What makes Ville Platte and some of its neighboring communities so exceptional?
Part of the answer, we discovered, has been the subtle growth of a regional "nationalism" that has drawn southern Louisiana's root cultures--African-American, black Creole, Cajun and French Indian--closer together in response to the grim and ever-growing threats of environmental and cultural extinction. There is a shared, painful recognition that the land is rapidly sinking and dying, as much from the onslaught of corporate globalization as from climate wrath.
If one wanted to be fashionably academic, Ville Platte's big-heartedness might be construed as a conscious response to the "postcolonial" crisis of Acadiana. In plainer language, it is an act of love in a time of danger: a radical but traditionalist gesture that defies most of the simplistic antinomies--liberal versus conservative, red state versus blue state, freedom of choice versus family values, and so on--that the media use to categorize contemporary American life.
But before arguing theory, it is first necessary to introduce some of the ordinary heroes sitting around Dolores Fontenot's generous dinner table as Rita shakes the earth outside.
The Cajun Navy
Edna Fontenot passes around bottles of beer--Corona in honor of the Latin American guests. He is a lean, gentle-spirited man in his late 40s with an impressive résumé of mechanical skills and survival expertise.
"You know, we were all watching New Orleans on television and we realized that somebody's got to help all these people, because nothing was happening. Nothing. Then there was a call [by the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries] for small boats. So I said, I'm going. I knew I could do something. I lived in New Orleans and know how to get around on water."
Edna drove to nearby Lafayette (Acadiana's informal capital city) then convoyed with scores of other boat owners to Old Metairie, across from the broken 17th Street Canal that had emptied the waters of Lake Pontchartrain into central New Orleans.
"There was no FEMA, just a big ol' bunch of Cajun guys in their boats. We tried to coordinate best we could, but it was still chaos. It was steaming hot and there was a smell of death. The people on the rooftops and overpasses were desperate. They had been there for several days in the sun with no food, no water. They were dehydrated, blistered and sick...giving up, you know, ready to die."
Edna stayed for two days until floating debris broke his propeller. Although FEMA has recently taken credit for the majority of rescues, Edna scoffs at its claims. Apart from the Coast Guard, he saw only the Wildlife and Fisheries' "Cajun Navy" in action. "That was it. Just us volunteers." He feels guilty that he couldn't afford to fix his boat and return. "I had some good times in that damn city," he says softly, "and, you know, I have more black friends there than white."