Tuesday, July 8, 2008

LAST ISLAND

My Louisiana antenna begins to vibrate about this time of year because July, August, and September are shaky months in my native state – hurricanes of great ferocity blow in, and I yet remember the ravages of Hurricane Katrina, with evacuees pouring into the outreach center of which I was director, Solomon House in New Iberia. They came to us, sans clothing, homes, water, and food. We worked for two months, day and night, 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. to help these evacuees, and the pain of that experience remains with me. However, I’ve been ruminating about writing a book of fiction about the hurricane that occurred on Last Island in 1856. It’s another of those stories that has been in my mind for years, and I have a folder of material waiting for me to assimilate.

Last Island, or Isle Dernieres was once an island about 25 miles in length and perhaps one mile in width; however erosion and denudation of foliage by storms and hurricanes have diminished the size of this barrier island. Now it is a sportsman’s paradise. Charter boats take fishermen to the island to fish for speckled trout, redfish, drum, flounder, and tarpon. The island is a long stretch of golden sand – a place of awesome solitude.

In the mid-19th century, Last Island was a resort area, dotted with summer cottages and a hotel about which there has been considerable controversy because an architectural rendering, presented in a lithograph, pictured the mythical Trade Wind Hotel as a gigantic resort hotel. It was similar to some of the resort hotels that border the Riviera and was rumored to accommodate many hundreds of people. Actually, the hotel was a two-story frame building with a large dining room and dance hall. At the rear was a bayou where boats from the mainland docked. The beaches at Last Island were said to rival those of Pensacola, Biloxi, and other Gulf Coast beaches. On a hot August day in 1856, a fierce hurricane hit Last Island, and the storm surge carried away vacationers from Iberia, St. Mary, St. Landry, Terrebonne, and Orleans parishes. Several stories report that the vacationers were dancing when a huge tidal surge washed over them, but the truth is that the hotel guests, following dinner on Sunday August 10, 1856, were assembled in a great hall when the roof of the hotel blew off and all the walls collapsed. Trees bent to the earth, and the tide rushed in to swallow the land and 200 people. A few people survived and took refuge on Captain Abraham Smith’s ship, which he had steered into the bay near the island. Although the ship was demolished, he rescued many people by tying a rope around his waist, wading out into the swirling waters, grasping at hands, feet or hair of whatever guests swept by him, placing them in the hold of his demolished ship until help arrived.

My old friend, James Wyche of New Iberia, now deceased, gave me some of the details about the Captain and his rescue operation, ending his account with a footnote that the Captain was not properly recognized for his valor. “Members of many of those old New Orleans families owed their lives to the heroism of Captain Abe Smith. He died in penury, a victim of palsy and in his final years, traveled around the country in a buggy with his wife, living on the gratuity of the countryside. Captain Smith would arrive now and then at Belmont (Jimmy Wyche’s home) where my grandfather and grandmother would share with him whatever he needed at the time.”

Today, Last Island has no resorts, homes, or population. Its very barrenness fascinates me, and although Lafcadio Hearn immortalized the happenings of the 1856 hurricane in classic prose, I’m still drawn to write about the island and the day of the Big Wind.

Here’s a poem about hurricanes from my chapbook, MORE CROWS:

HURRICANES

Hurricane Isadore passed over bayou country,
a shield of dry air dividing us
into protected playing fields,
only a city below sea level,
one called “The City Care Forgot,”
received the storm,
water inundating alleyways and dark corners,
rats scurrying in avalanches of mud,
bars closed, strippers afloat,
Sin City washed clean by a whirlwind
scouring the place where care was not.

Blessed be nests not blown away,
gray birds on the fence
shaking their dry bodies,
seldom so spared from slashes of storm,
and blessed be the hand
that dries flooded marshes,
stays upright cane,
blessed be the protector of coastal beings,
arms in random care, encircling.

If prayer can calm blustering wind
and hold back tides of angry water,
who can doubt its power
to change the landscape within?
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