Maybe you’ve heard of urban legends; this true story is something like that, except it involves a hurricane and the great state of Louisiana, so it is more appropriately categorized as a “storm legend.”
Louisiana has a long history of them, such as Betsy in 1965, which dropped, in the middle of memorably terrible night, a large oak tree on our house in Baton Rouge. I remember waking up in my bed and wondering why there was a large hole in the floor with some alien object thrusting through it in the darkness, and then my father’s faint calling, through the howl of wind and rain from the other side of that sudden chasm, But that’s, as they say in legend lore, “another story.”
What I’m thinking of now is a Katrina tale, but it relates, you see, to what is happening now down on the mighty muddy Mississipp, which is Louisiana’s–yeah, I say unto thee, heartland America’s– waterway aorta lifeline of trade, culture and jazz, not to mention crabs, shrimp and oil.
When Hurricane Katrina tore through the Gulf Coast in 2005, the storm’s onshore strike point was about as bad as it could possibly be for the rickety ole city of New Orleans. Counter-clockwise furies of wind and rain had worked up a megasurge of water from Lake Ponchartrain that descended upon the Crescent City like a duck on a june bug, blowing right over the Lake levee as if the Corps of Engineers were just an afterthought in Huey Long’s mind.
A few weeks later, I accompanied my wife and some other nurses down to the storm-stressed area. We drove down there from our home in North Carolina, on a Red Cross expedition to provide some medical services for storm-tossed folks who were in shelters. I just went along for the ride, and to offer a little help now and then in whatever way seemed appropriate. The expedition also allowed what was to be one of the last visits with my dear mother in Baton Rouge, before she passed to that great River of Life on the other side.
During that two-week tour of duty in Louisiana, Pat and I spent nights at my mother’s house, while spending our days at several Red Cross shelters so that the nurses could provide medical services to those displaced persons whose unfortunate circumstances had landed them there. The Red Cross facilities were generally set up in gymnasiums, populated with hundreds of folk and the cots where they slept at night while waiting for an all-clear from FEMA or whomever to return to New Orleans.
One day we worked in Alexandria, a small city in central Louisiana. About nightfall, we left the shelter there, for the hour-and-a-half drive back to Baton Rouge. We had three passengers with us. One was another volunteer nurse. The other two were a mother and her son.
The young mother was a Muslim woman; her boy was quite young, maybe five or six years old, as I recall. She was dressed in hijab. I had begun talking to her earlier in the day, when she explained that she was from Chalmette, a town southeast of New Orleans. Since our evening’s journey would take us to Baton Rouge, and hence toward her home, she decided to hitch a ride with us.
I will not forget driving through that misty Louisiana darkness, windshield wipers clappin’ time, from Alexandria back to Baton Rouge, that night back in ’05 somewhere between the River and the cane fields and the muddy bayous. The young woman told us of a harrowing encounter she and her son had had with Katrina’s furious maelstrom. The storm had flooded her hometown, Chalmette.
So now I’m getting to the storm legend part, or it is for me anyway because that night’s memory is so vivid. She said that the folk down there in St. Bernard parish had figured that the powers-that-be in New Orleans had made a decision to dynamite a certain levee so that St. Bernhard and Chalmette would catch the worst of the flood instead of N’awlins.
Now, me, I dunno. But this I remember–what she said. And she reinforced her tale of inflicted levee destruction with storm legend hearsay evidence that went all the way back to 1927, when folks down in St. Bernard say the same damn thing had happened, if you can believe it–that the folks in charge of levees in N’awlins would do such a thing.
Now me, I dunno. But I can tell you this. Down on the bayou, levees is serious business. Now I hear tell that they’re doing it again, for the flood of 2011. Cuttin’ the Mississipp loose through Morganza and ‘tchafalaya, cha, so’s it won’t hit Baton Rouge and N’awlins. But its all above-board now.
‘Specially now that they got the federal guv’ment to sort out all the mud and mess, since Huey Long dun put the hurt on Roosevelt back in the day. And I told him that.