GRAND ISLE, La. — Ida was not yet a hurricane when high school coaches across southern Louisiana began preparing for what had become all too familiar, even inevitable.

Coach Denny Wright of tiny Grand Isle School texted his cross-country runners and basketball players about the mandatory evacuation on Louisiana’s only inhabited barrier island: “No school. No practice. I’ll let you know when.”

Lyle Fitte, the football coach at South Plaquemines High School in Buras, La., evacuated on what became an eight-hour trip to Houston. Buras is 50 miles southeast of New Orleans on a thin, vulnerable peninsula where the Mississippi runs to the Gulf. Fitte’s high school coach rode out Hurricane Katrina in a gym in 2005 when the storm poured 20 feet of water into lower Plaquemines Parish. Fitte, 30, would not make the same reckless decision.

“I’ve got kids,” he said.

Along the Texas border in Cameron Parish, which was devastated last year by the one-two punch of Hurricanes Laura and Delta, Coach Travis Merritt moved batting cages and football tackling dummies into elevated storage at South Cameron High School. He knew better than to wait.

Laura’s 150-mile-an-hour wind and 17-foot storm surge gutted the school’s two gyms, which were built at ground level. The storm pushed a rack loaded with 400 pounds of weight 60 yards onto the football field. The basketball scorer’s table was found 10 miles away. The players practiced all of last season in the school cafeteria, using goals usually used in driveways, and is likely to do the same this season.

And then, last weekend, came the thrashing of Ida. It became the second hurricane with maximum sustained winds of 150 miles an hour to pummel Louisiana’s coastal region in a span of 12 months. A flyover of Grand Isle showed that almost every structure seemed to sustain damage. Utility poles listed, as if inebriated. Some homes revealed their insides like dollhouses. A 13-foot levee, topped recently with $500,000 worth of sand, succumbed to the storm’s surge and washed onto Highway 1, the only road in and out of town.

Jefferson Parish officials called the island uninhabitable at the moment. The school principal said predictions were that it might take two months to restore power.

From cities like Lake Charles along Interstate 10 and southward into the bayous and marshes and onto a barrier island below New Orleans, high schools and their sports teams provide a stark glimpse of the state’s challenges in dealing with issues that scientists have linked to climate change: more muscular hurricanes, rapid intensification, heavier rainfall and rising sea levels contributing to higher storm surges.

The resilient girls’ basketball team at St. Louis Catholic High School in Lake Charles won a state championship in March with a 30-1 record, despite playing every game on the road after the sides of its gym were peeled like fruit by Hurricane Laura. The Saints will make another epic road trip this season. The school’s main court remains buckled and gouged. Strips of wood from the warped and unusable practice court were fashioned into religious crosses and sold for $50 each as a fund-raiser, Coach Tony Johnson said.

At Washington-Marion Magnet High School in Lake Charles, football was canceled last season after Laura’s battering. A new season is beginning, but one of the stadium goal posts is still missing its left upright. The frame is all that remains of the scoreboard, and the press box was condemned after being struck by a falling light pole during the storm. Yellow caution tape marks sections where seating is considered unsafe for spectators.

Some preseason practices at Washington-Marion were moved indoors when the heat index rose to 104 degrees or higher. And many players are still living in FEMA trailers or have familiar blue tarps covering the roofs of their homes.

“We are trying to put our program back together, but we’re also still trying to put our lives back together,” said Ronnie Harvey Jr., the principal at Washington-Marion.

At Grand Isle School, South Plaquemines High School and Phoenix High School in southeast Louisiana, basketball is played in gyms built 12 to 20 feet off the ground after Katrina. The elevated gym in Grand Isle is made of eight-inch precast concrete walls meant to withstand winds of 150 miles an hour. Still, it sustained roof damage during Ida.

More of the same is surely coming. A United Nations climate report issued in August painted what The Times-Picayune/New Orleans Advocate called a “grim picture for south Louisiana,” predicting that the Gulf of Mexico could rise by more than one and a half feet by midcentury.

Already, sinking land and coastal erosion cost Louisiana an average of a football field’s worth of wetlands every 100 minutes, scientists say. Since 1932, the rough equivalent of Delaware has washed away, which, among other things, has depleted the buffer against hurricane storm surges.

The state’s coastal high schools are in areas of bountiful fishing and hunting that give Louisiana one of its nicknames, the Sportsman’s Paradise. These are hubs for the vital industries of oil and natural gas, seafood and tourism. In rural towns, families have often lived on the same land for generations. They are the people who help make Louisiana famously welcoming with their food, music and bonhomie.

“This is paradise,” said Charley Lemons, the school superintendent of Cameron Parish. That declaration was echoed by David Camardelle, the longtime mayor of Grand Isle and a lifelong resident of a place that some call the Cajun Bahamas.

“As long as there’s one grain of sand to put the American flag, I’m staying,” Camardelle, 65, said in an interview at his home last Saturday, hours before the island became inundated.

But no matter how often schools are built and rebuilt, no matter how persistently stadiums and gyms are repaired, no matter how many billions are committed to strengthen levees and restore depleted wetlands and reduce carbon emissions, the water and wind of fierce storms will continue to scour the way of life in southern Louisiana and raise urgent and sobering questions about the future and risk and adaptation.

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Scientists have been persistently urging people to consider moving inland from the fragile coast.

“A big issue is when do you accept defeat” and not rebuild and let the water have its way? said Jill C. Trepanier, a hurricane climatologist at Louisiana State University. “That is very difficult for humans to do.”

She said she visited Grand Isle recently and thought, “I don’t understand how people live here.”

The narrow barrier island, seven miles long, serves a vital purpose, blocking storm surges and helping keep New Orleans, 50 miles to the north, from becoming beachfront property. Grand Isle is a renowned birding habitat; a popular getaway for fishing, crabbing and shrimping; and a respite from a faster paced life for its 1,400 permanent residents, who live in homes and camps, some of them opulent, built high on pilings.

“It’s like growing up and still living with your family without living in the same house as your family,” said Frazia Terrebonne, 57, the secretary at Grand Isle School, who has lived on the island most of her life.

But Grand Isle is also an isolated and exposed place. A 30-mile drive through marshland is required to reach it. The lone road in, Highway 1, routinely floods during storms. Government officials said Ida swamped the road beneath six feet of water as it lashed the coast.

It can be challenging to recruit teachers for the 120 or so students in pre-K through 12th grade. Over the summer, Principal Christine Templet said, a prospective elementary schoolteacher from suburban New Orleans called to cancel her interview while driving to Grand Isle, saying: “There’s too much water around me. I have to turn around.”

Last school year, Grand Isle was evacuated seven times because of storms, Templet said. Hurricane Zeta knocked out power on the island for two weeks. Cross-country meets had to be rearranged or canceled. Between the storms and the coronavirus pandemic, a portion of the basketball season was lost.

“It was mentally, emotionally, a wreck,” said Wright, 70, the coach.

He coached Grand Isle School to a state cross-country title in 2016 and says his passion for basketball is sustained by the dedication of his players. But a new school year is already facing calamitous disruption. Ida damaged the roof of Wright’s home. And it is impossible to know how many students will return when school reopens. Even before Ida, there were too few girls to field a varsity basketball team. The girls’ middle school team needs a coach. And peak hurricane season will run through October.

“It takes the wind out of you, it really does,” Wright said from Alabama, where he evacuated with his wife.

Thirty miles to the east, across Barataria Bay, South Plaquemines High School in Buras seemed from the air to be unscathed by Ida, except for sand from the long-jump pit sprayed across the running track. The consolidated school was formed after Katrina devastated several oil and fishing villages in lower Plaquemines Parish. It was moved to Buras in 2014 and built nearly 20 feet off the ground. The levees in Buras held during Ida, but most of the parish lost electricity. And Highway 23, the lone road into town, flooded for miles north of the high school after a floodgate failure. Neither Fitte, the football coach, nor his players could get home immediately. The season opener this weekend remained uncertain.

“I’ll take this over Katrina,” said Fitte, a former star running back at the school. “We’re looking at a couple weeks at most coming back because we don’t have electricity. After Katrina, people didn’t have houses. All you could see was the foundations.”

Still, Buras is precariously situated. Highway 23 is flanked by the Mississippi on one side and the encroaching Gulf on the other. What was once marshland is now increasingly open water, the result of canals dug to reach oil rigs, levees that prevent replenishing sediment from the river and the pounding of hurricanes. At the local cemetery, a dozen or so coffins that floated away during Katrina remain encased in concrete and strapped to the ground, side by side like piano keys, numbered with spray paint in case they wash away again.

“If another Katrina hits, I don’t see anything coming back down here,” said Mark Cognevich, the council president of Plaquemines Parish. “Not many people have insurance. Most live check to check. I don’t think the federal government will pour money into it like they did after Katrina. They might not let anybody move down here.”

Perhaps no high school in the state has felt the brunt of hurricanes more severely than South Cameron High School in southwest Louisiana. The Mighty Tarpons reached the state championship football game four times from 1969 to 1996. But football was abandoned during the 2018 season after South Cameron forfeited two games and finished a third with the minimum of 11 players.

The population in Cameron Parish has declined from about 10,000 residents in 2000 to fewer than 6,000 today, according to the latest census figures. An exodus followed the scything by Hurricanes Rita in 2005 and Ike in 2008. Some residents were put off by building codes requiring homes to be built 12 to 14 feet off the ground and by prohibitive insurance costs. Some grew fatigued by the storms, which, at one point, left students at South Cameron attending classes in a bingo hall.

Last year, Laura’s punishing surge wrecked all of South Cameron High School’s sports facilities. The 2021-22 school year opened with only 40 students enrolled in the high school. Parry LaLande, who coached football at South Cameron for 28 years, has urged the school to consolidate with Grand Lake High School, located 15 miles inland on a ridge and somewhat safer from storm surge. Grand Lake reached the state football championship game last season despite not having a home field. It also played in the baseball title game.

“It’s going to be hard to be competitive,” LaLande, retired at 67, said of sports at South Cameron with so few students. “I hate saying that. I really don’t look for them to come back.”

From an educational standpoint, he said: “It’s not good to have six kids in a class, two kids. Where do you get the ideas, the conversations, the points of view?”

But school officials said it would be difficult to place a centralized school in Louisiana’s largest county by area, one largely consisting of wetlands and wildlife refuges. Some children would have to ride a bus for more than an hour each way. And, officials said, a community without a school risks losing its identity.

Merritt, 47, the basketball and baseball coach at South Cameron High School, is planning to field a six-man football team in October and November. There are no other six-man teams in Louisiana, so the Tarpons will have to travel several hours to the Houston area to play games.

There are plans to rebuild the school’s destroyed gyms about 15 feet off the ground. The hope is that repaired school facilities and renewed sports teams, along with liquefied natural gas plants in the parish, will encourage families to return. Sure, Louisiana has hurricanes just as it has mosquitoes, Merritt said. But California has earthquakes and fires. Kansas and Oklahoma have tornadoes.

“I’m sure there’s somewhere you can live where you don’t have to deal with anything,” Merritt said, “but I haven’t found it.”

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