HOUMA, La. — When gray daylight returned to this storm-ravaged Cajun country, Precious Shephard steeled herself to face the soggy apartment she fled overnight.
Hours before, as water punched through the thin walls, Shephard had snatched up her baby daughter and paddled to safety in a wooden canoe.
"When I go back it's going to be stinky and funky," lamented a puffy-eyed Shephard, 18. "When I left, my shoes were floating in the living room."
All across the Bayou State, residents awoke Thursday to find that murky lakes had swallowed their front lawns, torn branches were strewn recklessly by the wind and thousands of people left their homes to filthy flood waters.
In the end, Tropical Storm Isidore's threat was harsher than its attack. By the time it lumbered to land, the aging Isidore was too weak and weary to call itself a hurricane. But the storm managed to make a soggy mess of the Gulf Coast just the same, stringing a northeastern trail of floods and twisters from here to Florida.
Heavy gales toppled electrical lines along the shoreline, cutting power to at least 140,000 homes and businesses in Louisiana and Mississippi. Isidore bred a handful of tornadoes that damaged houses in Florida and police cars in Louisiana. A farmer suffered a broken leg and collarbone when a tornado crashed into his barn near Graceville, Fla., Wednesday night.
By Thursday afternoon, a weakened Isidore was downgraded to a tropical depression and was falling apart over Alabama. Meanwhile, a soggy Louisiana was busy mopping up. Gov. Mike Foster said the storm cost the state at least $18 million in damage, including $3.7 million in lost sugar cane. He said the toll would likely grow, and he was seeking a federal disaster declaration. There were no immediate reports of deaths or injuries.
In Houma, more than 600 waterlogged refugees headed home after a worried stay in a makeshift downtown shelter. "I haven't slept in three days," said Faye Danos, dragging on a cigarette outside the shelter. "You don't know how much you can keep going."
Danos lives in Isle de Jean Charles, a tiny and defiant island community that has been sinking slowly into the Gulf of Mexico for years. Earlier this week, as Isidore bore closer, Danos and her teenage children stuffed blankets, pillows and spare clothes into trash bags, crowded into a neighbor's van and headed for higher ground.
"Now we can't get back," she said wearily. "The police are keeping people out."
Water is a way of life in the isolated Cajun marshes of southern Louisiana, where the land crumbles into islands and swamps before giving way altogether to the Gulf of Mexico. The swell and recession of the bayous, the feuding of water and land are familiar phenomena around here. "We live in a bowl, you know," said Terrebonne Parish Council Chairman J. D. Breaux.
And on Thursday, there was no argument: The water had won.
In the dim lobby of Houma's A-Bear Hotel, 41-year-old Kusum Patel slogged disconsolately through thigh-deep water. Toys, brochures and shoes bobbed in the muddy water. Patel, her husband and their feverish baby spent a worried dawn on the concrete steps after rising waters covered the first floor of the old brick hotel. By the time daylight came, the family's living quarters were submerged.
"I don't know what I'm going to do--it's a nightmare," Patel said. "I'm lost now."
Silty canals coursed in the place of paved streets, and die-hard residents paddled through their neighborhoods aboard pirogues, wooden canoes that are a preferred mode of transportation in the marshes of Louisiana's backwoods. "This is the only way to get around," said shipyard worker Kenny Darrell, steering his craft toward the highway.
Heavy flooding along Louisiana's coast swamped Port Fourchon, the central gulf's key landfall for offshore oil and gas production. "Port Fourchon is, I'm told, a lake right now," Foster told reporters in Baton Rouge.
In New Orleans, drivers ventured forth at daylight to collect the beached cars they'd abandoned on the grassy medians of the Garden District. In the thick of the storm, water rose to windshield height in some neighborhoods. "I thought my car was safe up here," said Anna Fariss, studying the hardened mud that gripped her Thunderbird's tires in place. "But I guess I was wrong."