Individual & Communal Identity after Hurricane Rita: A Collaborative Essay

By Corliss Badeaux, Keagan Lejeune, Stella Nesanovich, and Wendy Whelan-Stewart


"How's your house?"

"Okay. Yours?"

Days, weeks, months after Hurricane Rita, this dialogue existed as a stock exchange. It was a standardized greeting that people seemed to develop. Though the phrasing in certain parts of the exchange may have altered from one conversation to the next, the structure of the communication event remained the same. When a person encountered another person, an old friend, a neighbor, or even a co-worker, for the first time after Rita, this patterned dialogue inevitably occurred. Typically, the exchange began with a greeting and a question about the status of the person's family or property: "How's your family?" "How's your house?" "How did your house come through?" "Get much damage?" Obviously, this beginning expresses concern and establishes a relationship between the involved parties. Second, the response to the question followed, usually downplaying the damage or puncturing the amount of damage received by enumerating the positive events: "Nothing much. My fence, some shingles, you know" "Well, we had a tree that came through the kitchen, but we still have a place to live." "Yeah, you know, it's gone, but everybody's safe." Next, the question was reciprocated. "And yours?" "How'd you do?" In a sense, this patterned exchange existed as a means of instigating and exchanging an intimate conversation with people who, though not outsiders, would not be considered intimate friends in other circumstances. In some cases, this sort of conversation connected neighbors who had not known each other before or facilitated conversations between co-workers or even people one meets while standing in line at a store or the post office. More often than not, these conversations would build to larger, deeper discussions concerning people's lives. Often, this standard exchange became a safe means of broaching a difficult question. "How's your house?" can be answered in a devastating manner and the given reply can turn a conversation into an uncomfortable experience that could breach certain levels or standards of interaction. For example, the question may trigger a conversation too intimate to be held by casual acquaintances or even neighbors. However, this pattern facilitated having these sorts of interchanges and often helped to ensure they would remain within acceptable parameters, though sometimes they did not, which left participants with the feeling that the conversation had gone wrong. Ultimately, the standardized greeting, neighbors offering help to neighbors, and residents creating messages expressing the community's experience are only some of the responses developing after Rita that reflected the sense of community and solidarity that emerged after the storm.

The writers of this essay approached this project in the same spirit of exchange and solidarity. In fact, much of the information in the essay's five sections comes from these sorts of conversations. Talking to neighbors, hearing from family, and listening to students offered as much information in the work as formal interview sessions and field notes. Though the writers of the essay were mindful of how personal emotions or biases might color their accounts and observations, they also considered that approaching the essay in any other means might not produce a collaborative essay as honest or fruitful as this one seems to be. In order to address various points of view, four members of McNeese State University's faculty collaborated to write an essay in an effort to capture the wide-ranging experiences of Louisiana residents who faced Hurricane Rita. The essay is in four parts, and each part, to some degree, is meant to relate to a specific stage of the hurricane experience: (1) preparing for Hurricane Rita and evacuating with Hurricane Katrina in mind, (2) riding out the storm in Lake Charles and the few weeks that followed, (3) the delayed returning to Cameron Parish by its residents, and (4) the six-month period following the storm. The topics of these sections include a personal narrative of evacuation by a McNeese English professor who grew up in New Orleans and has spent the past thirty years in Lake Charles and analytical studies of residents' reactions to the storm. Even though these individual sections may seem unrelated or disconnected, one idea seems to emerge in each of them. As a result of the shared hurricane experience, individuals' lives intersected with other members in the community and intersected in a manner made more intense by the storms. This process, then, redefined and in some cases even recreated individual and community identity; the effects of which will be enduring and profound.

"The Specters of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita" was written by Stella Nesanovich. "The Hurricane, the Individual, and the Community" was written by Wendy Whelan-Stewart. "The Cameron Comeback: Optimism and Frustration in the Wake of Hurricane Rita" was written by Corliss Badeaux. "Signs, Images, and Public Displays within the Hurricane Narrative" was written by Keagan LeJeune.

The Specters of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita

When Hurricane Rita threatened Southwest Louisiana the third week of September, 2005, I was one of many who had been dealing with the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina since before August 29th, when Katrina made landfall. I had grown up in New Orleans and felt grief seeing my hometown flooded from numerous levee breaks. My cousins, Chalmette residents, had evacuated to Baton Rouge. Their house in Saint Bernard Parish took six to eight feet of flood water. My brother-in-law, a chef at a New Orleans hotel near the Ernest Morial Convention Center, had escaped to Lake Charles after a harrowing week in the New Orleans hotel where he had worked and had witnessed first-hand the despair and deaths at the Convention Center. My brother, my only remaining sibling and a resident of Metairie, had been with me in Lake Charles for 10 days. A week before Hurricane Rita hit Southwest Louisiana, he had returned to the New Orleans area when he found that his apartment was undamaged and had electricity. My brother-in-law, however, living in a Lake Charles motel paid for by FEMA, was forced to evacuate again, this time back to the New Orleans area, where he would stay with friends and sleep on floor pallets.

For several days before Rita struck, I kept hearing a voice in my head telling me to "remain calm and keep packing." I was gathering my valuable belongings-photographs, family jewelry, copies of my poems and other possessions I didn't want to lose. The whole time I was telling myself I would not leave, but I would be ready . . . in case. After all, I had never before evacuated for a hurricane, although I had lived through many a storm, including the devastating Hurricane Betsy, which hit New Orleans exactly forty years before Katrina, at a time when I was a senior in college. Still, I thought I would ride out Rita, as I had Lilly a few years before, even while my intuitive self had me gathering belongings and preparing for evacuation by filling my car with gasoline, acquiring cash from the bank, and boarding up windows. The lessons from Katrina were everywhere: on CNN, which continued to broadcast from New Orleans and the devastated Gulf Coast, and in the local and national newspapers. Daily I had been perusing the website of the New Orleans Times Picayune, looking at the photographs of the flooded streets of my hometown, streets where I once lived, schooled, and shopped. I knew I would need to leave if ordered to do so. I had already asked Father Marshall Boulet, pastor of St. Paul's Catholic Church in Elton, Louisiana, and an old friend, if I could stay with him if evacuation was necessary. I suppose I had always in my mind the images of bodies floating in the flood waters of New Orleans, and although my Lake Charles neighborhood is high, I knew anything was possible with a hurricane ranked as a category 3, 4, or 5. Rita was gaining strength in the Gulf of Mexico, as Katrina had done, and could devastate the Southwest Louisiana and Southeast Texas coasts up to one hundred or more miles inland.

Like most Lake Charles residents, then, I took the mandatory evacuation order seriously, as I warned my New Orleans relatives to do days before Katrina made landfall.

I remembered how I had begun calling my brother and my brother-in-law early on Sunday, August 28th, urging them to leave the New Orleans area. I was going to take my own advice. I loaded my three cats into their carriers and onto the back seat of my car and left for the small town of Elton. Fr. Boulet had arranged for me and the cats to have his dining room, where he moved aside the dining table and placed a spare double bed. We would be joined by Monsignor Vincent Sedita, pastor of Immaculate Conception Church in Sulphur, as well as three adults from Bridge City, Texas, and three others from Sulphur. Everyone had animals. We were like Noah's Ark: nine adults, six dogs, and my three cats. I knew I had to shelter with my animals, for my Chalmette cousins had reluctantly left their cats in their home and felt surely they had been lost to the ravages of Katrina's flood waters. (Luckily, three of the four were saved by animal rescue groups and have since been reunited with my cousins, who have now bought a home in Baton Rouge.)

During my evacuation, I inched along Highway 90 East and broke free of the traffic only upon reaching Iowa, a mere ten miles from Lake Charles. There most of the traffic headed north onto US 165, while I continued east to Roanoke and LA 395 north to Elton. The journey to Elton, normally a 45-minute drive, took me 4 hours, but the entire time I listened intently to the radio station telling of road conditions and snarls along US 165. I was fine, my cats less so, until they were safely housed and found their food and litter box again. We would stay there in Elton for two weeks, traveling to Lake Charles only a few days the second week after the storm when residents of Calcasieu Parish were given permission to "look and leave." At times it was agonizing not knowing how much damage my home had sustained, but I remembered my brother's advice, to take things one hour and one day at a time until I knew what destruction the hurricane had wrought.

In Elton, our first night, September 22, our party had television and a wonderful meal of shrimp etouffee provided by Fr. Boulet. Friday night, all of us pinned to the television, we had another meal of red beans and rice, everyone having brought lots of food to cook before the storm and many sandwich makings for afterward. With nine adults, the wine was in short supply, so Fr. Marshall graciously brought over a box of altar wine from the church for our enjoyment. By 8:30, however, while we watched the menacing arms of Rita's satellite image cover the Gulf of Mexico, just as weeks before I had watched Katrina's tarantula's grasp of the warm Gulf waters, the electricity flickered and then was out. With a TV radio and other portable listening devices, we each retired to our respective sleeping places: me to the dining room, the two priests to one bedroom, several adults to sleeping bags on the floor in one bedroom and the hallway, another on the floor of Fr. Boulet's office. Throughout the night, I was convinced that the windows of the dining room might blow in, but by morning, one of the Sulphur residents and I were able to go outside and see that the steeple and the crucifix atop it were still intact. The families from Creole and Cameron who had taken shelter in the church hall of St. Paul's were aided by the Elton Fire Department, who brought a small generator so that this windowless facility, fortunately equipped with a gas stove, could be ventilated with open doors and fans. The children, of course, found they could still play about in the parking lot, while the adults cooked traditional Cajun meals. One woman, who had a chicken farm, brought a number of the nearly drowned birds for a large chicken fry.

For two weeks, Elton was my home, a home without electricity for 10 days. Eunice, not far down US Highway 190, provided a haven on stifling nights when we could escape there to an air-conditioned restaurant or to the local Winn Dixie for supplies. It was a time of gathering information via radio broadcasts from Lake Charles and cell phone conversations about my house in Lake Charles, which had severe roof damage from a fallen pecan tree. Five miles south of Abbeville, one of the sons of our university president put a boat in the water in the middle of a highway in order to get to Henry and his grandmother's house, where he hoped to salvage her china and other valuables. There he found a dead cow floating to the ceiling. From Abbeville south, all of Vermillion Parish, water covered highways, unearthed the dead in Erath and Port Sulphur, bringing the salty Gulf waters inland to ruin cane crop and rice fields. The residents of Cameron, Holly Beach, and Creole, many who were staying at St. Paul's family center, knew they had little if anything to return to. Within a week or so of the storm, most had found housing with relatives in Mississippi and central Louisiana.

When electricity was restored to Elton, we saw again the devastation of not only our part of Louisiana, but the new breaks in the Industrial Canal levees in New Orleans and the increased flooding in the lower Ninth Ward of that city. It was as if Katrina had struck again, denying hope to the residents of a beleaguered area of New Orleans.

Amid these experiences, one or two things remained: the peace I felt while being sheltered among people of faith, who shared morning and evening prayer as well as Mass and Eucharist by candlelight. In all this turmoil and worry, the feeling of being blessed never left. I still grieve for my home city of New Orleans, of course, for the losses my family members, my friends, and the communities of Cameron, Creole, and Holly Beach have suffered, but I am endlessly inspired by their determination to rebuild and go on, as the people of Louisiana have always done. Areas of New Orleans survived flooding forty years ago when Betsy hit; the Gulf Coast of Mississippi rebuilt after Hurricane Camille, a category five storm. Louisiana and New Orleans will survive Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

The Hurricane, the Individual, and the Community

Many residents of Calcasieu Parish pride themselves on their self-sufficiency and determination, and Hurricane Rita provided an opportunity for these individuals to exercise these qualities. They were exhibited in several different stages during and after the hurricane, first by those residents who chose not to evacuate or leave their houses and second by those who returned immediately after the passing of the storm. Those who remained in homes directly in the path of the hurricane believed they could not only weather all the effects a category 5 hurricane could produce, but could also survive whatever would come afterward in a disabled city. This would be further evidenced when they would continue to stay during what proved to be several hot weeks without clean water and electricity. Also during those weeks following the storm, many residents who had evacuated managed to enter the city, despite guards and impassable roads, hoping on their own to prevent further damage to their homes and begin the cleaning and reconstruction process well in advance of the "all clear" given by city officials weeks later. While the actions of residents clearly suggest a spirit of self-sufficiency, they also reveal a sense of responsibility toward neighbors, friends, and family-in short, community spirit. For at this time, the duties of residents were not limited to their own properties but to assessing and repairing the damages of homes owned by neighbors, family, and friends. Stories of sharing tools and services between community members abound and celebrate the idea of community in its simplest and most unofficial definition. Repeatedly what arises from interviewees' stories are the values of self-sufficiency, independence, and neighborly responsibility.

Perhaps one of the most interesting reactions to the presence of a hurricane in the Gulf of Mexico is found in those residents who decided to remain in their home or community rather than evacuate. This trend of thinking seems to be shared by many in communities over space and time. An article written in 1959 by two scholars studying Cameron Parish residents' responses to Hurricane Audrey (1957) documents this behavior and cites several statements given by Cameron residents. Before the storm hit, if residents chose to move, they did not leave the community altogether but sought out the sturdier homes on higher ground or stayed with relatives (Fogleman and Parenton 130). Of further significance is the men's rejection of the women's desire to evacuate. Comments cited in the article indicate the men were not worried and that plans had been made to secure everyone's safety should an emergency arise (130). The same attitudes seem prevalent among those who experienced Hurricane Rita. Despite the unimaginable damage Hurricane Katrina had brought to southeastern Louisiana and southwestern Mississippi only two weeks prior to Rita, the urgent warnings of scientists about the dangers of a category 5 hurricane, and the memorable, horrifying stories often told by residents who had lived through Audrey, many felt secure enough staying home. Alison and Jacob Blevins, two residents of Lake Charles, along with eight friends (not including children) had originally intended leaving town, but because of several reasons like reports of traffic jams and family members already overburdened with evacuees, ultimately decided to stay. Once the decision was made, they felt confident the storm would pose no serious threat to their lives and were proud of their resolve. In his interview, Jacob Blevins even referred to a conversation he had with his grandfather the day they had decided to stay home and remembers his grandfather was proud of him because he had decided "to tough it out." Evidence of their preparedness for the storm was casually referred to throughout their interview: they moved to the sturdier home of another friend, the friend cooked chili, and candles had been laid out.

In the hours and days after the storm, residents' stories also turned from personal feelings of awe or worry to include reflections on the community. Those who had stayed behind were expected and asked to determine the status of friends' and family members' homes. It was not uncommon for residents to ride four wheelers through the maze of fallen trees and thrown debris in order to assess the damages to homes of relatives and even friends of friends. In many cases, neighbors went beyond assessment. Marvin Marcantel of Sulphur recalls that a neighbor who had stayed behind emerged after the hurricane passed and boarded his (Marcantel's) brother's broken windows with two planks of wood.

Many other stories of communal spirit and self-sufficiency center on the procuring and sharing of food. Although residents who had either endured the hurricane or who had returned immediately after evacuating began to realize finding ice and food would be difficult, they still chose to remain and were sure they could obtain food. Many businesses advertised on a local radio station that they were distributing free foods such as pizza and hamburgers to the community. Locally-owned stores were opened by their owners, who were viewed as doing so for the good of the community rather than for personal gain. At one such convenience store, Alison Blevins recalled the invitations of strangers in the community, who were emptying their freezers, to share in elaborate shrimp boils or barbeques. She remarked, "I loved it; it made me feel good about Louisiana." Marvin Marcantel echoes her story; not only had he and his brothers barbequed items from their defrosting freezers every night, but he also had distributed much of the items in his freezer to neighbors (who in return kept his freezer working by means of a generator). He, too, attributed neighbors' willingness to help as characteristic of Louisiana residents.

Another noticeable trend predominately among men was to organize work groups (composed usually of relatives) and enter the city in order to begin cleaning and repairing. Many residents refused to stay away from their community for long and with generators, extra gasoline, chainsaws, and other tools, began to return as early as Sunday, two days after Rita had first made landfall in Louisiana and well before Lake Charles had officially allowed motorists into the city. Those interviewed told of navigating roads and ditches made nearly impassable from fallen trees, power lines, or rising water. Because major roads (the interstate and highways) were blocked by the National Guard or local police, motorists, coming in at night or early in the morning, sneaked into the city through other, lesser used roads and often drove around unmanned barricades. Marcantel was one such man who entered Sulphur Sunday night with his male relatives in order to cut and clear felled trees that obstructed movement to their homes or on their street and then cover their roofs before rain came. He also wished to protect his house from looters, although he did seem aware that police were patrolling the area. In another case, Nick Limberis and his brother Marty (who had survived four hurricanes in Florida the previous year) made their way from Monroe to Lake Charles Monday morning. Avoiding the major intersections where officers were stationed, they traveled down smaller country roads north of Lake Charles, several of which had already been partially cleared by residents with chainsaws. They, too, were well prepared for yard and roof work, bringing gasoline, a generator, food and water, bleach, baby wipes-"Baby wipes ? clean anything; remember, if they can clean a baby, then they can pretty much take anything off," Nick Limberis said. Once the Limberises had finished their work, they distributed their remaining food and water to family and neighbors, and Nick Limberis gave his chainsaw, gas, and other work tools to neighbor Charlie Stewart. This sharing of time, energy, and tools seems typical. When I asked Marvin Marcantel whether he had traded services with other neighbors, he corrected me by saying everyone helped without expecting anything in return.

Although official reconstruction by paid groups was begun immediately after the storm hit-Nick Limberis himself remembered following "cherry pickers" early Monday morning on his way into Lake Charles-much of the reconstruction was initiated by local, self-organized groups, which seemed to be made up largely of men. The determination of residents to achieve their goals is demonstrated by the stories told of their success in "riding out" the hurricane, navigating their way into a guarded parish, and working and living under harsh conditions. Furthermore, the attention of these locals was not restricted to merely personal goals but also to communal goals, as the frequent telling of the distribution and sharing of food, tools, and labor shows us. There is no doubt that many felt a strengthening in the ties of their community, for they commented on it in interviews and many seemed aware of what they considered typical behavior for Louisiana residents.

The Cameron Comeback: Optimism and Frustration in the Wake of Hurricane Rita

Cameron, Louisiana, is a town of just under 10,000 people. Geographically isolated from the rest of Southwest Louisiana, the town rests on the edge of the Gulf of Mexico and is separated from its sister communities by lakes, marshes, and a man-made ship channel—the Intracoastal Waterway. Although a highway and several bridges and ferries offer access to Cameron, it is a community that is largely self-reliant, and many townspeople are resistant toward and resentful of interference from outsiders. For some Cameron folk, this distrust of those who are not from the area, especially government officials, has been deepened and strengthened in the aftermath of Hurricane Rita, when Cameron residents were evacuated from their homes and then, for five months, banned from returning.

I first became aware of Cameron's unique character when I was a child. Growing up in neighboring Port Arthur, Texas, during the 1960s and 1970s, I heard many stories about Hurricane Audrey, the storm of 1957 that left such an impact on our section of the Gulf Coast. Cameron, Louisiana, was just across Pleasure Island and down a slim strip of coastal highway, and the devastation and the loss of lives (estimated at 425 people) suffered in Cameron could well have been Port Arthur's fate. The people of Cameron had rebuilt, however, and we occasionally attended such events as Cameron's yearly Blessing of the Shrimp Fleet. Years later, I married a Cameron native, and I lived there over a year before moving to Grand Lake, just north of Cameron. Cameron Parish was my home for twenty-five years. Hurricane Rita finally forced my move out of the parish, but it also reinforced my impression of and respect for the town of Cameron and its people, who are determined to stay and regain control over their lives and their community.

To understand just how strong is the resentment much of the community holds against governmental bureaucracy and outside interference, it is important to understand the place of Hurricane Audrey in the lives of the inhabitants. The people who returned after that storm were pragmatic, hard working, and well aware of the dangers they faced. A sign of their realism is evidenced in the preparations they make each year during hurricane season. One lifelong resident, Grace Vinson, is a prime example of the Cameron veteran. Her memories of riding out Audrey in a crew boat docked in Lake Charles, as well as the use of her brother's shrimp boat to help carry dead bodies out of the parish, caused her to live the rest of her life centered around hurricane season. Any time she discussed making major purchases or doing extensive remodeling of her home, she prefaced her plans with "After hurricane season, I'm going to ? " For her and other community members, the history of the town or of their personal lives is marked as being "before Audrey" and "after Audrey," and it is this defining event that sets apart the old-timer from the newcomer and the insider from the outsider. The true Cameron folk are the ones with an Audrey story to tell.

For Grace Vinson, the specter of Audrey has led her to perfect the stressful act of packing. Practical items (e.g., blankets, pots, medicines, birth certificates) are packed with sentimental items (framed photos and albums), and boxes remain packed during the most active hurricane months (typically August through October, although Audrey made her appearance in late June). When news reports indicate a storm in the Gulf, larger items (freezer, TV, et cetera) are packed and moved into shelter farther north. The thoroughness of Mrs. Vinson's storm preparations is typical of Cameron folk. What they were not prepared for after Hurricane Rita was how little control they would have over their own property and lives once the storm had passed.

Having been effectively warned of the immensity of the approaching storm, the people of Cameron responded quickly to the evacuation orders and prepared to be gone for a few days. The nightmare for them began when, during September 23 and 24 of 2005, the hurricane approached shore and veered into Southeast Texas and Southwest Louisiana. Newscasters from major network television stations flew in from all over the nation toward the Gulf and were poised in such high-profile areas as Galveston, Texas, and New Orleans, Louisiana, but nothing was shown, at first, of Cameron Parish, which had taken the hardest hit.

As the hours passed into days, a local station showed video footage filmed from a helicopter filled with local officials, including Lake Charles mayor Randy Roach (a long-time advocate for Cameron Parish), who flew south of Lake Charles and down toward the Gulf. The images were unforgettable: houses floating in marshes and straddling Highway 27, dead cattle washed up on ridges, shrimp boats in flooded parking lots of downtown Cameron, and massive oak trees uprooted. Reports explained that the aerial view of Cameron was misleading; the roofs that were visible from above often had no support underneath. Coffins had risen out of their graves and had to be searched for and identified by families, and many roads had been washed away in spots. Snakes and wild and/or traumatized animals posed a threat to those workers reentering the parish, and the entire electric utility system had to be rebuilt. Due to the leakage of hazardous materials, water was contaminated. Raw sewage, exposed, could not be treated for some time, and permeating the air was the stench from dead animals, including fish, and from the rotting plants in the marsh mud.

Despite the obstacles, Cameron Parish residents were tired of the wait and suspense and wanted to go home, assess the damage, and get on with the business of starting over again. However, this time the people of Cameron had an even larger obstacle in their road back home and to recovery: the United States government. While Cameron folk welcomed any aid, they were astounded that they would not be allowed back home. They could not understand how these strangers, who had not even heard of Cameron before the storm, could come in and set up camp while they—the people who owned the property and businesses there—were told to stay out. Although they were told that it was for safety reasons, the order chafed and insulted them. They knew these marshes, these hairpin turns in the roads, the wildlife, and the hazards—and beauties—of this place, and the government and contract workers did not. Stripped of road signs and familiar landmarks, Cameron was un-navigable to anyone except a longtime resident. But here were the government and its many agencies, such as FEMA and the Army Corps of Engineers, saying, "We know what we're doing here. You might hurt yourself; stay out." This did not sit well with people who had waited for days just to hear word about Cameron, much less to see how their own homes had fared. They were prepared with chainsaws, generators, four-wheelers, and tanks of gas, and they were ready to help each other get back onto their property.

After a couple of weeks post-Rita, the evacuation order for Calcasieu Parish, just north of Cameron Parish, was lifted. Although the damage to Lake Charles was extensive and sobering—houses split by trees, a considerable number of roofs damaged, glass blown out of windows and signs, snapped telephone poles, downed power lines snaking into the streets, and billboards and light posts tilting at crazy angles—the citizens shared feelings of relief that they could finally do something about the situation.

For the people of Cameron Parish, however, the wait dragged on into weeks and months. The anger on the part of residents increased as, thanks to the Army general who would not allow a national news reporter to enter Cameron, news coverage continued to be mainly about other parts of the state and of the Gulf Coast. Their anger grew even more as laws were enforced that restricted those with boats from entering certain parts of the parish, including Cameron itself. This was to help prevent looting, but many Cameron folk felt that homeowners should be allowed to come in and protect their property. The reports of looting that did circulate on the news and through gossip fueled the people's feelings of helplessness and resentment, and it did not help that some of these reports of looters included alleged incidents where the government and contract workers themselves were the ones who were stealing items from private properties.

A few weeks after the storm hit, Cameron Parish slowly opened to allow brief periods of "Look and Leave" for the residents. This was on a limited basis, depending on which areas of the parish were deemed safe enough. As more parts of the parish gradually became accessible, the full extent of the devastation was revealed. On my way home to the Grand Lake/Big Lake area, in upper Cameron Parish, I drove slowly, due to low-hanging power lines, steel cables coiled in the road, and nails and other debris. My home is on an island, cut off from land on one side by the Intracoastal Waterway and separated from Cameron by lakes and marsh. It is, as the airboat flies, about fifteen minutes from Cameron, and it is where much of Cameron's wreckage has landed. On the day of my return, the bridge near Deatonville and the old Big Lake Settlement was open for a space of three hours a day. No one was allowed to remain overnight on the island, but a first aid camp had been set up at the volunteer fire center, and government workers gave out water, food, and other supplies. The roads were heavily patrolled by National Guard as well as the local sheriff department, and everywhere were utility trucks from out of state.

As I entered Cameron Parish, it slowly dawned on me that the splinters and shreds of wood all along the sides of the road were what remained of houses. Twisted mobile homes lay in swampy pastures; impressive brick homes had missing walls and roofs; and appliances, furniture, and toys filled the fields and ditches all along the route. 10-12 foot pilings that once held camps up near the lake rose from a bed of mud and held up odd scraps of wall and roof. Dead cattle, bloated, lay by the road, where the water had washed them up, and, above them, those trees that were still standing, as well as remnants of fences, held strange laundry: shreds of plastic shopping bags and clothing. The swing bridge, too, was a sobering sight, not-so-reassuringly supported in the middle with a tugboat. The sides of the bridge were littered with the same distinctive storm debris: shredded wood and strips of plastic bags. Over it all was the smell of rotten marsh and decaying animals.

The checkpoint here, conducted by unfamiliar National Guard personnel and familiar local sheriff deputies and police jurors, was strict and to the point: "Who are you? Why are you here? Where exactly do you live?" After showing credentials and being recognized by the local officials, we were warned, "Bridge closes in three hours. Be out." After the bridge, we drove through water flowing over the road from the lake, and we tried to avoid looking at more dead cattle. A shrimp boat lay on the shoulder of the road, and Fred's Lounge, a venerable bar that was a favorite of bikers, lay in shambles. The church near my home had been flooded, as had several homes in the neighborhood, so I was grateful that, although a twister had destroyed our home, enough remained for us to be able to salvage some belongings. This was not the case for most of Cameron proper.

As we began to receive word from Cameron friends, neighbors, and relatives, it became clear that almost no homes had been left intact. College students of mine who were from the area wrote essays describing the empty slabs or pilings where their homes had been, and many still do not know where their homes landed. One student was able to salvage only a coffee cup decorated with a picture of her family and the words "We love you, Mom." These students were clearly in shock, yet all expressed the strong desire to go home to Cameron and help.

However, the evacuation orders and the ban on returning to live there remained in effect for almost five months. Some who worked in the parish had been allowed to come back fairly early on, in order to help the cleanup, but they had not been allowed to stay at night. A few companies later provided their workers with places to stay, usually tents complete with generator-powered electricity, but food, gas, and water had to be brought in. The Army Corps of Engineers immediately began the process of clearing debris from roads and public property, and now the massive job of clearing debris and damaged structures from private property has begun. The normally flat marshlands of Cameron Parish are dotted now by man-made mountains of debris, picked out of marshes and citizens' yards. Hazardous materials are being collected by the Environmental Protection Agency, and officials continue to gather to discuss strategy for rebuilding under safe conditions and stricter building codes. This, too, has been a source of contention for Cameron dwellers: how expensive will it be to build according to new codes, which often include elevating even a mobile home about six feet into the air, and will they be able to afford homeowner's insurance, which many homeowners have not been helped by in the wake of the storm?

Cameron residents have continued to voice their opinions in town meetings held nearby in Grand Lake, and they have rejected the offer of outside leadership, such as that of Lake Charles city manager Paul Rainwater. There are still signs of outside intrusion: various portable buildings serve as temporary offices for FEMA representatives, insurance agents, and other workers from outside the area. But the Cameron people have finally been allowed to salvage what property they have, and they are finding ways to work around the restrictions imposed by others.

While much camaraderie is evident as the local people rebuild community and redefine "normal," part of what draws them together is still the resentment of and anger toward the outsiders who seem to stand in the way of Cameron people's sense of community ownership. Issues with FEMA regarding reimbursement for various losses and expenses during the mandatory evacuation, frustration over not being able to reach Red Cross in order to receive timely help, anger with insurance companies who try to avoid paying for covered damages, fears that the Army Corps of Engineers will sweep properties clean without permission and not allow owners to reclaim items, and resentment of those higher officials, state and federal, who seem to be unaware of or uncaring about the amount of damage in the parish: all of these contribute to the distrust already held about outsiders and, in particular, the government. As officials meet to plan for response to future disasters, they will do well to listen carefully to the complaints and concerns of these people.

Cameron folk are optimistic about the town's future, even though the present is filled with setbacks and frustrations. Many older people who helped rebuild Cameron after Audrey are overwhelmed by the idea of starting over yet again, and some may not go back. Many others, however, are determined to reclaim Cameron from Rita and from governmental red tape. When the officials have all gone home, and camera crews have—as they seem to have already—forgotten Rita for some new event, the local folk will go about what they have always done in the past: take what they are given (travel trailers, blue tarps, and all) and begin raising a thriving community out of the marshes and cheniers of Southwest Louisiana.

Signs, Images, and Public Displays within the Hurricane Narrative

In the wake of Hurricane Rita, Lake Charles residents and those in the surrounding area were faced with two equally strong desires. First, these people were eager to continue with their lives. They were focused on working towards "getting back to normal," a phrase that almost became a mantra for many who had experienced Rita's widespread destruction. All the while, however, residents were aware of the devastation they had escaped and mindful of other people in the community, such as those who lived in southern areas of Cameron Parish, who suffered life-altering amounts of damage and would be unable to "return to normal" for an extended period of time. Second, partly because of this awareness, area residents wanted to make a statement about their recent experiences, a statement of solidarity and identity. Their sentiments ranged from simple announcements, like "Open" or "Free Coffee," to more intense expressions of sadness, warning, loss, and more often than not hope: hope in the form of humor, statements of belief, or messages of togetherness.

In the communication of these ideas, residents confronted the damage the storm caused and connected to members of the community. As a result, throughout the area, various displays developed to make note of the community's shared experience. Hand-painted signs appearing on houses and businesses, both before and after the storm, were individualized statements from residents to the storm, to official agencies (often governmental), and to other residents. As time passed and people returned to their homes, they not only used hand-painted signs but also began to incorporate images or icons from their hurricane experience into other displays. In the weeks and months that followed the storm, the displays of Lake Charles residents have progressed from straightforward messages to more elaborate communications. This short essay will focus on three types of these displays. The straightforward handmade signs comprise the first. The second type consists of those displays created in conjunction with or through the incorporation of established displays, such as those surrounding the holidays. The third type contains the arts and crafts and advertisements that display hurricane imagery as part of their forms. All three of these types expressed messages about the status of the community, especially its progression toward recovery. During this time, no icon has been more laden with meaning than the "blue tarp."

It probably comes as no surprise that people would make public statements during these sorts of events. In fact, news reports seem to relish the opportunity to capture these signs and broadcast them to the public. In the case of Hurricane Rita, local news coverage made it a point (and continues to do so) to include in their reports the signs people displayed before the storm landed. Scholars, too, have turned their attention to public displays, some similar to these. What scholars claims and what these reporters more than likely intrinsically feel is that these public displays exist as powerful messages to outsiders and insiders, messages that offer an opportunity to express a wide range of ideas and emotions. These signs-sometimes humorous, sometimes serious, sometimes angry-express frustration, hope, community spirit, etc. Ultimately, regardless of the message, the displays become overt pronouncements about the individual, the community, the outside world, and the relationship among all three.

As one might expect, many residents used hand-painted signs to communicate overt statements. Seemingly popular during most hurricanes, some signs taunted, criticized, boasted, and argued with Hurricane Rita directly, existing almost as blasons populaire, or indirectly acting as a community spokesperson. One sign in front of a house read, "We're ready Rita!!" One message painted on the plywood covering the windows of a local bar was "Bartender, Give Me One Rita to Go." Of course, other signs told Rita to go somewhere else or called her a bitch. Some signs warned people of those waiting inside, e.g. "WE KILL LOOTERS NO WARNING." Other signs expressed frustrations and criticism of outside agencies involved in the experience. One sign north of DeQuincy and prominently displayed on Highway 110 simply states "FEMA SUCKS." Though not from Lake Charles, my brother emailed a picture of a message painted on a refrigerator. The subject line read, "Something you can relate to" and the message on the refrigerator read, "Do Not Open! Insurance Adjuster INSIDE." Another example occurring the last week of February is a sign resting against a pile of debris and reading "TOO MANY LAWS." Finally, some signs communicate messages of hope and faith to rally the community. One family whose house was completely destroyed put up this sign: "WE STILL HAVE GOD THAT'S MORE THAN ENOUGH." These obvious statements indicate an awareness of the people in the community and a desire to communicate with them. It is a form of communication to insiders and outsiders; it is intimate and public.

Beyond the expected homemade signs that people continue to use to express their opinions about the hurricane, other public displays have developed surrounding the holidays. Jack Santino's work in this area of folklore is probably the best known. In All Around the Year, Santino contends that holidays "provide us with a national language," which we sometimes use to "communicate with strangers" (34). Santino develops the term "folk assemblage" to refer to outdoor decorative displays involving disparate images and objects that act as statements to the public. He explains that these displays involve not only the holidays and other significant life events but also include objects, icons, and symbols from other aspects of an individual's life. Thus, they exist as powerful expressions of belief and as creative expressions of self. Moreover, I would add that since an individual's display usually connects in some fashion to other displays in the community, individual displays communicate messages to and for the community, messages meant to be received by members of the community and non-members.

In the case of the displays surrounding Hurricane Rita, these signs seemed to communicate two primary messages. First, they express the typical sentiments of each holiday that one would normally expect to witness. Second, they express opinions connected to the hurricane experience, most often an opinion of communal solidarity and reciprocity. For example, displays surrounding Halloween, the first holiday the community experienced after the hurricane, developed around a modified trick-or-treating ritual. Since great amounts of debris (some of it quite dangerous) lined many city streets and filled yards and since some residences were still vacant, city officials decided to ban citywide trick-or-treating. Of course, as is the case in other years, many organizations decided to create their own trick-or-treating venue. One example of this is a trunk-or-treating event held by Trinity Baptist Church, a huge Baptist Church that some years ago decided to fill its parking lot with members' vehicles, cars, trucks, even trailers, that would be decorated and act as "houses" to distribute candy to children as they trick-or-treat from one car to another. These vehicles are often decorated, but this year at least two trucks were decorated with the hurricane in mind. The truck beds were lined with blue tarps, and the sides of the truck were draped with blue paper, poster board with FEMA written on it, and even strings of FEMA streamers. Those distributing candy wore makeshift FEMA shirts. As one might expect, these displays evoked humor from the parents escorting children from one truck to the next, but more importantly, these displays made a complex statement about the communal sharing that is symbolically communicated during Halloween and about the hurricane-related process of receiving aid, an uncomfortable process for people not accustomed to being in that position. By adopting the persona of FEMA, these trucks in the parking lot express the tension or anxiety experienced by residents because of this situation, and in a sense they offer some relief of this anxiety, even if only subconsciously.

In line with the adjustments residents made for Halloween, the celebrations surrounding Thanksgiving and Christmas were altered to account for the challenges of the environment posed after Rita. Approaching these holidays, many families found themselves taxed from the burdens of being displaced and having homes that were either completely unlivable or contained unusable rooms, but still wanting to celebrate holidays or mark the progression of the year. News programs, local papers, and various experts counseled residents through this period, all suggesting a low-keyed approach to this year's holidays. For Thanksgiving, many residents took this advice. People filled the few restaurants that were opened; travel plans were altered. Many of the meals in homes were simplified. By Christmas, however, people were more reticent in foregoing their traditions. Many residents wanted to mark the end of the year and the joy of the holiday season through an expression of their hurricane experiences. The unique bonfires on the Mississippi levee were perhaps the most popular examples. In Lake Charles, many public statements were not as obvious or as well publicized. One jeweler began to advertise a rather large rectangular blue diamond, known as the "blue roof diamond," that would mark the end of an unusual year and celebrate a love that endured this difficult time. Another present idea during the Christmas season involved using FEMA-issued MREs, Red Cross snack packs, or other small hurricane-related products as stocking stuffers. Obviously these humorous presents were meant to alleviate some of the tension arising from a potentially stressful Christmas.

Though these intimate, private presents may offer revealing personal commentary on the community's hurricane experience, public displays occurring during the holidays made overt statements about the community's desire to continue with their traditions. The statements often involved typical Christmas decorations. People would place Christmas decorations despite debris in their yard. Many residents used Christmas lights and tinsel to decorate the stumps in their front yards. One person displayed in a debris-filled yard a purchased sign that spelled out "Happy Holidays" in elegant cursive. During a popular gingerbread house contest sponsored by the Southwest Louisiana Convention and Visitors Bureau, one entry even used a blue tarp to cover the roof of the gingerbread house and included blown down fences and trees. The second public display I noticed was a more radical statement of participation in the Christmas season despite the damage of Rita. Since many residents could not live at their residence, were forced to live in trailers adjacent to their homes, or had rooms in their homes that were unlivable, putting up a Christmas tree in its usual location in the home was impossible. Instead, some residents chose to move the tree to the front lawn or to decorate some of the lawn shrubbery as one would a Christmas tree. Placed in the front yard, these decorations were messages to community. They were pronouncements of faith in the face of what people had experienced and communicated a refusal to let the experience overwhelm the other parts of their lives.

By the time the Mardi Gras season and Mardi Gras day itself arrived, public displays involving aspects of the hurricane experience were well established. As one might expect, Mardi Gras events offered many a traditional and in some sense a very natural, since many often use Mardi Gras as a time of offering social commentary, means of expressing their ideas concerning the hurricane. In the lake area, these public displays primarily occurred in two pre-existing forms, but these forms were modified to reflect the issue at hand. First, public displays that are a part of the celebrations of local Mardi Gras krewes were modified. Second, public displays on parade floats and on parade-goers commented on the hurricane experience. In relation to the first form, a few of the local balls sponsored by krewes involve participants wearing costumes. At these events, attendees, usually organized into groups smaller than the entire krewe, adopt a certain theme and dress accordingly. Often, these themes connect to popular culture or significant contemporary social events. For example, in 2004 many groups decided to celebrate LSU's national championship in football, so they dressed in LSU jerseys, cheerleading outfits, and general LSU merchandise. At this year's ball, many chose to reflect the hurricane experience. At least two groups in one krewe wore costumes commenting on the hurricane experience. One group dressed as the New Orleans Saints, a comment about their impending doom. Another group, led by the owner of a local contracting business, dressed as repairmen. Both of these were comments on how the hurricane not only altered some traditional aspects of life in Louisiana but also the influx of outsiders in the area.

Second, a few displays appeared at local parades. Though the major parades in Lake Charles do not have the tradition of social commentary, especially compared to the Spanish Town parade in Baton Rouge or some other parades around Louisiana, one could notice a few displays during the 2006 Mardi Gras celebrations. In the Lake Charles Merchants' Parade, traditionally the one parade containing the most social commentary, one truck was decorated in Mardi Gras colors with a sign on its front grill. The sign, written in blue letters, made light of the damage caused by Rita and criticized FEMA's intrusion as being more destructive. Another float bore a sign reading "Krewe of DEBRIS," curiously enough an appropriately French-sounding name that fits well with other names of Lake Charles krewes, such as Krewe du Monde, Krewe du Lac, and so on. Finally, several new businesses, many of which are fencing or roofing companies, now occupy once vacant buildings along the parade route, and these new business made a concentrated effort to create displays simultaneously employing Mardi Gras decorations and advertising the new businesses. As with the other holidays, these displayed aligned traditional elements of the holiday, in this case Mardi Gras, with specific aspects of the hurricane experience. While Christmas displays infused beauty into yards full of debris, Mardi Gras poked fun at the situation. Thus, it seems as though all of these holiday displays existed as individually-driven, communally-functioning activities that incorporated the hurricanes into larger aspects the community. The result is an expression of identity reflecting the newly defined relationship between individual members and the community.

The third group of public displays involves works of art and various other products that have been created in response to Rita. First, some residents have incorporated images into their crafts. For example, as a method of expressing the hurricane experience and avoiding more waste, two residents began to use discarded blue tarps to make purses, some carefully made so that when carried by the woman the purse would display the white FEMA letters that had been imprinted on the tarp. Also, many McNeese artists-professors and students-contributed works to an exhibition titled "The Art of Rita Debris." The works included a variety of mediums and spanned various schools, but they all focused on some aspect of the hurricane experience, such as evacuating, returning home, or being kept out of their campus building. Working independently, artists fashioned books out of blue tarps, added pieces of blue tarp into their collages, colored blue roofs in the midst of a black and white image, and included blue as a major color in many of the works. Finally, several advertisements have begun to adopt hurricane imagery. When the product being advertised is the Banners Series (an extensive and immensely successful arts and humanities series sponsored by McNeese State University, the City of Lake Charles, Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities, National Endowment for the Arts, and several local businesses), the incorporation of these images becomes more culturally relevant because they are meant to express the area's response and to resonate with the whole of the community. One of the main portions of the advertising campaign is the annual Banners poster which is mailed to members and displayed around the city. The reverse of the poster outlines the various events of the series, and the poster's front displays a theme for that year. Faced with rescheduling events and being displaced from their usual venue, the Banners committee decided on an image that suggests a road sign. The backdrop is grainy beige meant to resemble the haggard environment. The poster's center is a blue rectangular sign attached to a metal post. The sign reads, "Cultural Evacuation Route," followed by the eye that symbolizes Hurricane Watch, and "Banners 2006."

These public displays, in the variety of forms discussed here, reveal the community's sentiments surrounding the hurricane, including some of the feeling remaining long after the hurricane has gone. Also, these displays provide some indication of how residents have progressed with their lives after the hurricane and, I think, some indication of how this hurricane experience will become part of their family traditions and family saga. For many residents, the blue tarp exists as symbol of the community's collective experience, the widespread damage the hurricane caused, and even the communal rebuilding efforts. The blue tarp could also be a statement about the outside aid residents received and these residents' appreciation and frustration accompanying it. In a sense, the manipulation of the blue tarp symbolically communicates the residents' desire to remain in control and shape the environment, the experience, and the outside influence in the manner they see fit.


As this conclusion is being written, the communities involved observe the six-month anniversary of Hurricane Rita's landfall. And as the people here continue to greet one another and catch up with old (and new) acquaintances, they reestablish their place in and ownership of community and reaffirm their sense of self. In sharing their concerns and frustrations with neighbors or joking with the casual acquaintance, they are able to privately assess their own damage and put it into perspective with that of others, and the exchange offers others the opportunity to do the same. If residents' sense of personal identity has changed (especially if this identity is based on belongings, occupations, a specific area, or community, which may have all been lost) and if their sense of community has changed, they have changed because of the experience residents and communities have shared.

This month, the azaleas are in bloom again, and the springtime weather encourages homeowners to trim trees, clear debris, and make yards and house exteriors beautiful, while the communities of Calcasieu and Cameron parishes continue the process of recreating or redefining themselves. For many, this will be a long process, but much has already been accomplished. In Lake Charles, the blue tarps are slowly disappearing, and in the town of Cameron the first new house (built entirely by local men and with no monies or aid from the government) has appeared. Those who have been affected by the storm seem resolute in regaining some control, and, as greetings and stories are swapped, the news is increasingly good and the tone optimistic, even when individual situations are still depressing. It is clear, however, that the stories that will continue to come from the Hurricane Rita experience will reflect many residents' feelings that, while their communities have been physically damaged, their sense of community has been strengthened.


Blevins, Alison, and Jacob Blevins. Personal interview. 15, Nov. 2005.

Fogleman, Charles W., and Vernon J. Parenton. "Disaster and Aftermath: Selected Aspects of Individual and Group Behavior in Critical Situations." Social Forces 38.2 (1959): 129-135.

Limberis, Nick. Personal interview. 26, Feb. 2006.

Marcantel, Marvin. Personal interview. 26, Feb. 2006.

Santino, Jack. All Around the Year: Holidays and Celebrations in American Life. Urbana and Chicago: U of Illinois P, 1994

Corliss Badeaux, a native of Port Arthur, Texas, is an instructor in the Department of English and Foreign Languages at McNeese State University in Lake Charles. Keagan Lejeune is a folklorist at McNeese State University in the Department of English. Stella Nesanovich is a poet and retired Professor of English from McNeese State University in Lake Charles, Louisiana. Wendy Whelan-Stewart is folklore graduate student at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. This article was originally published in the Louisiana Folklore Miscellany, Volume 16-17 in 2008.