DALCOUR, La. -- What began with coughing fits and allergy symptoms in a handful of people has grown into a full-blown community crisis along a sparsely populated stretch of the East Bank of Plaquemines Parish.
Over the past few months, more than a dozen people in the town of Dalcour have been treated for severe respiratory symptoms, some requiring weeks in the hospital.
The mystery illnesses have baffled the doctors, but most cases began with a persistent cough that escalates into severe breathing difficulties.
The symptoms began hitting residents of all ages in this small community around Memorial Day. Jan Morgan was one of the first to see a doctor.
“I knew it was really bad and that we needed to go to the emergency room,” Morgan said. “I ended up being in the hospital for 15 days with acute respiratory failure and pneumonia.”
Morgan and her husband Dave, a Plaquemines sheriff’s deputy, didn’t think much of her difficulties at first given her history of asthma. But as they began telling friends, they learned that some neighbors had suffered nearly identical symptoms and similar emergency trips to the hospital.
Tyson LeBlanc was one of those neighbors.
LeBlanc was a healthy 33-year-old, but now he's still trying to get back his full lung capacity even after being released from the hospital last month. Like the other cases, doctors treated his symptoms, but could not pinpoint a cause.
“It had turned into acute respiratory distress syndrome, which then led to bilateral pneumonia which had me hospitalized for a week. And ICU for three days,” LeBlanc said. “It's almost like you feel like you're dying, like the life is being sucked right out of you. At one point, I thought I was never going to recover from it.”
The community is desperate to know the cause and they are looking to officials for answers.
Dana Denny contacted the Parish health department after her 10-year-daughter Ella ended up in the hospital.
“Never been to the emergency room in my life with the kids. But I felt the need this time when she can't breathe,” Denny said.
Denny’s husband, Randall, has asked for air quality testing to try to determine a source of the problems.
“There are a lot of people with similar symptoms and we're just trying to figure out what's causing it. We just want answers,” he said.
Denny and others suspect that the cause is environmental because of the industry surrounding them. Dalcour may be remote, rural and lightly populated, but it sits across the river from a chemical plant and a mid-stream bulk cargo loading site. That cargo includes heavy metals such iron ore, silicon and ferromanganese.
It is not known if any of these industrial factors are linked to the recent health problems. But the community wants to know what they are dealing with.
“I'm not looking for a scapegoat, I'm just looking for an answer. Something is causing these problems,” Randall Denny said.