In the final of this three-part essay, Barry Ancelet talks about the resilience of character among rescuers, and how this resolve is recurrent in the history of the Cajuns and Creoles.

To begin at Part I, click here.

Seventy-five-year-old Moisy Baudoin sat in the driveway in front of his flooded home in Delcambre, telling me about the water coming over the railroad tracks during Rita. He was insistent that this was something no one remembered ever seeing before, including his 87-year-old boss Lane LeBlanc.

He did remember taking his small flatbottom boat out south of the tracks as a young man during Audrey to rescue his neighbors who were on their roofs to escape the rising water. There wasn’t the media coverage or the satellite reports or the Doplar radars we have today, he explained. People didn’t know what was happening. He remembered some asking as he approached their flooded homes, “How high is the water going to go?”

He remembered answering, “I don’t know, but I’m here for you if you want to come.” He remembered that the water eventually receded as quickly as it had risen, leaving his boat aground alongside the road.

A few weeks after Rita, Moisy took me on a tour of south Vermilion, where we saw numerous houses that had been washed off their foundations, rammed into treelines or electrical poles or fences or ditches. The brick home of one of his friends in south Delcambre had been seriously damaged. The entire south wall had been washed out.

When we arrived, we found the owner repacking the bearings on his rice cart. He had already got his schoolbus and two tractors running again. He showed us the insurance settlement check he had just received. It was for $1640. He declared, as he put it back into his shirt pocket that he would frame it or flush it before he cashed it.

There were other remarkable stories of hope and human dignity. Robert LeBlanc from Houma made it into the flooded city in his boat to help rescue the stranded and sent a message about his experiences in an email to friends. His stories confirm many of those I have begun to collect. Here is one of them:

We were in motor boats all day ferrying people back and forth approximately a mile and a half each way (from Carrolton down Airline Highway to the Causeway overpass). Early in the day, we witnessed a black man in a boat with no motor paddling with a piece of lumber. He rescued people in the boat and paddled them to safety (a mile and a half). He then, amidst all of the boats with motors, turned around and paddled back out across the mile and a half stretch to do his part in getting more people out. He refused to give up or occupy any of the motored boat resources because he did not want to slow us down in our efforts. I saw him at about 5:00 p.m., paddling away from the rescue point back out into the neighborhoods with about a half mile until he got to the neighborhood, just two hours before nightfall. I am sure that his trip took at least an hour and a half each trip, and he was going back to get more people knowing that he'd run out of daylight. He did all of this with a two-by-four!

The vernacular response managed to do some good despite being frustrated by the breakdown in the institutional response. It surged instinctively from the Cajun community for reasons that come from deep in our history. The French settlers who became the Acadians learned quickly in their new frontier context to depend only on their own efforts (Brasseaux 1987). They were the first European settlers in the New World to vote, filling what was essentially a power vacuum produced by a lack of seigneurs and governmental authorities. They arrived in what is now Nova Scotia between 1632 and 1642 and already by the 1650 census, several heads of household ran the census takers off telling them the information they were seeking was none of their business.

With their colony punted back and forth between England and France until 1713, they learned to ignore what colonial authority there was, continuing to trade with New France while under English rule and with New England while under French rule. The Cajuns, heirs of this fierce sense of independence, have continued to depend on their own self-sufficient strategies for survival in Louisiana (Brasseaux 1992, Ancelet et al 1991). A tight social co-op system has enabled them to survive by networking the community’s resources. Cooperative boucheries provided fresh meat regularly to community members before refrigeration. Ramasseries gathered community members to bring in a sick neighbor’s crop. Barns and houses were often raised by a gathering of neighbors and family members. Benefit dances gathered contributions for those in need.

It is this sense of social cooperation that has empowered us to respond in our own terms to these and previous disasters, including Audrey, Betsy, Hilda, Juan, and Lily, as well as the Flood of 1927 and the devastation that followed the Civil War. Even if we have to trick our way in to get around the inertia of institutions and bureaucracies.

References:

Ancelet, Barry Jean, Jay Edwards and Glen Pitre. 1991. Cajun Country. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi.
Ancelet, Jacques François. 2005. Personal interview.
Brasseaux, Carl A. 1987. The Founding of New Acadia. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press.
Baudoin, Moisy. 2005. Personal interview.
LeBlanc, Robert. 2005. Personal interview.
Spizale, David. 2005. Personal interview.
Supple, Tim. 2005. Personal interview.
Thomas, Evan, et al. “How Bush Blew It: Bureaucratic timidity. Bad phone lines. And a failure of imagination. Why the government was so slow to respond to catastrophe,” Newsweek (Sept. 12, 2005).
Wise, Tim. “A God With Whom I am Not Familiar,” Counterpunch.com, Sept. 5, 2005.

Photograph of Barry Ancelet courtesy of David Simpson, LSUE.


This is a submitted article.  Send your press releases and articles on UL, the UL District, and quality of life in Acadiana-- particularly education & culture-- to ultoday.com by clicking here.