop. On one recent visit, she loaded up her car with canned goods, juice, socks and trash bags.
“This is a big help,” said Boudreaux. “We can get everything we need here. And we need a lot right now.”
The Free Shop is open from 9 a.m. until 5 p.m., but most nights, the Dardars stay late. Delivery times of donations are unpredictable as traffic between the cities and Pointe-Aux-Chenes has become snarled by construction crews repairing power lines downed by the storm.
Theresa manages all the donations on her phone, texting or calling volunteers throughout the day. Whenever supplies run low, or a shopper requests a specific item, Theresa sends out messages to her network.
“Someone always comes through,” said Theresa.
While the Free Shop has provided much needed relief to the Pointe-au-Chien community, rebuilding the lost homes will take hundreds of thousands of dollars or more. Most tribal members do not have insurance, and at this point, neither FEMA nor parish authorities have earmarked repair funds for the tribe.
The Pointe-au-Chien tribe has set up a GoFundMe to support their rebuilding efforts: https://www.gofundme.com/f/ida-relief-for-pointeauchien-indian-tribe