By Erin McKinley
Established in 1954, the volunteer fire department for Venice, Louisiana has been helping residents rebound time and time again through hurricanes, oil spills and economic hardship. Venice, 80 miles south of New Orleans, sits down the Mississippi River on the edge of the Gulf of Mexico, at the end of the road.
The firehouse and its staff grew from a modest beginning of one Chevrolet pick-up truck. Eventually growing to fit the needs of not only Venice, but of surrounding towns, this small time fire department can say it’s seen it all, from house and boat fires, to alligators, to the 27-foot floods that came with Hurricane Katrina.
With old photo albums that survived Hurricane Katrina, retired fire chief Ernest “Noonie” Bourgeois spins tales of the good old days.
“My wife and I took all these pictures and we put them in an album,” said Noonie, the fire chief for 32 years. “We kept the histories going.”
And what a history it is, laced with destruction and rebuilding.
At the end of 2010, the department moved into its third fire house, a sleek, ultra-modern two story white building that stands out in stark contrast to the modest trailers and homes surrounding it. Directly next to the firehouse sits an old, abandoned garage that used to hold oil pipes. Now, it sits disheveled, with the bright yellow line shining on the paint showing the flood’s high water mark.
Everything this firehouse does serves the town. When not fighting fires, the workers hold fishing tournaments to raise money, helping salvage wreckage and even flying Santa Claus overhead in a helicopter, something which always gets local kids excited.
But with all the good times and memories that Noonie has about the department, he also recalls the bad times. For three and a half months in 2005, Noonie and his wife lived through one of the toughest rebuilding efforts he hopes the town will probably ever have to go through.
“My wife and I were the first ones down here after the hurricane,” said Noonie. “We lived on a gazebo and slept on lawn chairs.”
In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, Venice did not have an easy time rebuilding. First, the fire department had to get on its feet and get its evacuated trucks back from the state. However, the Plaquemines Parish president at the time did not want the residents to return home, and initially refused to allow the trucks back into Venice. After a fight with the Salvation Army, Noonie says he was able to bring the trucks back down and start the process of healing, “It was so the people could have protection,” he said.
And protection they needed, in the months immediately following the storm, the department responded to over sixty fires, residual effects of wet power lines and electrical units that were not cleaned properly after the water receded.
A major task for the department was to help hose down buildings, houses and streets so that it was safe for people to live in Venice again. They also distributed groceries off of the fire trucks. Noonie kept as many of his crew in Venice as long as possible to make the transition safer for all residents.
Through thick and thin, the fire department has made it their mission to stick with the residents of the Venice community. They strive to provide a safe feeling in both difficult and calm times.