Every year since I have had access to the Internet, on June 1st, I start watching the National Hurricane Center for tropical cyclone activity.
This is a pretty common practice in South Louisiana. When I was a child most grocery stores had hurricane tracking charts at the registers for people to take with them. Knowing if a storm is coming is a way of life here.
The first storm I remember was Hurricane Andrew in August 1992. It slammed into Florida as a Category 5 from the Atlantic and then slid into the Gulf of Mexico and a few days later made landfall as a Category 4 not far from my hometown. Because my brother and I were children my parents decided to evacuate to Lafayette, which is a little further inland. I remember the major anxiety attack this storm brought on. I was a month from ten years old it was difficult to process what was happening.
When I was a child most grocery stores had hurricane tracking charts at the registers for people to take with them. Knowing if a storm is coming is a way of life here.
I still remember the drive home and all the devastation around us. I thought that a lot of people would never recover. My family was lucky our house made it through the storm with little damage. We did not have running water or electricity for days. It was very hot in August with no AC. But we, like everyone else, got through it.
But through all the misery and heat, I remember the outpouring of help my small town and others received. People from all over the country showed up to help rebuild, there was also a drive from everyone to help each other to rebuild. I was shocked. There was much more hope than despair in the air.
As I got older and began to understand storms, I learned just how resilient the people around me are.
The next major storm that really impacted my life was Hurricane Katrina in 2005. The world remembers what happened to New Orleans in the aftermath. What most people don’t know is that Hurricane Rita hit less than a month later. Rita also caused massive flooding, but it didn’t get much news coverage. Smaller towns got 6 to 8 feet of water and many shrimp boats were beached. But the people of Southeast Louisiana banded together again and quietly rebuilt their towns again with help from others.
South Louisiana has a very different culture and way of life than any other place I have been in. I grew up in Acadiana, but I am not of Acadian descent. My mom and dad are not even from Louisiana, but they moved here because of the culture. My father is from the Bay Area in California, but he came for the food, the music, and the friendly people. My mom is from Hunstville, Ala., and attended Lousiana State University. They both loved being here so much they never went back home. Now hunting and fishing so much a part of my father’s life you would never know he grew up in a metropolis. Jeanerette, La. is a small town, but it became home to us.
As I grew up I learned a lot about Cajun culture and just how resilient the people were. How they learned to live and make do with had they had here. That resilience is why their culture is still thriving. Randy Newman once sang in his song “Louisiana 1927”, “Louisiana, Louisiana, they’re trying to wash us away.” Many storms have tried but none have succeeded.
Randy Newman once sang in his song “Louisiana 1927”, “Louisiana, Louisiana, they’re trying to wash us away.” Many storms have tried but none have succeeded.
A few years later, even though Baton Rouge, where I live now, is pretty far inland, Hurricane Gustav hit the city head-on. For the first time since Hurricane Andrew, I was directly affected. I had just moved into a house and had not unpacked yet. We did not have power for over a week.
I was teaching at the time so I was at least off work. My husband and I decided to go volunteer at my church. It is a large church with an even larger gym area. I again was amazed by how many people just show up with anything and everything that was needed: The entire gym was filled with goods and supplies to give to people who had lost their homes or much of their things due to large trees toppled by the high winds of the storm. These goods and supplies included common everyday things a person needs, like clothes and toiletries, and much more, but the biggest thing we give is food.
Hurricanes have become such a way of life that we are prepared in ways most people don’t think about. After Superstorm Sandy hit New Jersey I heard a story about families getting all the canned goods and following the advice they got from us here on the Gulf, but many of them didn’t have manual can openers. So they had trouble opening the canned goods. In fact, most people I know south of Lafayette have a gas stove or a camping stove or a generator to plug in essentials, so that those of us lucky enough to be able to cook tend to bring hot meals to the shelters so people can have real food instead of mass-produced meals designed to feed a lot of people quickly.
We grow rice here so it is cheap and a staple to our foods here. Everything from red beans and rice, to jambalaya, to gumbo, to crawfish etouffee all have rice as the base. I have seen in some cases that people will make huge amounts of jambalaya. It is good and hot and filling. Eating together during difficult times is so important here. Even when times are tough eating together reminds us of the good times we have had and insures us there will be good times again.
Speaking of which, I was again among the lucky. I lost a large limb of my live oak tree in front of my house, but it crashed down on the street and not my house. And for the first time, I got to be one of those people that could help others. A couple of friends of mine lived two streets over and they did what we all do when a storm is coming and bought lots of canned foods. But their stove was electric and their generator had stopped working. I had a gas stove so I was able to bring them over to my house to cook and eat together surrounded by flashlights and candles.
When I thought about this later I realized I had never hesitated to invite them over. It was like a reflex to me. It seems like a reflex for most people around me when it comes to helping others. I do not know if this is simply part of our culture or if there is something in our brain chemistry that makes helping others so common.
This happened again in 2016. Baton Rouge got about 20 inches of rain in about 3 days due to a slow-moving storm system. This was not a tropical storm or hurricane, so the entire city was caught off guard and unprepared. Nearly half of the city of Baton Rouge and many of the low-laying surrounding areas were flooded very quickly. Many people were stranded on roadways, and even more of them were stranded in their homes.
This group, one of the many squads identifying themselves as the Cajun Navy, did not help because some offered to pay them or because someone asked them to. They helped their neighbors simply because they could. So many lives were saved because people who could help just did it.
A small group of friends who had boats went out without provocation to these flooded areas, launched their boats, and began rescuing people and pets from their homes. This group, one of the many squads identifying themselves as the Cajun Navy, did not help because some offered to pay them or because someone asked them to. They helped their neighbors simply because they could. So many lives were saved because people who could help just did it. The Cajun Navy has also helped with food distribution after the waters have cleared.
In the years that have followed The Great Baton Rouge Flood of 2016 many people were able to rebuild or move on because of the generosity of those of us that did not flood. I know many people who were affected and strangers helped most for them in some way or another.
In 2020 while we were dealing with a pandemic we as a state also had to deal with one of the most active hurricane seasons we have seen in years. Five storms made their way to our coastline and two of them were a category three or higher. Those two storms managed to hit the same area. There was a lot of property damage, both times, but as soon as the winds died down power trucks from surrounding states rolled in to start to repair the damage. People started to help each other to reconnect as the city of Lake Charles had to be evacuated.
Baton Rouge was spared the brunt of all of the storms, leaving us with a drive to help our friends and neighbors from Lake Charles. This year was more complicated though. We had to figure out ways to help while still socially distanced and not having direct contact with most people. But many people did figure it out. Most of the residents of Lake Charles have returned home and the recovery process has begun.
I believe that there is something in us that learns to adapt, and a drive to help one another at the worst of times. Just a few weeks ago we have a severe winter storm that caused very similar damage to trees as a hurricane. The ice got so heavy on the tree limbs that many of them cracked and fell just like they do in high winds. The live oaks that can handle wind fared a lot worse in the ice. I can not decide if cutting and hauling tree limbs to the road is worse in the 100-degree heat or when it is below freezing. But again we did what we always do. We helped each other out. We made sure the people we knew without power had a place to go to stay warm and fed.
The most famous adage here, “Laissez les bons temps rouler” (“Let the good times roll”), is truly the way we live down here through good times and bad. If you have watched anything about hurricanes and the Gulf Coast in the last several years you will know there have been some difficult times, and they are getting worse. But the Cajuns are resilient people so I know that we will help each other through when the bigger and stronger storms come, just like the Cajuns have been doing for two hundred plus years. There will be more storms and floods and prolonged hard freezes, but there will always be the Cajun Navy and legions of everyday people lining up to help. I have a healthy fear of storms but I know that no matter what happens in the future we all find a way to weather the storm and move on.