In less than a month in the waning days of a sultry Louisiana summer in 2005, the state was hit by two Category 3 hurricanes: Katrina on August 29th (2000 deaths and $100 billion in damages) and Rita on September 24th (120 deaths and $12 billion in damages). Rita’s storm surge worsened the affects of Katrina by inundating low-lying communities near the southwest coast of Louisiana. When I volunteered for a month after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, my second 2 week deployment was in a town directly in the path of Rita’s destruction.
This is a story from that time.
The heat and humidity were almost unbearable in this small town that had been hit by both hurricanes. Katrina had made landfall 3 months ago and Rita 2 months, but the land was still littered with the debris of the storms that played havoc with Louisiana. Telephone poles were broken like match sticks, cars were on top of flattened buildings, tanker trucks lay on their sides next to overturned shrimping boats, and a school lay open to the elements. Seaweed and sand were piled where there had been streets, hundreds of yards from the water’s edge.
The silence was eerie – not even the birds had returned – as the three of us drove past the destruction to an area further inland. My fellow volunteers stopped to take pictures, but I stayed in the air-conditioned rental car for comfort. Besides, it seemed almost sacrilegious to take pictures of someone else’s loss and suffering. The scenes of such vast and complete destruction were better left in my imagination than in print.
We had a list of homeowners who had applied to the Red Cross for financial relief, and it was our job to visit these folks and activate credit cards with much-needed funds. Two of the volunteers represented financial aid, while I was along as a mental health professional to offer emotional comfort and support. Two of us tried our best to navigate for the driver – try finding addresses where streets were impassable and signs didn’t exist. A challenge, to say the least.
We had one more family to visit and our 12-hour day would be done. Today had been particularly difficult, as government relief had been either painfully slow or non-existent to these folks, and tempers were easily ruffled by the tiniest perceived slight. The conditions we visited reminded us, however, of how blessed we were to be able to return to a church that night and have hot food and a shower before sleeping on our cots.
We found the last family’s trailer and gingerly picked our way through the debris field that must have been their front yard. If we weren’t picking our way through boards with nails sticking up, we were side-stepping mini-ponds filled with water at least 6 inches deep. No matter how much we tried to avoid it, our shoes remained soaking wet and covered with mud.
Our knock was answered almost immediately by a young woman named Emeline holding a baby about 4 months old. The woman’s hair was damp from the heat, and the huge dark circles under her eyes gave some indication of her weariness, but her smile was welcoming. She warned us to be careful, as there were some holes in the living room floor where you could see to the muddy ground outside. Katrina had caused minor damage to the trailer, but Rita left holes in the roof and a foot of water inside. They still had no electricity or running water and were waiting to hear from FEMA in order to get a temporary trailer to set up beside this one. Their home was all they had, and there were no relatives close enough for them to stay with.
She introduced her husband, Jean-Pierre, who looked as determined and protective of his family as she looked weary. In fact, with his jet black hair and dark eyes, he reminded me of the pirate drawings in children’s books. Stereotypical, but true. He led us through the small trailer into the back bedroom, where mold covered the entire back wall up to the ceiling. The room used as the baby’s nursery was even worse – mold on all the walls – and I could feel my lungs struggling to breathe even though I had only been there less than 5 minutes. Jean-Pierre lifted new plywood from the nursery floor, showing us the torn up floor that opened to the outside. He told us not to worry – he had killed the four snakes that had made the trailer their home along with the foot of water.
Now I felt myself struggling for breath, but for an entirely different reason. Four snakes? In Belle’s nursery? Along with the mold covering the walls? And these nice folks still lived here, patiently waiting for aid.
If they were complaining about being forgotten, they didn’t do it with us. As the other two volunteers explained the now activated credit card that would provide them some immediate relief, I held Belle in my arms. She slept soundly, oblivious to the goings-on around her. Even without running water, I could smell Johnson’s Baby Shampoo in her downy hair and Ivory soap on her clean clothing. That she was loved and well taken care of was evident.
When Emeline was handed the credit card, she couldn’t speak for the tears in her eyes. While saying he didn’t know how to thank us, Jean-Pierre suddenly got a twinkle in his eyes and asked us to stay where we were as he rushed to the back of the trailer. He returned carrying a small accordion, his smile huge.
“Maybe I can thank you with some Zydeco.”
He explained that Zydeco’s rural beginnings and the economic conditions in Louisiana at its inception heavily influenced the style of music. It was a synthesis of traditional Creole music, some Cajun influence, and African-American traditions.
With a flourish, Jean-Pierre tapped his foot on the plywood, fingered the accordion and broke into a song that sounded like jazz, blues, gospel and R&B, with maybe some funk and hip-hop thrown in. Though unfamiliar, the tune was catchy and you just couldn’t sit still. Emeline took Belle so I could tap my feet in time with the music that Jean-Pierre so seamlessly wove into something unlike anything I ever heard before. By the third song of our impromptu concert, I was standing swaying to the music, hoping I didn’t fall through the weakened floor onto the muddy ground below.
Here – in Southwestern Louisiana, seated in a trailer filled with mold, holes in the floor, no running water or electricity, and humidity like a steam bath – I pushed away thoughts of snakes and asthma and lost myself to the music. There was nothing else but this man who wanted to thank us somehow; a man who, looking around at his home, had nothing. But looking around at his loving wife and daughter, had everything. There was hope here.
The smiles in that room were blinding. At that moment, there was no place in the world I would rather be.
If these were the people of Louisiana, I wasn’t worried. They would survive. And even beyond that, they would thrive in the coming years of difficult recovery. Because they had heart and soul. And they had love…