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Fighting to Save a Way of Life in the Wake of Hurricane Katrina

by Ken Wells

Pub Date: Sept. 1st, 2008
ISBN: 978-0-300-12152-0
Publisher: Yale Univ.

Vivid re-creation of Hurricane Katrina’s devastating impact on an unusual fishing community outside New Orleans.

A Louisiana native, Condé Nast Portfolio senior editor Wells (Crawfish Mountain, 2007, etc.) spent several months interviewing shrimp- and oyster-boat captains and other hurricane survivors in St. Bernard Parish (pop. 67,000), a former pirate haven whose gumbo of cultures has given rise to a distinctive way of life. Unlike their sophisticated big-city neighbors, these Louisiana bayou residents have for generations led lives centered on “sin, cooking, drinking, eating, fighting, fishing, sex, and love,” he writes; they build boats in the backyards of their shotgun shacks and mobile homes, and hang out in saloons like the Bucket of Blood. For many, riding out hurricanes was a family tradition, but nothing prepared them for Katrina, which in 2005 leveled most of the parish and claimed 132 lives, 35 of them at a nursing home that failed to evacuate. Fifty-one-year-old shrimper Ricky Robin, grand-nephew of a swashbuckling New Orleans swordsman, and others in the Robin family stand center stage in this well-written survival saga. Wells begins with the struggle to secure fishing trawlers in the Violet Canal during the storm’s early surges; recounts the perilous experiences of people stranded in trees, lofts and cars amid rising waters; and describes many heroic rescues made by boat captains in the four days before military help arrived. He nicely captures the flavor and color of the moment, from Ricky playing “When the Saints Go Marching In” on his trumpet on the deck of his vessel to calm 45 rescued people, to two weary, storm-tossed survivors, meeting for the first time after separate exhausting ordeals, laughingly swapping survival stories. The author unabashedly celebrates the courage and pride of people in this “forgotten backwater” when faced with the hurricane’s onslaught. By 2007, the parish had regained about half of its pre-Katrina population, with most residents living in trailers and modular housing.

A heartfelt tribute to badly battered folks whose “gritty blue-collar pluck,” declares Wells, may yet save their bayou way of life.