There was disappointment in the voice of Milton Cambre, and also a tinge of understandable anger.
“I don’t understand why someone would do this,” said Cambre, standing amid the ashes and rubble that remained of an outdoor classroom at the Wetland Watchers Park in Norco.
The classroom was one of two at the park, both of which withstood the wrath of Hurricane Ida. But in mid-December, the former was set ablaze.
“From what I understand, there was no lightning, and this was way too far away from the interstate for it to be from anything thrown over,” said Barry Guillot, Labranche Wetlands Watchers founder. “Somebody had to be out there. Whether it was done on purpose or not … sometimes you have fishermen out there, of course, but we got the call on this at 10:30 at night.”
Said Cambre, “We’ve been taking kids out here for over 15 years. This classroom was donated by Dow. The idea behind all of this, I fished, I shrimped, I crabbed, and I wanted to show kids what’s happening on the coast. To better relate it to what’s happening here, in their backyard. Because it’s not just happening on the coast, it’s happening right here.”
For both Cambre and Guillot, the fire was a painful blow.
Cambre has been a proud voice for coastal protection in St. Charles Parish for more than 50 years. Teaching about and passing on that passion to young people is something dear to him, and fueled a partnership with Guillot many years ago.
In the 1990s, the Army Corps of Engineers had plans to build a lake levee in the area, where the park would eventually stand. Believing that would destroy the habitat, Cambre formed an enviornmental council and led a push back on that idea, and ultimately the Corps shifted gears and moved the levee location. The Pontchartrain Levee District donated the land where the levee was initially planned for construction in the name of Wetland Watchers, and the park began to take shape, a walkway constructed to these classrooms where children from all over could learn about nature and the conservation cause. It officially opened in 2010.
Cambre grew up in Paulina, along the Mississippi River. He fished, he hunted – and he knew all of the benefits the river brought, as well as the importance of saving the shoreline, which he calls the first line of defense for the parish against hurricane damage. For more than 50 years, he’s planted vegetation to counter erosion.
This is his life’s work, and the Watchers Park a major part of his legacy.
Guillot, of course, is no less displeased. The Harry Hurst Middle School science teacher is the founder of the LaBranche Wetlands Watchers, which has grown to be nationally recognized as the years have gone on. That classroom was where he held court and taught children from this area and far beyond. Field trips to the park afford students the opportunity for hands on learning, and Guillot beams when he speaks about watching the children enjoy these new experiences for the first time.
“All of the trails got washed away, but the buildings were all good,” Guillot said of the park following Hurricane Ida. “We weren’t worried about the buildings. It’s tough. You feel like it’s your baby … there are maybe five pilings left of what was a beautiful building, a perfect building. Some people called it a hidden diamond, and it was perfect for education.
“This is the 25th year of Wetlands Watchers, and this is how we celebrate,” he added with a wry laugh.
The sad irony is that the classroom survived three major hurricanes, no worse for wear, before the fire.
“It survived the toughest that any storm could throw at it,” Guillot said. “We’ve had thousands of kids go through there, from all over … from Buffalo, New York, from Oklahoma, everywhere.”
He said the hope is that the classroom can and will be replaced, and options are being explored on that front.
“Even without all the trails (which suffered major damage in Ida, it’s a center to bring them to,” Guillot said. “We’d definitely like to have that.”