Government Gives Tradition the Go-Ahead: The Atchafalaya Welcome Center's Role in Hurricane Katrina Recovery

By Jocelyn H Donlon and Jon G. Donlon


The assault of Katrina and Rita—if not the biggest, longest, or most deadly catastrophic event in world history—is undeniably the catastrophic event of our lifetime—one which we will spend the rest of our lives trying to understand and recover from. There is no need to catalog the numerous horrifying stories of government failure that followed the wholesale loss of life, the widespread destruction of housing, and the loss of income for many. We have all, by now, heard countless accounts of the failure of government to meet the needs of hurricane victims and to cooperate with civic-minded citizens and businesses. And we have all—at least we're assuming all—felt the indignity associated with such failure.

But in our fieldwork to document hurricane stories, we found a case that made us feel unashamed. This article is to unabashedly celebrate a local example of cooperation between government and citizens which worked not just well, but exceptionally well: The staff at the Butte La Rose Atchafalaya Welcome Center responded to victims of Hurricane Katrina with not only basic necessities but also with grace, generosity, and an organic hospitality embedded in local tradition and shared community values.

When the staff of the Atchafalaya Welcome Center got "the call" and the credit card from Angele Davis, Secretary of Tourism, on the Wednesday after Katrina made landfall, the welcome center began to play quick host to thousands of our tired, our hungry, our own huddled masses yearning to eat and to be clean again.

In her work with the State of Louisiana Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness Emergency Operations Center—otherwise known as "Command Center"—Angele Davis had identified the Atchafalaya Welcome Center—as well as the State welcome center in Alexandria—as being on the path of the exit busses transiting evacuees from New Orleans. Davis' role, as she described it, was to secure transportation for first responders, relief workers and evacuees. She also worked with DOTD to provide logistical assistance in mapping bus routes as they exited the Superdome and Convention Center. Following Davis' directive, the Atchafalaya center did indeed become a very welcome island of brief respite for hurricane victims who were evacuated from the Superdome and the Convention Center. Over the course of three days, the staff and community volunteers fed, clothed, and literally rehumanized more than 100,000 people.

The Atchafalaya Welcome Center is the flagship for a once-planned series of heavily enhanced "portal" rest stops (needless to say, these plans have been delayed by the hurricanes). From its inception, the Atchafalaya Welcome Center has been a community facility. Residents participated in government meetings to help design it, their handiwork is on exhibit there, and they have been an active part of its success by volunteering for events. Because they were already familiar with the welcome center as a community site, they knew exactly where to go when help was needed.

We have had some history with this welcome center. Five years ago, we prepared a cultural inventory of resources to be used in the exhibit area; we sat in on meetings to consult on design and interpretation; we have written educational materials for the Atchafalaya Basin Program tied to a fieldtrip to the welcome center; and we have generally been advocates for its effectiveness. Grounded in our Basin fieldwork, we delivered a paper a few years ago at the Louisiana Folklore Society meeting describing Atchafalaya Basin Houseboat Communities. In it, we explained that "traditional campboat communities in the Atchafalaya Basin developed their own culture and way of life, as well as passing along, generation by generation, a lavish body of technical information about their specialized skills. Fathers, uncles, mothers, aunts and friends taught young people their way of life."

In the instance of the welcome center, it's not necessarily technical minutia of commercial fishing being transmitted from generation to generation, but the shared values and traditions of community and family that were brought to bear. From within the folk group of Acadiana, in general, and of St. Martin Parish, in particular, people came together to serve as hosts—without having to be taught how. To outsiders traumatized by the storm, they extended their sense of community to create a human connection—however short-term it was. We will describe the relief effort and explain how reliance on local community norms created an exemplary achievement in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, traits which remain powerful assets with which to model preferred outcomes in the future.

The title of this article suggests that the people at the Atchafalaya Welcome Center waited for "the call" from Command Center in order to begin responding to hurricane victims. But that's not entirely accurate. If we were to rename the paper today, it might read something like, "Government Gives Tradition the Go-Ahead-For Efforts Already Begun." Angele Davis told us, "The first call I made was around 9:00 at night, and I said, 'You need to get ready for 6:00 tomorrow morning.'" But before Cyndi Bruner-Wilkerson, director of the welcome center, got Davis' call, she was already working with the local network of civic leaders to respond to evacuees traveling in their personal vehicles.

Dona Degatur Richard, Director of the St. Martin Parish Tourism Commission, Tina Begnaud, Director of Breaux Bridge's Chamber of Commerce, and Lt. Nick Breaux with the Sheriff's Department in St. Martin Parish had, even before Katrina, begun to see a need for welcome centers to serve as disaster response facilities with Hurricane Ivan. As Dona Richard puts it:

It started with Ivan, really. Last year, for the evacuation with Hurricane Ivan—that morning when the staff got here, the parking lot was full. It was people that didn't have money for a hotel. The shelters hadn't opened up. Red Cross hadn't opened up. We're below I-10, so they'll probably never open up a Red Cross shelter in St. Martin Parish. Cyndi and I and Marel had talked about how we needed to find a way to feed these people. Cause the people that were here last year—you knew they didn't have money to eat.

The most revealing lines in this narrative are "We're below I-10, so they'll probably never open up a Red Cross shelter in St. Martin Parish" and, "We needed to find a way to feed these people." Together these lines indicate the local ingenuity grounded in a sense of place that, time and again, has characterized our fieldwork in the Basin. Dona recognizes their being situated in a low-lying area, not likely a site for a shelter; and it is the challenges of this low-lying area that have produced generations of people who have thrived through their own ingenuity. When Dona said, "We needed to find a way to feed these people," she was echoing the generations of residents who found a way to survive in this land of make-do. And she was extending the values of community, sharing to those outside her immediate circle. The relief workers seemed to respond to the people coming through in much the same way that we respond to friends in grief: we bring them food and we give them a tissue—or, in this case, a wet wipe.

The collective ingenuity and traditions of sharing informed the Atchafalaya Welcome Center's effort from the outset. On the Tuesday morning following Katrina's landfall, Cyndi began to play the hand she and the others had been dealt. She said:

We actually saw the first passenger car post-evacuees from New Orleans (because the levee broke we now know) early Tuesday morning. We saw people who had barely anything because they fled. People in their own vehicles with pets, children. . . . We also saw the military. It wasn't just people westbound; it was eastbound into New Orleans. Convoys. So we had some stored bottle water, so we started pulling the water out and icing it down and Liney [the groundskeeper] left to go pick up some ice. Someone arrived with cold cuts and cheese. I don't know how that happened. [she says to Dona] Did y'all make those phone calls. . . . And they brought bread. So we started throwing sandwiches together to feed the soldiers, who were so appreciative. So they had MREs which they started sharing with us, when they found out we couldn't find our trailor truckload full. They said, 'We have 120; we'll give you 40.'

And, thus, this organic, home-grown community effort informally began, despite the government's initial failure to deliver the expected MREs. The welcome center became an official, full-fledge state-sanctioned disaster response center on Wednesday, with Angele Davis' call from Command Center, and lasted through the following Sunday, round the clock. In Davis' words, "Many of the people had been without food, clothing, water, for so long that we didn't want to just put them on a bus and send them on multiple-hour trips without giving them the opportunity to get food and get cleaned up." She worked with FEMA and the Office of Homeland Security to get 70 port-o-lets on the ground, to attempt to get MREs there, and to deliver water—lots of water. As Cyndi said, "We had seven trailer truckloads of water, . . . we had little bitty bottles, we had big bottles, we had gallon jugs, we had every kind of water the government could send us."

Because the people running the relief effort are also members of a local community, they knew immediately whom to contact. Early on, Cyndi contacted the owner of Party Central in Lafayette, who set up a 20 x 40 tent with tables and cooling fans. Dona contacted Byron Blanchard, with the Crawfish Festival Association, who provided refrigerators for the kitchen, so that the mountains of home-cooked food delivered by residents could be preserved. But her own words tell a more complete story of community connections:

[Mark Bernard with the Crawfish Festival Association] happened to be off that week on vacation, and he had tried going with a boat to New Orleans, and he couldn't . . . they didn't need him. . . . So I had called him for something else, cause he and I are good friends. So he ended up spending all of his time here. The Crawfish Festival is a very civic-minded organization, so they ended up coming here, too, and those were the people to go to. If you need something, you go to them.

The people at the welcome center knew, already, who to go to for help. But the effort worked because the community—individuals, businesses, civic organizations—also knew to come without being asked. The staff oversaw 300-400 volunteers, including children. As Cyndi said:

We had 10 and 11-year-old children who were energetic. And their parents were so pleased. Because their task was to take large boxes of baby wipes . . . people just love getting a little small bag of baby wipes that they could clean themselves and get the sweat or the dirt off . . . so the children were taking little Ziplocs and boxes of wipes and making little mini wipe-bags. . . . We also had people who donated toys and things. And they would put little groups of things together, sheets of paper and crayons and things, and they would fold it all up and give the children coming through 2 or 3 crayons. . . .

Their willingness to engage the children in the volunteer effort goes a long way in explaining how community traditions and values have been transmitted through the generations.

An understanding of the needs of children and infants was central to the response effort. Paula Leon, a local volunteer, was one of many to help with "the babies." When the "baby section" eventually moved to the porch outside, she was put in charge of it. She told horrific stories of babies showing up in nothing but a Winn Dixie shopping bag, cut with two arm holes. Of babies in shredded blankets. Of babies separated from mothers. Of babies dangling listlessly in the arms of strangers. On the sprawling porch of the welcome center, Paula established a "baby section," where she could clean and re-clothe babies, and wrap them in a newly donated blanket, while the adults with them were able to eat the food provided by the community.

While the government was willing to provide MREs, the community knew that an MRE wasn't enough. People showed up to cook jambalaya on the grounds, they delivered loaves of bread and sandwich meat, and our favorite food story is about the okra donated by "John" at the Wal-Mart in Breaux Bridge; this story is told mostly by Tina Begnaud, with the Breaux Bridge Chamber of Commerce:

You know when St. Bernard came through, it was about 8:00, I guess. We had just finished feeding 3 Greyhound busses, and I was in the kitchen (they didn't really like me in the kitchen, I wasn't in charge of KP), but, well, Ms. Betty would get so nervous that she wouldn't have enough food. And it was like, 'Ms. Betty, it's gonna be fine. Don't worry about it. It's all gonna fall into place.' I said, 'Y'all don't like me to cook, I'm going outside.' So I go out on the porch and I'm drinking me a little bottle of water, because we had so much water, that's all they would let us drink! I'm smoking a cigarette, and I go, 'Oh my God' . . .

DONA: That's not really what you said . . .

TINA: . . . I did, 'Oh no!' There were 17 busses—school busses—coming off the Interstate. I came running in, 'MS BETTYYYYYY!!!' I said, 'Ms. Betty, what we gonna do. There's 17 school busses!' She said, 'You better be lying to me!' I said, 'No, I swear!' You know, they wouldn't believe everything I would tell them. So someone had smothered some okra . . .

NICK says: Wal-Mart sent 2 5-gallon containers of smothered okra.

TINA continues: We put it on the stove, we put it in the pot. Now, granted, if anybody knows someone who has some pots, they could use a set. We had two pots, but it was actually still warm so it worked out alright, and we had some rice and some boudin.

DONA: We come up with some food!

TINA: So it was like the wedding, you know, when the loaves of bread were presented to Jesus and the bottle. Honey, we fed 17 busses with macaroni and cheese, everything we had left in the fridge from that day; we started heating it . . . we served them their rice, their okra, and a little piece of boudin on top. And it was great

PAULA: . . . 'God bless you, God bless you.'

TINA: As they were leaving, I asked one lady, 'How did you enjoy that?' She ended up with a hot dog, I think, because we ended up finding a pack of wiener . . . a pack of wieners and some buns . . . and she said, 'Honey, I ate that like it was a rib-eye and a stuffed baked potato!' And it's like . . . and I don't know that any of us really ate the whole time we were here because it was kind of hard.

This group narrative reveals a whole host of examples of why the Atchafalaya Welcome Center's Katrina response effort worked so well. In the example, we can see the intimate banter and joking that demonstrate how comfortable the people are working together. Throughout the effort, they all kept a sense of humor characteristic of the fun-loving community. Indeed, we were struck with how, despite the horrors of the experience, elements of play and even of festival organizing were incorporated into the relief effort—with tents, tables, cooling, fans, jambalaya pots. We are surprised, really, that there wasn't a band on the porch. We are certain that the collective understanding of play helped them to sustain their efforts.

This example also reveals their local foodways, their ability to throw together a meal from what can be found in the "land of make-do." The ability to make a plate of okra, boudin, and rice sound so appetizing isn't found in just any town. And with the serving of this food there was a characteristic desire to please a guest. Ms. Betty's getting "so nervous that she wouldn't have enough food," reminded us of the time Jocelyn's mother cooked three 16-quart casseroles of cornbread dressing for our family at Thanksgiving, just in case. And when the food was offered—sometimes seeming as miraculous as with the wedding of Canna, as Tina said—it was important to the hosts that the food please the guests—even a simple hot dog. This, to us, is an authentic example of communitarian values of sharing with neighbors, not paternalistic condescension too often associated with some volunteer efforts.

And, indeed, the food was appreciated; the evacuees knew to do their part in being "good guests." Mr. Liney, the groundskeeper, said, "I've never been blessed so many times in my life," and, as the woman in the previous illustration showed, they received hot dogs as though they had been given steak and potatoes. Graciousness was a shared value between many of the hosts and the guests, as was religious faith. Cyndi Wilkerson, at one time, said that they marveled at how, in her words, they had "a direct line to God's switchboard," that no matter what they needed, they were able to get it. (We would say that these workers showed that if God does have a switchboard, it's on the ground, with the people who dial the numbers on earth.)

We wouldn't be doing justice to this discussion if we didn't also say that one reason the effort worked so well was that the people in charge placed being flexible at a high premium. They were willing to "press the envelope" when it came to following rules. Someone's friend who had a daughter who was a nurse offered her help, and thus an unofficial triage area emerged to deal with minor cuts, scrapes, and "that rash" that started showing up. Had the state and federal bureaucracy been half so willing to operate according to their own good sense, perhaps we wouldn't have seen some of the horrors that we did.

And, to be realistic, the relief effort worked because each bus stop was short-term. Had they been forced to shelter all the people they fed for weeks on end, we might have heard a different story. But, as Dona said:

A good analogy . . . I told my mother . . . we're just a band-aid on the bobo. We don't do major surgery here. All we're doing is applying a little band-aid here. That's our job.

Yet and still, it was a very important band-aid, one which was applied with grace, compassion, and even tears. As Lt. Nick said, "I've never cried so many type tears in my life."

Can such an organic model grounded in values and traditions of family and community be replicated? At first, the question seems about as unproductive as Baton Rougeons going to Austin to ask why it's cool and Baton Rouge is not—which some Baton Rouge civic leaders did do. However, at least their going to Austin posed the question. And, in the case of replicating the Atchafalaya Welcome Center's relief effort, while we can't march in and demand that communities possess the shared values and traditions of St. Martin Parish—values and traditions which drove this effort to, as Angele Davis put it, "give back to people who had lost so much"—we can look at some tangibles: gathering necessary supplies, developing lists of contacts, knowing your community assets and traits, communicating with civic leaders, getting the word out to volunteers, preparing food, providing restrooms and cleaning towels. These are all concrete steps that can be taken to prepare for disaster relief. And if other welcome centers can undertake their relief efforts with the competence and compassion that the people of the Atchafalaya Welcome Center did, they will have accomplished something valuable.

We noted at the beginning that this paper would unabashedly celebrate this particular relief effort, and we meant it. By the time Jon and I interviewed the people involved with the Atchafalaya Welcome Center, we had heard so many horrific stories that we wondered what kind of medication we were going to need to see our hurricane stories project through. But after we completed this interview, we felt fortified, and, dare we say it, proud. It has been hard to feel uplifted throughout much of this nightmare. As we all continue to collect hurricane stories, we hope we'll continue to make room for what worked organically, and to envision ways to turn our everyday cultural assets into future policy.

Folklorist Jocelyn Hazelwood Donlon, PhD., and leisure studies researcher Jon Griffin Donlon, PhD., founded and co-direct the Center for Cultural Resources in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. This article was originally published in the Louisiana Folklore Miscellany, , Volume 16-17 in 2008.