Originally published in the Acadiana Gazette
The University of Louisiana at Lafayette Press has just released “Hell or High Water: How Cajun Fortitude Withstood Hurricanes Rita and Ike” by Times-Picayune reporter Ron Thibodeaux of New Orleans. The book is illustrated by Times-Picayune photographers with a foreword by James Carville.
Question: What inspired you to write this book?
Answer: When Hurricane Rita struck the entire gulf coast of South Louisiana in September 2005, I was struck by the lack of attention it received. This was just weeks after Hurricane Katrina killed hundreds and hundreds of people. New Orleans was still waterlogged from the flood that had crippled the city, and the Katrina story there was only beginning to unfold.
Rita was devastating to the people in the smaller communities along the coastal base of Acadiana, but what happened to them — and to their way of life — seemed to be ignored by everyone outside the impact zone. As major news continued to come out of New Orleans, Baton Rouge and Washington, D.C., about the Katrina aftermath — not to mention books, movies and TV shows — I started to ask myself, “What about Rita?”
Once it became apparent to me that no one else was going to tell this story, I decided to try to do it myself. I began my research and interviews in my spare time, beginning with a trip to Cameron in June 2007, just before the 50th anniversary of Hurricane Audrey there. Before I got too far along with the project, Hurricane Ike came along and hit all the same communities, and hit them hard, so I had to turn my Rita book into a Rita-and-Ike book.
Q: How do you feel the devastation in southwest Louisiana was treated differently from the damage inflicted by Katrina on New Orleans?
A: The national media were already in place in New Orleans when Rita approached, so reporters were well positioned to cover the story, in theory. Unfortunately, though, they mostly viewed Rita in terms of how it affected, or failed to affect, New Orleans on one end and Houston on the other. What actually happened in the middle — in places like Dulac and Erath and Grand Chenier, and even Lafayette and Lake Charles — barely got noticed, and it wasn’t long before everyone went back to reporting on post-Katrina New Orleans or moved on to other stories altogether. Compared to the dramatic loss of life inflicted by Katrina, Rita seemed to be regarded as almost a non-story. Of course, try telling that to people in Henry whose houses ended up miles away in a sugarcane field or folks in Cameron whose loved ones’ coffins washed away when the cemeteries got flooded.
Q: How do think Rita and Ike (and Gustav) affected Cajun and Creole culture in southwest Louisiana?
A: Rita and Ike were unusual in that, instead of targeting one specific location like Gustav and most other storms, they swept across the entire coastal region of the state. They were huge and powerful, and they had dramatic effects on communities along pretty much the entire 250-mile gulf coast of Louisiana. I write about the experience in the context of the history of South Louisiana’s Cajun people, whose ancestors endured the dreadful Acadian exile from Nova Scotia 250 years earlier before making their way to Louisiana to begin a new life there. It’s in the nature of the people of South Louisiana to take care of their own and their neighbors when adversity strikes, and that’s what happened here.
Q: How has the culture changed since Rita and Ike?
A: It’s too soon to know, but we need to pay attention to places like Cameron Parish and the down-the-bayou communities of lower Terrebonne Parish. Since these storms, there is greater concern about young people giving up on places where their families have lived for four, five and six generations, and moving inland to cities where better jobs and modern conveniences abound and coastal flooding isn’t an everyday threat. If these communities — Cajun, Creole and Native American — lose their next generation, the way of life unique to those places will be imperiled.
Q: You have a lot of personal stories in this book, when did you meet the people you interviewed? How was that experience?
A: I have done a number of reports on Louisiana’s Cajun people, their music, food and way of life for The Times-Picayune, beginning in 2001 with an in-depth series of articles taking stock of the culture at the start of the new century. I grew up in Terrebonne Parish, too, so I have a personal as well as a professional frame of reference for life in South Louisiana. When I started researching Hurricane Rita, I asked friends all across South Louisiana for help in finding storm survivors whose experiences would help to illustrate the overall story I wanted to tell. Most of the people I eventually contacted were surprised that I would be interested in their stories but graciously shared them.
Q: During the course of writing this book, what moved you the most?
A: I was struck by the dedication of Zeb Johnson and his fellow funeral directors from the Lake Charles area who volunteered to search the marshes and waterways of Cameron Parish for coffins that had been washed away from gravesites in the storm surges, and then worked to identify those remains that were found. There efforts were heroic but largely unnoticed, except for the grateful families who were able to rebury their dead.
And the final chapter in the book is one of my favorites: it’s a passing-of-the-torch story about an elderly native of Grand Chenier and his relationship with his great-grandson, and how the hurricanes affected them and the place they called home.