In between Rita's windy tantrums, we made a quick run down to the Civic Center Shelter, where volunteers welcomed new "company" from the hurricane-threatened Louisiana-Texas border area.
The shelter is supported only by local resources but provides ample beds, toys, television, Internet access, superb Cajun-Creole cooking and hospitality to evacuees staying only for a few nights or waiting to be rehoused on a medium-term basis with local residents.
The center's founders include Edna's "Kosher Cajun" cousin Mark Krasnoff (his dad was from Brooklyn) and Jennifer Vidrine, who has become its full-time coordinator. Everyone had told us that Jennifer has the most gorgeous smile in Louisiana. Although she hadn't slept in two days, her smile indeed brightened the entire shelter.
An LSU graduate with a recent fellowship at Harvard's prestigious Kennedy School, Jennifer has had every opportunity to conquer the world, but she wouldn't think of leaving Ville Platte. She talks about the first week after Katrina.
"There were just thousands of tired, scared people on the roads of Evangeline Parish. Not just in cars: Some were walking, carrying everything they still owned in a backpack. Some were crying; they had a look of hopelessness. It was like The Grapes of Wrath. Most knew nothing about Ville Platte, but were amazed when we invited them into our homes."
It sounds too good to be true: Acadiana, despite deep cross-racial kinships of culture, religion and blood, was once a bastion of Jim Crow. Just a few years ago an effort by Ville Platte authorities to redistrict the town to dilute the black vote was struck down as a violation of the Voting Rights Act. So we ask Jennifer, who's both "French" and African-American, if the relief effort isn't discreetly color-coded, with a preference for suburban white refugees.
She's unflappable. "No, not at all. We embrace everyone with the same love. And the whole community supports this project: black, white, Catholic, Baptist. Perhaps one-third of all private homes have taken in out-of-town folks. And it doesn't matter where our 'company' comes from: the Ninth Ward [black] or Chalmette [white]. That's just the way we are. We're all raised to take care of neighbors and give kindness to strangers. This is what makes this little town special and why I love it so much."
Jennifer praises local schoolteachers and the City Council. But when we ask about the contribution of the national relief organizations and the federal government, she points to the banner over the shelter's entrance: NO RED CROSS, NO SALVATION ARMY OR FEDERAL FUNDS... JUST FRIENDS.
"I started trying to contact the Red Cross immediately. I phoned them for thirteen days straight. I was told 'no personnel are available.' [According to the Wall Street Journal, the Red Cross, which raised $1 billion in the name of aiding Katrina victims, had 163,000 volunteers available.] Finally, they promised to come, but then canceled at the last minute. FEMA is just the same. We have yet to see the federal government in person." Indeed, before Rita closed the roads, we saw no evidence of a federal presence, although we ran across several SUVs with Halliburton logos.
Ville Platte, whose black majority has an annual per capita income of only $5,300, has thus managed to help thousands of strangers without a single cent of Red Cross or federal aid. We remain incredulous: What superior organizational principle or charismatic leadership is responsible for such an achievement?
Jennifer is bemused. "Listen, my committee is my telephone. I call folks and they respond. Food, clothing, cots, medicine--it's all provided. Even poor people down here have some extra deer meat in the freezer or an old quilt or an extra bed. And all of us know how to spontaneously cooperate. My God, we're always organizing christenings or family gatherings. So why do we need a lot of formal leadership?" In a nation currently without competent leadership, this may be a reasonable, even deeply profound, question.