Hurricane Ida recovery dampens election turnout in Louisiana’s bayou communities

Several polling places along Louisiana’s coast had to be moved

By: - November 13, 2021 10:25 pm
Hurricane Ida recovery dampens election in Louisiana’s bayou communities

A voter enters the polling location temporarily housed in Terrebonne Parish’s Voting Machine Warehouse on Valhi Boulevard on Nov. 13, 2021. Terrebonne had to relocate 40 of 77 precincts after they were damaged in Hurricane Ida. (Wes Muller/Louisiana Illuminator)

HOUMA, La. — It was a slow election day with particularly low voter turnout in Louisiana’s bayou communities as residents in Terrebonne and Lafourche parishes are still recovering from Hurricane Ida. 

Election commissioners and parish officials stood outside the Clerk of Court’s Office in downtown Houma Saturday morning and greeted the occasional pedestrian that walked by. “Hi, are you here to vote?” they said, offering directions to the polls.

They even knew several of the voters by name. 

“The people that are going to vote today are your people that vote in every election regardless of what’s on the ballot,” Terrebonne Parish Deputy Clerk Nancy Boudreaux said. “And we’re very thankful for them, too.”

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With no statewide or parish-wide candidate races in Terrebonne and Lafourche, officials saw few residents casting ballots. The Louisiana Secretary of State’s Office predicted similarly low turnout across the state.

“I always vote,” said Jerry J. Duplantis as he walked out of a temporary precinct housed at the Voting Machine Warehouse on Valhi Boulevard. “I never miss an election. I got an opinion on everything. That’s what voting’s about, isn’t it? Everybody’s opinion?”

Officials believe Hurricane Ida also dampened interest in the election, both by displacing voters to out-of-town locations and by giving them more pressing needs than politics. Terrebonne and Lafourche parishes were devastated by Ida as it slammed ashore at Port Fourchon on Aug. 29, the 16th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina.

“Right now the people in the bayou areas are focusing on getting their lives back together,” Terrebonne Parish Deputy Clerk Nancy Boudreaux said. “Some areas still don’t have telephone and still don’t have internet, so they might not even know there’s an election going on.”

Storm recovery dampens election in Louisiana’s bayou communities
Signs such as these inform voters that their usual polling location has been relocated for Louisiana’s Nov. 13, 2021, election. (Wes Muller/Louisiana Illuminator)

The scenery in Houma 11 weeks after the storm still shows a town scarred by Category 4-strength winds. The ground remains littered with debris of all kinds, uprooted trees still lay across yards and on collapsed homes, and virtually every neighborhood is speckled with blue tarps.  

Terrebonne Parish was forced to relocate 40 of its 77 voting precincts due to storm damage. Many were consolidated into single locations such as the Voting Machine Warehouse, which hosted seven precincts in west Houma.

In other areas of town, mention of an election drew looks of surprise as some residents had no idea one was taking place or where they had to go to vote. 

“I can’t vote right now,” 74-year-old Junior Williams said. “I don’t even have a place to stay.”

Until Hurricane Ida, Williams had been living in the Bayou Towers Senior Center, which was damaged during the storm and still remains locked and boarded up. Bayou Towers was the original voting location for the 23rd precinct, which was relocated about a mile away to the Terrebonne Parish School Board office.

Williams spent his morning sitting under the awning of the shuttered senior center, preferring the outside to the small trailers that currently house the residents. Another Bayou Towers resident, Paul Billiot, said he has to share a single trailer with three other men. For Billiot, voting was the last thing on his mind, he said.

Although the polls close at 8 p.m. Boudreaux said the last results for Terrebonne Parish wouldn’t be available until around 9:30 p.m. because poll workers from precincts in the rural areas of the parish have to drive about 45 minutes to turn them in. 

Similarly, Lafourche Parish Clerk of Court Annette Fontana said she expects there could be up to an hour’s delay in getting results after the polls close. 

“Part of the problem that Lafourche has is we’re so long,” Fontana said. “We stretch from Thibodeaux and our last precinct is in Golden Meadow.”

Hurricane recovery dampens election in Louisiana's bayou communities
Bayou Towers Senior Center, the original location for Terrebonne Parish’s 23rd voting precinct, remained shuttered for the Nov. 13, 2021 election after it was damaged in Hurricane Ida. (Wes Muller/Louisiana Illuminator)

Fontana said her office has a satellite location in Galliano where they would normally collect the Election Day results, but that office was damaged. For this election, she said, the commissioners will have to drive from Golden Meadow to Thibodeaux to turn in the voting machine cartridges. 

“Considering we just went through a hurricane and we have some polling places relocated and in tents, we had to plan a little differently, but everything is going as expected,” Fontana said.

The election carried on much the same way in other parts of the state. Aside from a brief power outage at two polling locations in Orleans Parish early Saturday morning, there were no serious incidents or difficulties as of 4:30 p.m., Secretary of State spokesman John Tobler said. Tobler said the power outage did not affect any machines.

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Wes Muller
Wes Muller

Wes Muller traces his journalism roots back to 1997 when, at age 13, he built and launched a hyper-local news website for his New Orleans neighborhood. In the years since then, he has freelanced for the Times-Picayune in New Orleans and worked on staff at the Sun Herald in Biloxi, WAFB-9News CBS in Baton Rouge, and the Enterprise-Journal in McComb, Mississippi. He also taught English as an adjunct instructor at Baton Rouge Community College. Much of his journalism has involved reporting on First Amendment issues and coverage of municipal and state government. He has received recognitions including McClatchy's National President's Award, the Associated Press Freedom of Information Award, and the Daniel M. Phillips Freedom of Information Award from the Mississippi Press Association, among others. Muller is a New Orleans native, a Jesuit High School alumnus, a University of New Orleans alumnus and a veteran U.S. Army paratrooper. He lives in Ponchatoula, Louisiana, with his two sons and his wife, who is also a journalist.

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