In Part II, UL professor Barry Ancelet continues discussing the local response to the physical-- and cultural-- problems posed by Hurricanes Katrina & Rita.

To read Part I, click here.

After Rita, local television stations ran a crawl requesting small boats to help evacuate flooded areas in southern Vermilion Parish. The crawl had barely finished running across the screen when my son François was outside hitching up our boat to head out again. I yelled to him from the porch as he was leaving that I bet he would encounter a different reception. He nodded knowingly.

Later that day, after pulling people and pets out of Bayou Tigue south of Delcambre, he returned to report a completely different scene. As the boaters arrived at the spot where LA 14 went underwater south of Abbeville, they were given specific destinations, rescue sites by sheriff’s deputies running the makeshift staging area. In this case, local officials were not paralyzed by fear of looters and shooters driven by a media in a feeding frenzy, or by a lack of communication, and they knew how to use homemade help and exactly where to send it. The flooded highway that was considered a barrier in New Orleans was considered a launching ramp in Vermilion Parish.

Frustrated by the images they saw on television news reports of Katrina, my wife’s cousin, Tim Supple and his brother Robert loaded a truck and a trailer full of food, water and other supplies and headed to New Orleans. They had heard the stories of looting and chaos and were braced for the worst, carrying a pistol and a shotgun just in case. Unable to reach the city via I-10, they detoured onto old U.S. 90.

Near Chalmette, he encountered a convoy of medical volunteers from Arkansas who were looking for the town of St. Bernard. (It is a parish.) He directed them to Chalmette, and joined the convoy up to that point. He reported that they were all packing as well. When they moved out, they were told to hold their weapons at the ready in visible positions to deter any possible attempts to hijack them. They met with no resistance while looking for people to help. Instead they saw people walking along the roads waving, some obviously needing help.

The group stuck to their plan to get to St. Bernard. The Supple brothers broke off and went across the Crescent City Connection bridge. They eventually drove right up to the Superdome. They asked police officers there if they thought it might cause trouble if they handed out their supplies. The officers said no, so they did. They described the crowd as polite, patient and appreciative, contrary to the impression given by media reports. Tim Supple reported wondering, if they had reached these places, why rescuers could not?

Contemporary stories reminded some of similar situations from earlier storms. As the news media reported that the only building left intact in all of Cameron Parish after Rita was the courthouse, nearly everyone of a certain age remembered that it was the same courthouse that was the only building left intact in the parish after Audrey in 1957 as well. They remembered the similar images of ruined cane crops and the dead cattle and the piles of boats on the road and the buildings found miles from where they had been. They also remembered the more than five hundred drowned residents from Audrey. They remembered so well, in fact, that everyone evacuated this time.

As I spoke to Tim Supple about the apparent need and ability to improvise solutions among all those who had apparently had to trick their way into the city to provide rescue and assistance, he said it reminded him of a family story about what his father and a neighbor from Franklin had done during Audrey in 1957. They flagged down the passenger train in town and told the conductor to wait there until they rounded up the people from town, mostly black, who could not get out on their own to put them on the train.

The conductor said he couldn’t do that. Mr. Kyle, the neighbor, told him he could, and would. The conductor asked what he would do if he didn’t wait. Mr. Kyle said, “Well, I’ll shoot you and drive the train out myself.”

The conductor thought about the situation and agreed it was the right thing to do. He asked where he should take the evacuees. Mr. Kyle said, “I would head north. There’s a hurricane coming in the gulf.” The conductor waited and hundreds were evacuated to safety somewhere near Alexandria, thanks to the willingness and ability of all three men to think and act on the fly, to improvise a solution that wasn’t in the handbook.

For Part III, click here.

Photograph of Barry Ancelet courtesy of David Simpson, LSUE.

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