Sometimes it’s just nice to remember how fortunate we are.
Normally, this column would be about fishing or hunting, but today since it’s Thanksgiving, I want to talk to you about a group of people I have been fortunate to meet, become friends with, and love.
I am lucky. I get to live a life a lot of people dream of. I lose sight of that fact many times. I get to travel the south, I get to fish with interesting people and in interesting places. I have hunted in the Low Country and the mountains. I can name a good, off-the-beaten-path restaurant or diner in six states. Most importantly, because of the decisions I have made, I have been able to be involved with and spend time with my five children and my lovely wife. So yes, when I stop and think about it, I have been lucky.
Lately, I hit the mother load of luck. I got to travel to the southwest part of Louisiana, to an area known for Cajun French, Native Americans, swamps, shrimp, crawfish, and the friendliest people I have met in 25 years of being on the road as a salesperson. Since Hurricane Ida, my family and I have been volunteering, gathering goods and food supplies, and helping to bring awareness to the destruction this area (down the bayou from Houma, La.) endured. While down there we have made friends, heard stories, been invited to dinners, hung out with a bishop, toured the most beautiful churches, and learned so much about a whole new culture.
Our last trip down, my kids and I were working in the community helping some elderly people remove rain-damaged furniture from their houses, cut up trees in the yards and distribute cleaning supplies and personal hygiene products. In one of our visits, I met Ms. Marie. I can’t even pronounce her last name; it’s French and I’m a country boy from middle Georgia that barely passed Spanish I. Ms. Marie is a Houma Native American and originally from a small town called Dulac, La. Dulac is a fishing and oil rig community that is in between the open bayou and a canal. It’s now a dying community. With each hurricane, with each storm and catastrophe, more and more people move out. BP, Ida, Katrina, etc., all take an economic toll, but the real toll is in the lives of the people.
Ms. Marie was this kind soul who allowed us into her home, and not only did we get to help her with things she wasn’t able to get done herself, but we also got to know her and visit with her. For almost 55 years Ms. Marie (from the time she was 16) worked in a shrimp processing plant down in Dulac. Her father was a trapper, a shrimper, and a tugboat crewman. Her brother the same. It’s a hard life. It can be a beautifully rewarding life, but it isn’t for the weak. Her grandfather was the same, a trapper and commercial fisherman. She comes from a long line of proud people who worked and worked hard. Interesting enough, though, her parents and grandparents did not speak English. They all spoke French. Cajun French, more particularly.
Emma, my oldest daughter, makes fun of me when we are down there because every older lady get to meet I ask them if they speak Cajun French and always, I will sit and listen to them. It’s a beautiful language that is based on formal French but has traces of English and other languages from people who settled in the area spoke. It is part of the fabric of the region that makes it unique. The food, of course, is what everyone knows. A good friend, Fr. Rusty Bruce, who’s from down in Larose, La., once gave me this advice: “I don’t want a gumbo recipe from the New York Times. I want a gumbo recipe from Mawmaw Thibodeaux Landry who can bare-knuckle box an alligator while reciting the Holy Rosary in Cajun French.” You know … I’ve had Mawmaw’s gumbo … It’s true.
Here’s the important things to know about this region and this storm.
1. New Orleans was not hit that bad. Yes, there are a lot of blue roofs, they lost power for several weeks, but it was not flooded and destroyed like during Katrina. This caused the storm to quickly loose the nation’s attention.
2. Southwest Louisiana in several spots recorded winds of more than 225 mph. I know of a offshore oil boat captain that rode the storm out 15 miles off Grand Isle and he recorded sustained winds of more than 225 mph for hours.
3. Live oaks are extremely resilient trees and usually split rather than get uprooted and this storm not only uprooted them, but it also twisted them while uprooting. The sheer number of trees down everywhere would stun you.
4. The power pole loss to this storm was greater than Katrina. The damage to a lot of areas on the west side of LA was greater than Katrina.
5. Some areas are just now getting power back, and the storm hit on Aug. 29. A lot of areas still don’t have cell service or internet because of the amount of damage.
Elderly men I have met while down there ALWAYS tell me how this storm was different from the time it entered the Gulf. To a man, each one I have gotten to speak with tells me that Camille and Katrina didn’t feel and act like this. It’s an interesting phenomenon. A collective gasp seems to have gone up and people just knew to get out this time.
Now, here’s the truth as I see it and have experienced it firsthand on the ground. FEMA is not being a lot of help. Inspectors are not getting around to these areas in the Bayou. Insurance companies are right now even worse than FEMA. Dragging their feet is an art form they seem to have brought to the heights of the Renaissance. This means that the ones who can for the most part are leaving. They are moving out. Fish markets, shrimpers, guides, lodge owners, oilmen, tugboat crews. They are leaving. Thru the actions of corporations and government we are losing a culture that cannot be replaced.
If you would like more information on how to help, volunteer, or sponsor a family for Christmas down there please go to www.afriendministry.com/disasterrelief
For me now, my heart is in the Bayou. It breaks for the people and spirit of this wonderfully mysterious place.
— Outdoors columnist James Pressley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org