Vernacular Power: The Social and Cultural Implications of Katrina and Rita

By Barry Jean Ancelet


The effects of Katrina and Rita were terrible. But nature is what it is; it has no evil intent. Contrary to the suggestions of some televangelists, these storms did not represent the wrath of God (Wise 2005). There is also little anyone in government could have done to prevent the damage of such intense winds and tidal surges. The real issue in these cases has been the human response following the natural disasters. As events unfolded following Katrina, it became clear that the institutional response to this catastrophe was woefully inadequate and inept. Governmental agencies at the state and federal levels seemed powerless to generate any momentum in the immediate relief effort (Thomas 2005). Indeed, spokespersons at various levels seem incapable of even understanding or articulating what should be done. Many died not as a result of the storm but as a result of neglect in its aftermath. As Rita approached, the evacuation rate among storm-wary residents of Cameron, Calcasieu and Vermilion Parishes was right at 100%, as much due to the vivid memory of Audrey in 1957 as to the more recent effects of Katrina. There was widespread devastation from winds and storm surge, but virtually no casualties. And the water was salty but not polluted and receded in a timely fashion, allowing the mostly rural residents to return to deal with their own ruined homesteads and businesses in ways and with resources that were remarkably different from those of their urban counterparts.

The national media both exposed important stories and contributed to the catastrophic mess. Overwhelmed with endless interviews, many officials found it difficult to address the problems at hand. More importantly, the endless repetition of two-minute loops of looters and unsubstantiated reports of people shooting at rescue helicopters paralyzed operations. News crews in helicopters showing live shots of people on their roofs waving SOS signs and white shirts asked on the air, "Why is no one coming to get these people?" I found myself asking, "Why don't you stop what you're doing and get them yourselves? You're there." There were examples of newspeople getting involved. One local journalist from Channel 26, the ABC affiliate in New Orleans, doing a report from the I-10/I-610 split stopped what he was doing and ran to the rescue of a man who had driven his car into the deep water covering the highway. Some reporters who made it to the Superdome shared water and food. But as Cliff Deal, a member of the Louisiana Museum task force that went in to assess the damage to the city's dozens of historical and cultural collections, told me, "The news outfits reporting from the areas near the dome and the convention center about the horrible conditions there all had lights, food, water, shelter, and makeup." He described the surreal feeling he got driving along Carondelet Street at speeds up to 50 miles per hour to avoid getting carjacked and coming upon what looked like the concert in the jungle scene from Apocalypse Now on Canal Street.

In contrast, after Rita, Lafayette's ABC and CBS affiliates, as well as Lake Charles' NBC affiliate improvised local solutions in response to the lack of resources. When the storm knocked out main power at all three stations, they stayed on the air using generators and linking with local radio stations to broadcast news reports. Unable to send out reporters to the devastated and flooded areas, they used local residents as reporters, airing email, telephone, and text messages. These reports made for compelling television news. They were also immediately useful for thousands of evacuees who were desperate for any information on their neighborhoods and towns.

In the aftermath of both storms, the Cajuns and Creoles of South Louisiana instinctively reacted the same way they always have, for reasons that have deep roots, including a survival strategy based on social cooperatives - such as barn raisings, community harvests and butchery coops. For example, after Katrina, it was clear from news reports that people were surrounded by water and needed to be rescued. There is a standing armada of small, flat-bottomed boats in Cajun country, where the real measure of success is not the number of cars one owns but the number of trailers. Tuesday when it became clear that the levees had broken, that thousands of people were stranded, and that institutional resources were failing to arrive, a call went out in the Lafayette area for small boat owners to gather at the Acadiana Mall and to convoy to New Orleans to help in the rescue operation. They were told to show up in pairs, preferably with at least one paramedic or other first responder per boat, with lights and ample supplies of gas, water and food.

When they arrived at the I-10/I-610 split, they ran into utter chaos, driven primarily, it seems, by a lack of communication (Thomas 2005). Clearly no one was in charge, but those who were there, including Red Cross and military personnel, city and state police, all told the Cajun flotilla volunteers that they could not go into the water. Reasons varied: it was too dangerous, people were shooting, they might be looters, their boats were too big. Most of the boaters were turned back. A few persisted; the few boats that eventually reached the water did so because their owners succeeded in tricking their way in, including my son François and his friend Marshall who made it into the water by bypassing the authorities along with a group of six other people. They repeatedly refused orders to come out and managed to bring over 400 people out, carrying six with them in their boat and pulling ten more in a flat-bottom they found floating in the flooded waters and commandeered. David Spizale and his son Matthew managed to get into the water as well with the help of a guy dressed in apparent military fatigues with the name Quibodeaux over his pocket. As the volunteers were trying to negotiate their way past the police, Red Cross and FEMA authorities, Quibodeaux appeared seemingly out of nowhere and started barking out orders to make immediate and efficient use of all available manpower. Everyone assumed he was in charge and things got moving. After the boats were in water, he disappeared. No one knew who he was or what authority, if any, he represented. He was seen later jogging down the interstate, apparently to some other location where resources were clogged.

These guys did not go off half-cocked. Their sense of preparedness went beyond even the Boy Scouts. They knew that you don't go out there fragile. They had stocked lots of water, extra gas, snack food, Q beam lights, etc. They were all veterans of many duck hunts at places like Wax Lake Outlet where conditions are as rough as they get. In fact, François compared the two experiences:

It was like hunting the Wax without the right stuff. Every step you take, you get stuck deep in the mud. You work to get that foot loose and the next step is stuck again. You can see where you want to go, but every step takes forever and all your strength. Then we realized we could just drive by the authorities. After that, everything got easier. It was like hunting the Wax with a pirogue. We'd see the flashing blue and red lights or someone with a red cross on his chest and the only question was right or left to get around them. It was the only way we could anything done.

A crawfisherman from Kaplan working with them tested the waters with a paddle as he approached the ramp and dropped his passengers off when they were close enough to wade in so that authorities would not pull his boat out. The rescuers were finally forced to come out when they ran out of gas and FEMA, Red Cross, and law enforcement officials refused to refill their tanks.

After Rita, local television stations ran a crawl requesting small boats to help evacuate flooded areas in southern Vermilion Parish. The crawl had barely finished running across the screen when François was outside hitching up our boat to head out again. I yelled to him from the porch as he was leaving that I bet he would encounter a different reception. He nodded knowingly. Later that day, after pulling people and pets out of Bayou Tigue south of Delcambre, he returned to report a completely different scene. As the boaters arrived at the spot where LA 14 went underwater south of Abbeville, they were given specific destinations rescue sites by sheriff's deputies running the makeshift staging area. In this case, local officials were not paralyzed by fear of looters and shooters driven by a media in a feeding frenzy, or by a lack of communication, and they knew how to use homemade help and exactly where to send it. The flooded highway that was considered a barrier in New Orleans was considered a launching ramp in Vermilion Parish.

Frustrated by the images they saw on television news reports, my wife's cousin, Tim Supple and his brother Robert loaded a truck and a trailer full of food, water and other supplies and headed to New Orleans. They had heard the stories of looting and chaos and were braced for the worst, carrying a pistol and a shotgun just in case. Unable to reach the city via I-10, they detoured onto old U.S. 90. Near Chalmette, he encountered a convoy of medical volunteers from Arkansas who were looking for the town of St. Bernard. (It is a parish.) He directed them to Chalmette, and joined the convoy up to that point. He reported that they were all packing as well. When they moved out, they were told to hold their weapons at the ready in visible positions to deter any possible attempts to hijack them. They met with no resistance while looking for people to help. Instead they saw people walking along the roads waving, some obviously needing help. The group stuck to their plan to get to St. Bernard. The Supple brothers broke off and went across the Crescent City Connection bridge. They eventually drove right up to the Superdome. They asked police officers there if they thought it might cause trouble if they handed out their supplies. The officers said no, so they did. They described the crowd as polite, patient and appreciative, contrary to the impression given by media reports. Tim Supple reported wondering, if they had reached these places, why rescuers could not.

Contemporary stories reminded some of similar situations from earlier storms. As the news media reported that the only building left intact in all of Cameron Parish after Rita was the courthouse, nearly everyone of a certain age remembered that it was the same courthouse that was the only building left intact in the parish after Audrey in 1957 as well. They remembered the similar images of ruined cane crops and the dead cattle and the piles of boats on the road and the buildings found miles from where they had been. They also remembered the more than five hundred drowned residents from Audrey. They remembered so well, in fact, that everyone evacuated this time.

As I spoke to Tim Supple about the apparent need and ability to improvise solutions among all those who had apparently had to trick their way into the city to provide rescue and assistance, he said it reminded him of a family story about what his father and a neighbor from Franklin had done during Audrey in 1957. They flagged down the passenger train in town and told the conductor to wait there until they rounded up the people from town, mostly black, who could not get out on their own to put them on the train. The conductor said he couldn't do that. Mr. Kyle, the neighbor, told him he could and would. The conductor asked what he would do if he didn't wait. Mr. Kyle said, "Well, I'll shoot you and drive the train out myself." The conductor thought about the situation and agreed it was the right thing to do. He asked where he should take the evacuees. Mr. Kyle said, "I would head north. There's a hurricane coming in the gulf." The conductor waited and hundreds were evacuated to safety somewhere near Alexandria, thanks to the willingness and ability of all three men to think and act on the fly, to improvise a solution that wasn't in the handbook.

Seventy-five-year-old Moisy Baudoin sat in the driveway in front of his flooded home in Delcambre telling me about the water coming over the railroad tracks during Rita. He was insistent that this was something no one remembered ever seeing before, including his 87-year-old boss Lane LeBlanc. He did remember taking his small flatbottom boat out south of the tracks as a young man during Audrey to rescue his neighbors who were on their roofs to escape the rising water. There wasn't the media coverage or the satellite reports or the Doplar radars we have today, he explained. People didn't know what was happening. He remembered some asking as he approached their flooded homes, "How high is the water going to go?" He remembered answering, "I don't know, but I'm here for you if you want to come." He remembered that the water eventually receded as quickly as it had risen, leaving his boat aground alongside the road.

A few weeks after Rita, Moisy took me on a tour of south Vermilion, where we saw numerous houses that had been washed off their foundations, rammed into treelines or electrical poles or fences or ditches. The brick home of one of his friends in south Delcambre had been seriously damaged. The entire south wall had been washed out. When we arrived, we found the owner repacking the bearings on his rice cart. He had already got his schoolbus and two tractors running again. He showed us the insurance settlement check he had just received. It was for $1640. He declared, as he put it back into his shirt pocket that he would frame it or flush it before he cashed it.

There were other remarkable stories of hope and human dignity. Robert LeBlanc from Houma made it into the flooded city in his boat to help rescue the stranded and sent a message about his experiences in an email to friends. His stories confirm many of those I have begun to collect. Here is one of them:

We were in motor boats all day ferrying people back and forth approximately a mile and a half each way (from Carrolton down Airline Hwy to the Causeway overpass). Early in the day, we witnessed a black man in a boat with no motor paddling with a piece of lumber. He rescued people in the boat and paddled them to safety (a mile and a half). He then, amidst all of the boats with motors, turned around and paddled back out across the mile and a half stretch to do his part in getting more people out. He refused to give up or occupy any of the motored boat resources because he did not want to slow us down in our efforts. I saw him at about 5:00 p.m., paddling away from the rescue point back out into the neighborhoods with about a half mile until he got to the neighborhood, just two hours before nightfall. I am sure that his trip took at least an hour and a half each trip, and he was going back to get more people knowing that he'd run out of daylight. He did all of this with a two-by-four!

The vernacular response managed to do some good despite being frustrated by the breakdown in the institutional response. It surged instinctively from the Cajun community for reasons that come from deep in our history. The French settlers who became the Acadians learned quickly in their new frontier context to depend only on their own efforts (Brasseaux 1987). They were the first European settlers in the New World to vote, filling what was essentially a power vacuum produced by a lack of seigneurs and governmental authorities. They arrived in what is now Nova Scotia between 1632 and 1642 and already by the 1650 census several heads of household ran the census takers off telling them the information they were seeking was none of their business. With their colony punted back and forth between England and France until 1713, they learned to ignore what colonial authority there was, continuing to trade with New France while under English rule and with New England while under French rule. The Cajuns, heirs of this fierce sense of independence, have continued to depend on their own self-sufficient strategies for survival in Louisiana (Brasseaux 1992, Ancelet et al 1991). A tight social co-op system has enabled them to survive by networking the community's resources. Cooperative boucheries provided fresh meat regularly to community members before refrigeration. Ramasseries gathered community members to bring in a sick neighbor's crop. Barns and houses were often raised by a gathering of neighbors and family members. Benefit dances gathered contributions for those in need. It is this sense of social cooperation that has empowered us to respond in our own terms to these and previous disasters, including Audrey, Betsy, Hilda, Juan, and Lily, as well as the Flood of 1927 and the devastation that followed the Civil War. Even if we have to trick our way in to get around the inertia of institutions and bureaucracies.


Ancelet, Barry Jean, Jay Edwards and Glen Pitre. 1991. Cajun Country. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi.

Ancelet, Jacques François. 2005. Personal interview.

Brasseaux, Carl A. 1987. The Founding of New Acadia. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press.

Baudoin, Moisy. 2005. Personal interview

LeBlanc, Robert. 2005. Personal interview.

Spizale, David. 2005. Personal interview.

Supple, Tim. 2005. Personal interview.

Thomas, Evan, et al. 2005. How Bush Blew It: Bureaucratic timidity. Bad phone lines. And a failure of imagination. Why the government was so slow to respond to catastrophe. Newsweek (September 12):

Wise, Tim. "A God With Whom I am Not Familiar,", Sept. 5, 2005.

Barry Ancelet is a folklorist at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, Department of Modern Languages. This article was originally published in the Louisiana Folklore Miscellany, Volume 16-17 in 2008.