On Wednesday 21st September 2005, turbulent one hundred and twenty kilometer storm winds whipped the seas of the Gulf of Mexico into a heaving cauldron, rising and smashing down upon its dark waters.
The Gulf Coast itself was threatened as the eye of this new hurricane named Rita, the third most powerful storm to enter the Gulf of Mexico, moved northward. News flashed around the world as thousands upon thousands living close to the Texan coastline were warned to evacuate their homes before the whirling monster landed. The US National Hurricane Centre said that the greatest potential for loss of life relating to a hurricane is from the storm surge. This is the water that is pushed toward the shore by the force of the winds swirling around the storm which also combines with the normal tides.
A state of emergency had been declared with mandatory evacuation for over two million people to get out. Thousands of coastal residents from Houston to Lake Charles were leaving. Many motorists however, became stranded with empty fuel tanks and mechanical problems, adding to the melee with one-hundred-mile traffic-jams.
Two days before landfall, the initial category five hurricane weakened to a category four. Even so, Rita was still a very destructive force. By now, there was little accommodation available for evacuees in Lafayette, north of Abbeville. One day before landfall, Friday September 23rd the hurricane now weakened to category three, but remained very dangerous. Residents, clergy, staff and volunteers spent that Friday boarding up government, residential and church buildings. The Bishop issued a mandatory evacuation order to clergy in lower Iberia, Vermilion, Acadia and other parishes. They were to secure church properties, collect sacramental records and vacate.
Only four weeks earlier, New Orleans was submerged, legacy of Hurricane Katrina, the brokenness of buildings had paled in insignificance against the tragedy of broken and destroyed individuals. Over twelve hundred lives were lost. They heard tragic accounts of real people experiencing real fear, real courage, real hate, real love, real death. Sadly, many had become trapped in their own attics when they could climb no higher from the rising storm surge. Others were swept away as the fearful surge engulfed and devastated their homes.
Poignantly, the people living on the Gulf Coast are no strangers to ‘killer’ hurricanes. Louisiana’s history books contain a tragic record of tropical systems and their fearful repercussions. In 1893, two thousand people were killed when a storm flooded a Louisiana bayou. In 1900, over six thousand people in Galveston lost their lives when a hurricane storm surge of up to fifteen feet viciously inundated the entire island city. In 1957, Hurricane Audrey destroyed thousands of buildings with turbulent winds of one hundred and forty-four miles per hour and a thirteen foot storm surge inland up to twenty-five miles, reaching northward as far as Abbeville, killing three hundred and ninety people, and leaving thousands homeless. In 1969, Hurricane Camille, a Category 5 hurricane, the most powerful on the official scale, with winds of over two hundred miles-per-hour, left a total of two hundred and fifty-six dead, over half of these in the Gulf Coast.
Vermilion Parish, Louisiana, of which Abbeville is the parish seat, is a unique blend of prairie land, wandering bayous and marshes, with farm lands of rice, sugarcane and grazing cattle and friendly bilingual towns. On strolling through downtown Abbeville, its many shops, town square, or the museums, tourists are treated with southern hospitality. Louisiana’s local highlights are the cattle festival and the festivities and fun of the giant omelette celebration. Abbeville is proud of its Courthouse and the beautiful St. Mary Magdalene Church. Then there’s Louisiana’s music - Swamp Pop….a blend of New Orleans rhythm and blues, hillbilly, rockabilly, blues, Cajun, and Creole music. The first record to receive attention outside of Louisiana was recorded by a young man born in Abbeville, Louisiana in 1938. Bobby Charles wrote the song, ‘See You Later Alligator’. It's been said that pain and suffering inspires creativity. Perhaps hurricanes Katrina and Rita have given enough blues to spawn a lifetime of million-selling records.
Alligators, the source of inspiration for Charles’ lyrics, thrive in their habitat in this part of the world among the wetlands and marshes, swamps and lakes. Almost two million wild alligators are in the state of Louisiana alone and a quarter million more are located on prosperous alligator farms. One of these was run by a family well-known in Abbeville. Along with others in the community, this family also proudly claimed to be directly descended from the French settlers of the 1760’s. The two sons, Kurt, eighteen, and Mike, fifteen, had grown up learning ‘Gator farming from their father’s enterprise. Kurt was studying in his final year before entering university. Lanky, blond and tanned from farm life, Kurt was a keen basketball player and popular among his peers in the area. His brother Mike, academically astute and a great fan of swamp pop, also loved the outdoor work and adventure on the marshes and lakes. Kurt and Mike liked helping their dad around the place in raising the young ‘gators. They fed the alligator hatchlings on crawfish, small fish and crabs, and as the ‘gators grew, on larger fish. When four feet long, they released a small percentage back into the wild and marketed the rest.
For a couple of weeks that September, the two brothers were left in charge of the farm and they were excitedly anticipating the challenge and responsibility entrusted to them. In other years on their ‘days off’, the boys would frequent the local shops, relishing the Cajun delicacies of home-baked pies of crawfish tails, garlic, onion and spices in cream wine ….or perhaps a good seafood sausage. Also, during their vacations, the two brothers worked for the tourist swamp tours in the area, taking groups out in covered swamp boats to find the fascinating wildlife Louisiana is famous for. Sometimes they worked with a back-road tourist drive, enabling tourists to experience some of the best birding around. However, this September, the study books were open ‘til late at night and there were no ‘days off’, as the responsibility for the work on the farm lay wholly on their young, nevertheless capable shoulders.
Now, as Rita had whirled her way threateningly across the Gulf of Mexico toward their coastline, the destruction they’d viewed only last month in New Orleans was still vividly imprinted on their memory. They’d watched aghast as conditions there had deteriorated within days, seeing bodies floating in the streets, and the terrible wide-spread looting.
Kurt and Mike, along with all the residents of Abbeville were now making their personal choice: to go, or to stay. For some days prior to the dreaded landfall this was about the only topic of conversation in the coastal towns. At these times, the human mind gives one plausible reasons why not to leave…the dog, precious belongings, old or sick family members or, just not seeing the danger.
“We’ll weather it OK, like in sixty-nine, the property didn’t get water then” or,
“No, we’ll stay, she won’t reach thirty feet. No way!”
In spite of the government’s mandatory evacuation order, over five hundred residents of Abbeville and surrounding towns defied the instructions. Among them was Kurt and Mike.
Rayman, a Marine Patrol Officer, was working in the Sheriff’s department, Louisiana. Rayman knew the people of Abbeville well. “They have roots here,” he said. “You tell them to evacuate and stay with family, they just move to a place two blocks down – because that is their family.” Rayman lived and worked with honest simplicity in Sheriffs’ mission statement, believing in the intrinsic value of life and the moral and spiritual commitment to protect and preserve all mankind. Rayman was tall, easy-going and practical. He also had a big heart for the local teenagers. Within the D.A.R.E. program Rayman was one of the Drug Abuse Resistance Education Officers. He often visited the schools and knew many of the young people well. Now he hoped they had safely evacuated in time.
The day of landfall: Saturday 24th September, Hurricane Rita hit with one hundred and twenty mile-per-hour winds. The hurricane slammed low-lying fishing villages, shrimping ports and ranches with water up to nine feet deep. The wall of water smashed across coastal Terrebonne Parish severely damaging or destroying almost ten thousand homes. The surging tide relentlessly rolled farther inland, leaving half of Creole, with a population of fifteen hundred in splinters. It inundated and levelled roughly eighty percent of the buildings in the town of Cameron, south-west of Abbeville. Muddy seawater pushed relentlessly inland. The storm surge drowned acres of rice, sugarcane fields and pasture. The water rose so fast that those who watched it thundering towards their homes had no time to flee. Abbeville, with a population of nineteen hundred people was flooded. One minute the water was up to their boots and within a few minutes it was up to their chests. The courthouse alone was left standing, having been built on stilts on higher ground. Most of the houses and public buildings were destroyed, or… later found somewhere else. Desperately, Kurt and Mike took to their boat, leaving everything in a last resort to save their own lives. Helplessly, they watched horrified as the farm was engulfed underneath a muddy, swirling mass of powerful surging water. Their comparatively fragile boat proved a near-death experience, as the force of the water leaned into their boat and marsh grass clogged their motor.
They tried to head for a line of trees but found they were not the only ones to seek refuge there. Their faces were grim as they saw what was ahead of them. The wind whipped Mike’s words away as he pointed and yelled to Kurt: “Look! Every snake for miles around has got to that tree-line!”. The snakes were on every limb – thousands of them, every breed, every colour, venomous and non-venomous. The boys realized with horrific clarity that they were going to have to fight the snakes or fight the water. There was no land left anywhere. They knocked a snake away and still in their boat, clung tenaciously to a branch. With every ounce of strength they had, the two brothers held on, knuckles white, faces strained, eyes wide on their writhing companions, and waited.
Marine Patrol Officer Rayman and Lieutenant Greg, both of the Sheriff’s department, were among those who immediately took to boats and skiffs, bravely endeavoring to reach the hundreds of victims stranded on rooftops and tractors in the low-lying parishes, courageously negotiating the tangle of smashed homes and downed trees amongst the swirling, turbulent, muddy waters. Army helicopters droned overhead, locating stranded bayou residents, lowering help and plucking them out to safety. Houses had been reduced to piles of bricks, or bare concrete slabs with steps leading to nowhere. Walls of an elementary school gymnasium had been washed or blown away, leaving basketball hoops hanging from the ceiling. A single-story white house was propped up against a line of trees, left there by floodwaters that ripped it from its foundation. A bank was open to the air, its vault still intact.
“We call this place a sportsman’s paradise,” contemplated Rayman grimly, his mind lingering on the stored memories of his beloved Cajun Country. His gaze searched the muddy face of the surging waters, looking for stranded survivors. Responding to the urgency ringing in their thoughts, he and Greg made a beeline for the Abbeville ‘gator farm.
More than seventeen thousand National Guard troops and members of ‘Task Force Rita’ were stationed throughout south Louisiana helping evacuate survivors who had refused orders to leave. Providentially, as of Sunday evening, no lives had been lost in Vermilion Parish. By the day after landfall, rescue and restoration were in full swing. Utility crews were turning the lights back on. In the refinery town of Lake Charles, National Guardsmen patrolled the place and handed out bottled water, ice and food to hundreds of people left without power. Three cowboys had waded in ‘boots and all’, ruggedly determined to save a way of life in Vermilion Parish, one cow at a time. Weary with countless hours of corralling cattle, they struggled undaunted to rescue the hapless animals from the flooded fields and marshes.
In Abbeville, safe now within one of the remaining shelters, Rayman handed Kurt and Mike a steaming mug of Cajun soup, a warm, dry blanket, and a set of dry clothes each. He was glad they’d battled the elements to check on the boys that day. The horrifying image of the lads clinging stoically to that storm-tossed branch surrounded by hundreds of snakes still all too vivid in his mind.
Following the hurricane the Storm Notebook stated: ‘Aftermath of Rita and Katrina: The death toll from Hurricane Katrina across the Gulf Coast is 1,206. The death toll from Hurricane Rita now stand at ten.’
One month after Rita, the stoic people of Louisiana planned a Bayou Boogie; a 'big easy night’ to relieve the hurricane blues, underlining the incredible resiliency of those who live in the Louisiana bayou.
(Note: The characters in the story are entirely fictional, though the story is set within historical fact and actual events.)