UL's renowned folklorist & professor of French, discusses the response of the Cajuns & Creoles to the aftermath of Katrina & Rita.

The effects of Katrina and Rita were terrible. But nature is what it is; it has no evil intent. Contrary to the suggestions of some televangelists, these storms did not represent the wrath of God (Wise 2005). There is also little anyone in government could have done to prevent the damage of such intense winds and tidal surges.

The real issue in these cases has been the human response following the natural disasters. As events unfolded following Katrina, it became clear that the institutional response to this catastrophe was woefully inadequate and inept. Governmental agencies at the state and federal levels seemed powerless to generate any momentum in the immediate relief effort (Thomas 2005). Indeed, spokespersons at various levels seem incapable of even understanding or articulating what should be done. Many died not as a result of the storm but as a result of neglect in its aftermath.

As Rita approached, the evacuation rate among storm-wary residents of Cameron, Calcasieu and Vermilion Parishes was right at 100%, as much due to the vivid memory of Audrey in 1957 as to the more recent effects of Katrina. There was widespread devastation from winds and storm surge, but virtually no casualties. And the water was salty but not polluted and receded in a timely fashion, allowing the mostly rural residents to return to deal with their own ruined homesteads and businesses in ways and with resources that were remarkably different from those of their urban counterparts.

The national media both exposed important stories and contributed to the catastrophic mess. Overwhelmed with endless interviews, many officials found it difficult to address the problems at hand. More importantly, the endless repetition of two-minute loops of looters and unsubstantiated reports of people shooting at rescue helicopters paralyzed operations. News crews in helicopters showing live shots of people on their roofs waving SOS signs and white shirts asked on the air, “Why is no one coming to get these people?” I found myself asking, “Why don’t you stop what you’re doing and get them yourselves? You’re there.”

There were examples of newspeople getting involved. One local journalist from Channel 26, the ABC affiliate in New Orleans, doing a report from the I-10-610 split stopped what he was doing and ran to the rescue of a man who had driven his car into the deep water covering the highway. Some reporters who made it to the Superdome shared water and food. But as Cliff Deal, a member of the Louisiana Museum task force that went in to assess the damage to the city’s dozens of historical and cultural collections, told me, “The news outfits reporting from the areas near the dome and the convention center about the horrible conditions there all had lights, food, water, shelter and makeup.” He described the surreal feeling he got driving along Carondelet Street at speeds up to 50 miles per hour to avoid getting carjacked and coming upon what looked like the concert in the jungle scene from Apocalypse Now on Canal Street.

In contrast, after Rita, Lafayette’s ABC and CBS affiliates, as well as Lake Charles’ NBC affiliate improvised local solutions in response to the lack of resources. When the storm knocked out main power at all three stations, they stayed on the air using generators and linking with local radio stations to broadcast news reports. Unable to send out reporters to the devastated and flooded areas, they used local residents as reporters, airing email, telephone and text messages. These reports made for compelling television news. They were also immediately useful for thousands of evacuees who were desperate for any information on their neighborhoods and towns.

In the aftermath of both storms, the Cajuns and Creoles of South Louisiana instinctively reacted the same way they always have, for reasons that have deep roots, including a survival strategy based on social cooperatives, such as barn raisings, community harvests and butchery coops. For example, after Katrina, it was clear from news reports that people were surrounded by water and needed to be rescued. There is a standing armada of small, flat-bottomed boats in Cajun country, where the real measure of success is not the number of cars one owns but the number of trailers.

Tuesday when it became clear that the levees had broken, that thousands of people were stranded, and that institutional resources were failing to arrive, a call went out in the Lafayette area for small boat owners to gather at the Acadiana Mall and to convoy to New Orleans to help in the rescue operation. They were told to show up in pairs, preferably with at least one paramedic or other first responder per boat, with lights and ample supplies of gas, water and food.

When they arrived at the I-10/610 split, they ran into utter chaos, driven primarily, it seems, by a lack of communication (Thomas 2005). Clearly no one was in charge, but those who were there, including Red Cross and military personnel, city and state police, all told the Cajun flotilla volunteers that they could not go into the water. Reasons varied: it was too dangerous, people were shooting, they might be looters, their boats were too big. Most of the boaters were turned back.

A few persisted; the few boats that eventually reached the water did so because their owners succeeded in tricking their way in, including my son François and his friend Marshall who made it into the water by bypassing the authorities along with a group of six other people. They repeatedly refused orders to come out, and managed to bring over 400 people out, carrying six with them in their boat and pulling ten more in a flat-bottom they found floating in the flooded waters and commandeered.

A crawfisherman from Kaplan working with them tested the waters with a paddle as he approached the ramp and dropped his passengers off when they were close enough to wade in so that authorities would not pull his boat out. The rescuers were finally forced to come out when they ran out of gas and FEMA, Red Cross and law enforcement officials refused to refill their tanks.

[KRVS Director] David Spizale and his son Matthew managed to get into the water as well with the help of a guy dressed in apparent military fatigues with the name Quibodeaux over his pocket. As the volunteers were trying to negotiate their way past the police, Red Cross and FEMA authorities, Quibodeaux appeared seemingly out of nowhere and started barking out orders to make immediate and efficient use of all available manpower. Everyone assumed he was in charge and things got moving. After the boats were in water, he disappeared. No one knew who he was or what authority, if any, he represented. He was seen later jogging down the interstate, apparently to some other location where resources were clogged.

These guys did not go off half-cocked. Their sense of preparedness goes beyond even the Boy Scouts. They know that you don’t go out there fragile. They had stocked lots of water, extra gas, snack food, Q beam lights… They are all veterans of many duck hunts at places like Wax Lake Outlet where conditions are as rough as they get. In fact, François compared the two experiences. “It was like hunting the Wax without the right stuff. Every step you take, you get stuck deep in the mud. You work to get that foot loose and the next step is stuck again. You can see where you want to go, but every step takes forever and all your strength. Then we realized we could just drive by the authorities. After that, everything got easier. It was like hunting the Wax with a pirogue. We’d see the flashing blue and red lights or someone with a red cross on his chest and the only question was right or left to get around them. It was the only way we could anything done.”

Part I of III.  To read Part II, click here.

Photograph of Barry Ancelet courtesy of David Simpson, LSUE.

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