By Jessica Resnick-Ault
BELLE CHASSE, La. (Reuters) - Residents of Louisiana's lower Plaquemines Parish, the swampy peninsula that shadows the Mississippi River as it empties into the Gulf of Mexico, know Nate let them off very easy, certainly when compared with hurricanes of years past.
As the Category 1 storm approached this weekend, memories of the devastation of Katrina 12 years ago, and to a lesser extent, Issac in 2012, loomed large in the scattered hamlets that cling to the few spots of terra firma that line the river south of New Orleans. Many parishioners lost their homes in those storms.
But when residents who had hunkered down or evacuated emerged on Sunday to see what was left in Nate's wake, most were grateful to find their homes still standing. The damage was minimal.
"I had prayed for this - that we would be spared," said Amos Cormier, president of the parish, Louisiana's equivalent to a county.
Nate, which killed 30 people in Central America before heading north, never strengthened into a Category 2 storm as forecasters feared, and it veered to the east of Plaquemines before making landfall in neighboring Mississippi.
Water is a fact of life in Plaquemines. The Mississippi is so close to homes at some points that anchored cargo ships and tankers appear to be parked in their backyards. The dangers are all too obvious to anyone who lives there.
Cormier spent his Saturday supervising the parish's preparations for Nate, but he still found the time to attend mass during the afternoon.
Although the area was relatively unscathed, the ordeal was stressful for many. One elderly resident died of cardiac arrest following the evacuation, Cormier said.
About 6,000 parishioners live in areas designated as mandatory evacuation zones, mostly where there are no levees to hold back flood waters. On Saturday, hundreds of them flocked to the parish's two evacuation shelters, both in Belle Chasse.
"Katrina hit us like an atom bomb in lower Plaquemines Parish," said Candida DuPlessis, 66, of Port Sulfur, who kept photos of her 30 grandchildren in a plastic container next to her cot in one of the shelters, a high school auditorium.
DuPlessis, who lost her mobile home in 2005 and a replacement trailer in 2012, worries about the risks posed by the river, on one side, and the Gulf, on the other. It is a fear shared by many of her fellow parishioners.
While Nate may have lacked Katrina's punch, the levee system to protect the parish is much improved in recent years. It includes new barriers built by the Army Corps of Engineers that stand 12 feet (3.7 m) or higher and are designed to withstand a 100-year storm.
But other sections of the system are less formidable, and about 10 miles (16 km) of river bank and Gulf coastline have no barriers at all, Cormier said.
"I don't trust the water," said Mary Roberts, 77, of Port Sulfur. "Katrina hit all the way up - what she wanted she claimed." Roberts, a life-long resident of the area, lost her home in the nearby community of Buras in the 2005 storm.
Surveying the damage in Buras, Cormier said that the parish had fared well. Still, he said, more needs to be done to complete the levees system for unprotected areas ahead of the next big storm.
"The system is only as good as its weakest point," he said.
(Writing by Frank McGurty; Editing by Lisa Shumaker)