Tuesday, August 29, 2017

A FEW THOUGHTS ABOUT HURRICANE HARVEY

Bayou Teche flooding bananas trees in yard near
Port Barre, Louisiana

I find it difficult to write this blog because here I sit, high and dry on The Mountain at Sewanee, Tennessee while people in New Iberia, Louisiana, my real home, are watching a heavy rain falling, apprehensive about threats of flooding and tornados. I felt proud when I read news stories about the “Cajun Navy” getting into their trucks and pulling their Jo boats and pirogues behind, rushing to help Houston victims of Hurricane Harvey. I also felt humble, remembering that in the lives of Cajuns, no one is left out, an ethic that embraces family and strangers.

I remember Hurricane Andrew and the devastation it caused; how we foolishly sat out the storm when the wind played with the house as if it were an accordion and venerable oaks in New Iberia parks and along city streets fell, roofs were blown away, and we suffered power outage for three weeks. The sun shone the day following the hurricane, and when I went outdoors to survey the damage, I discovered that a tall pine in the front yard had fallen a few feet away from my bedroom window, and the yard was strewn with branches from the tree-lined street. Within hours, a member of the Cajun Army had entered the yard — my neighbor across the way, armed with a chainsaw, sliced into the felled tree, cut it into movable pieces, carried it away, and waved goodbye without speaking a word. He proceeded to Darby Lane, a few blocks away and began clearing the lane so that vehicles could get through to the highway. No one had summoned him.

Later, another neighbor and his son came over and, without a word, picked up branches and began raking my yard. Both acts were performed in silent determination.The man with a chainsaw bore the Cajun name of Olivier; the man who raked the yard was named Viator (once Villatores, a name of Spanish derivation). Both of those men bore the names of early settlers of New Iberia. They represented a gregarious culture that has assimilated French, Spanish, African-Americans, Brits, Germans, Irish… a unique culture that has a strong work ethic and joie de vivre unlike any other diverse group in the U.S.

Cajuns know a lot about hurricanes and floods, and they’re undaunted by water — even those in the Cajun Navy whose boats broke down in Houston and people tried to steal their stalled boats… even though they have been shot at if they were unable to pick up everyone in their Jo boats. I’m not surprised at their tenacity and courage. (I understand that a Gator Squad has also been organized in Houston because alligators seeking higher ground have begun frequenting Houstonians’ yards).

In 2016, I wrote a book of poetry about Bayou Teche entitled A Slow Moving Stream* that documented stories of early Cajun survival in Teche country. I include the last verse of one poem about the flood of 1927 that embodies the spirit of early settlers whose descendants are probably members of the present-day Cajun Navy:

“…The land returned to a muddy geography
into which they climbed
marveling at the ease of light,
declaring they’d never go back to Pisiguit
even if a rocking tide caused the land to tilt
and the sky became an ocean.
What had been green would be green again.”

PHOTOGRAPH BY VICTORIA I. SULLIVAN


*I will lecture and read from this book about the Bayou Teche to the Louisiana Literature class taught by Dr. Mary Ann Wilson, professor of English at University of Louisiana, Lafayette, in November when I return to Louisiana.
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