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.