Evangeline Parish, Louisiana
Nothing is moving in Evangeline Parish except for the sky. Black rain bands, the precursors of Hurricane Rita's fury, scud by at disconcerting velocity. Wind gusts uproot ancient oaks and topple a decrepit billboard advertising an extinct brand of chewing tobacco. The rice fields are flooding and the roads are barricaded with tree debris.
Millions of desperate Texans and southern Louisianans are still gridlocked on interstate highways headed north from Rita's path, but here in Ville Platte, a town of 11,000 in the heart of Acadiana (French-speaking southern Louisiana), the traditional response to an impending hurricane is not to evacuate but to gather together and cook.
Dolores Fontenot, matriarch of a clan that ordinarily mobilizes forty members for Sunday dinner (the "immediate family") and 800 for a wedding (the "extended family"), is supervising the preparation of a colossal crab gumbo. Its rich aroma is sensory reassurance against the increasingly sinister machine-gunning of the rain on her home's boarded-up windows.
Although every major utility from Baton Rouge to Galveston has crashed, a noisy generator in the carport keeps lights flickering inside as little kids chase one another and older men converse worriedly about the fate of their boats and hunting camps. There are disturbing reports about the waters rising around Pecan Island, Holly Beach and Abbeville.
In addition to Fontenot kin, the table is also set for three eminent immunologists from Latin America, whose laboratories at the Tulane and LSU medical centers in New Orleans were flooded by Katrina, destroying several years of invaluable cancer research. The doctors, two from Medellín, Colombia, and one from Mexico City, joke that Ville Platte has become the "Cajun Ark."
It is a surprisingly apt analogy. The folks of Ville Platte, a poor Cajun and black Creole community with a median income less than half that of the rest of the nation, have opened their doors over the past three weeks to more than 5,000 of the displaced people they call "company" (the words "refugee" and "evacuee" are considered too impersonal, even impolite). Local fishermen and hunters, moreover, were among the first volunteers to take boats into New Orleans to rescue desperate residents from their flooded homes.
Ville Platte's homemade rescue and relief effort--organized around the popular slogan "If not us, then who?"--stands in striking contrast to the incompetence of higher levels of government as well as to the hostility of other, wealthier towns, including some white suburbs of New Orleans, toward influxes of evacuees, especially poor people of color. Indeed, Evangeline Parish as a whole has become a surprising island of interracial solidarity and self-organization in a state better known for incorrigible racism and corruption.
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."
City of the Dead
While Edna was saving the living, his brother-in-law, a police detective from another city, was engaged in the grueling, macabre work of retrieving bodies. "Vincent" (his real name can't be used) went out each night in a Fisheries boat with a scuba diver and an M-16-toting National Guard escort.
"I wore a [hazmat] space suit and piloted the boat. I was chosen because I'm trained in forensics, and since I am a Cajun the higher powers assumed I was a water baby. We worked at night because of the heat and to avoid the goddamn news helicopters that hover like vultures during the daytime. We didn't want some poor son of a bitch seeing his grandma covered with ants or crabs on the 6 o'clock news."
Ants and crabs? "Hey, this is Louisiana. The minute New Orleans flooded it became swamp again. The ecosystem returns. Ants float and they build big colonies on floating bodies the same as they would upon a cypress log. And the crabs eat carrion. We'd pulled the crabs off, but the goddamn ants were a real problem."
Vincent described the exhausting, gruesome work of hauling bloated bodies aboard the boat and then zipping them into body bags. (FEMA neglected water, food rations and medicine, but did fly thousands of body bags into Louis Armstrong Airport.) Although Vincent was supposed to tag the bags, few victims had any identification. Some didn't have faces.
One of us asks about the demographics of death. "We pulled seventy-seven bodies out of the water. Half were little kids. It was tough--no one died with their eyes closed, and all had fought like hell, some slowly drowning in their attics.
"I deal with crime scenes and human remains all the time and usually keep a professional distance. You have to, if you want to continue to do your job. But sometimes a case really gets to you. We found the corpse of a woman clutching a young baby. Mother or sister, I don't know. I couldn't pry the infant out of the woman's grasp without breaking her fingers. After finally separating them, the baby left a perfect outline imprinted across the lady's chest. That will really haunt me. And so will the goddamn cries of the people we left behind.
"We were under strict orders to remove only bodies. But there were still lots of people on the roofs or leaning out the windows of their houses. They were crazy with fear and thirst. They screamed, begged and cursed us. But we had a boatload of bodies, some probably infectious. So we saved the dead and left the living." Vincent believes that the "sniper activity" so luridly reported in the media was from stranded people who were outraged when boats and helicopters ignored them.
Madonna and Child
Danny Guidry, a paramedic married to a Fontenot cousin, has a story with a happier ending. Along with his partner and driver, he was sent with dozens of ambulances and rescue units from the Cajun parishes to the edge of New Orleans.
As victims were brought in by volunteers in boats or by the Coast Guard in their big Black Hawk helicopters, Danny classified them according to the severity of their condition and took the most critical cases to Baton Rouge, one and a half hours away through the pandemonium of emergency traffic.
Since southern Louisiana's only full-fledged trauma center was in a rapidly flooding hospital in New Orleans, most of the injured or sick evacuees were dropped at a triage center in a Baton Rouge sports stadium where a single nurse, just 24 years old, was in charge of sorting out cases and sending the most serious to already overwhelmed local hospitals.
"By my third trip," Danny explained, "I was working on automatic pilot. You just shut yourself off from the pain and turmoil around you and concentrate on doing your job as carefully and quickly as possible."
But, like Vincent, he found one case extraordinary. "She was a young lady, thirty-three weeks pregnant, in premature labor. She had been in a hospital ready for a caesarean section when the evacuation of the city was announced. Her physician stopped the labor and sent her home, presuming, I guess, that she had access to a car, which she didn't. Her husband went out to look for food, then the levee broke. When we picked her up, the husband had been missing for several days. To make matters more complicated, she was cradling a 9-month-old baby that she had rescued from a crack-addict neighbor. Both she and the infant were heat stressed, and my sixth sense told me she might not make it to Baton Rouge.
"It was the longest run of my career. Her IV was bad and I was running out of fluid. She was getting paler, and her blood pressure was falling dangerously. My orders were to take her to the central triage center, but I told my partner to punch it and head straight to the nearest hospital.
"Out of professional protocol I never divulge personal information to a victim. But this case really moved me, so I gave this young woman my phone number and urged her, Please call when you are out of labor. In fact, I kept phoning the hospital to monitor her progress. She had a healthy baby and eventually found her husband. Meanwhile, the infant she had saved was reunited with its mother. Having come this far with this girl, I just couldn't walk away, so my wife and I invited her and her husband to Ville Platte. We found them a little house and she's getting ready to go to college in Lafayette. I helped board up their windows this afternoon."
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.
The People's Republic of the Bayous?
So what does it all mean?
Mark Krasnoff thinks Ville Platte is the shape of things to come: southern Louisiana getting its interracial act together to take on its colonizers and rulers. A small, wiry man with the build of a dancer or gymnast, he is an actor (most recently in a prophetic FX network TV drama, Oil Storm, about a category 6 hurricane hitting the Gulf Coast) and a stunning bilingual raconteur. He is also the Che Guevara-cum-Huey Long of Evangeline Parish. His beat-up pickup wears the bumper sticker LOUISIANA: THIRD WORLD AND PROUD OF IT.
"Look, Louisiana is the same as any exploited oil-rich country--like a Nigeria or Venezuela. For generations the big oil and gas companies have pumped billions out of our bayous and offshore waters, and all we get back is coastal erosion, pollution, cancer and poverty. And now bloated bodies and dead towns.
"People in the rest of America need to understand there are no 'natural' disasters in Louisiana. This is one of the richest lands in the world--everything from sugar and crawfish to oil and sulfur--but we're neck-to-neck with Mississippi as the poorest state. Sure, Washington builds impressive levees to safeguard river commerce and the shipping industry, but do you honestly think they give a shit about blacks, Indians and coonasses [pejorative for Cajuns]? Poor people's levees, if they even existed, were about as good as our schools [among the worst in the nation]. Katrina just followed the outlines of inequality."
Mark is incandescent. "The very soul of Louisiana is now at stake." He enumerates the working-class cultures threatened with extinction: the "second line" black neighborhoods of New Orleans, the French Indians in Houma, the Isleno (Canary Islander) and Vietnamese fishermen in Plaquemines, Cajun communities all along the Gulf Coast.
"If our 'leaders' have their way this whole goddamn region will become either a toxic graveyard or a big museum where jazz, zydeco and Cajun music will still be played for tourists but the cultures that gave them life are defunct or dispersed."
Mark's worst fears, of course, are rapidly becoming facts on the ground. Bush's Housing Secretary, Alphonso Jackson, told the Houston Chronicle on September 30, "I think it would be a mistake to rebuild the Ninth Ward." He predicted that New Orleans' black population, 67 percent before Katrina, would shrink to 35 to 40 percent. "New Orleans is not going to be as black as it was for a long time, if ever again," he said.
This was undoubtedly music to the ears of Republican master strategist Karl Rove, who knows that the loss of 10,000 or 15,000 active black Democratic voters could alter the balance of power in Louisiana and transform overnight a pink state into a red state. The GOP could gain another senator as well as the governorship.
Mark's preferred solution is secession: "Let us keep our oil and gas revenues and we can preserve our way of life as well. We don't really belong to the same cultural system anyway. You prize money, competition and individual success; we value family, community and celebration. Give us independence and we'll restore the wetlands, rebuild the Ninth Ward and move the capital to Evangeline Parish. If you wish, you can ship the Statue of Liberty to Ville Platte and we'll add a new inscription: Send us your tired and huddled masses and we'll feed them hurricane gumbo."
We all laugh, but everyone understands it is gallows humor. Ordinary people across Louisiana and the Gulf Coast are beginning to understand what it's like to be Palestinians or Iraqis at the receiving end of Washington's hypocritical promises and disastrous governmental and military actions.
Katrina and Rita have stripped Louisiana naked: Exposed to a brutal light are government neglect, corporate rapine and blatant ethnic cleansing. Equally revealed, however, is the bayou country's ancient moral bedrock of populist revolt, cultural resistance and New Testament generosity. But when in the entire bloody course of history has the kindness of strangers ever defeated the conspiracy of money and power?