At the End of our Ropes

Unless you’ve spent some time down here on the Gulf Coast, you’re unlikely to really understand the people that live down here. Hard scrabble is way of life. Historically, we’ve had systemic attacks on our people, our culture and our environment. The hostility runs pretty deep down here because the history of maltreatment runs pretty deep. There are several historical events that you really need to understand to understand the people of Southeastern Louisiana and the surrounding areas.

The first historical event to understand is the purposeful flooding of St Bernard Parish, Plaquemines Parish, and the lower ninth ward during the 1927 floods to protect the city’s financiers. These are the same areas that were devastated by the hurricane superhighway MRGO during Hurricane Katrina and the landfall of Hurricane Betsy in 1965.

As the flood approached New Orleans, Louisiana, about 30 tons of dynamite were set off on the levee at Caernarvon, Louisiana and sent 250,000 ft³/s (7,000 m³/s) of water pouring through. This was intended to prevent New Orleans from experiencing serious damage, but flooded much of St. Bernard Parish and all of Plaquemines Parish’s east bank. As it turned out, the destruction of the Caernarvon levee was unnecessary; several major levee breaks well upstream of New Orleans, including one the day after the demolitions, made it impossible for flood waters to seriously threaten the city.

By August 1927, the flood subsided. During the disaster, 700,000 people were displaced, including 330,000 blacks who were moved to 154 relief camps. Over 13,000 evacuees near Greenville, Mississippi, were gathered from area farms and evacuated to the crest of the unbroken Greenville Levee, and stranded there for days without food or clean water, while boats arrived to evacuate white women and children. The Greenville Levee was 8 feet wide and approximately 5 miles long.

The destruction of the levees then is so real to folks that it’s not unusual to hear community memories confuse three events down here of three different generations.  That would be the 1927 flood, Hurricane Betsy, and Hurricanes Katrina/Rita. I remember hearing my then boyfriend (pushing 60 now) who was born and raised here in the ninth ward saying ‘they’ve’ been trying to land grab in the lower nine for ever.  Now, any one that’s crossed the industrial canal can see–post-Hurricane Katrina–that side of the IC is a dead zone and there really are no businesses or thriving neighborhoods any more. (I can see both the levees industrial canal and the Mississippi from my house. I live within blocks of both.) Still, the legends persist during each storm that some one is blowing up the levees.

There is definitely a strong racial memory in this story even though a huge portion of the dislocated folks where actually poor and white.  This is because the treatment of all communities impacted by flooding of those areas was so noticeably different.  The treatment of whites and blacks in the post 1927  flooding event was amazingly different.  The food and housing given to the black community at the time was barely adequate.  There’s a community memory on this that is long-lasting and deep.

A good resource on this even is the book “Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and How It Changed America”.  I also recall seeing a public TV program around the 75th anniversary of the event.  I’ll continue to look for the link. I haven’t found it yet.

Another historical event that you have to consider is the systemic eradication of the Cajun/Creole culture down here when children who spoke French or some form of patois in their homes were basically beaten into using English at their schools. For awhile, Cajun culture was driven back deep into the swamps. Again, I have older friends that can remember these events like they were yesterday. (This would be from around the 1940s and 1950s.) I’d also like to mention that this is not exactly so much a racial eradication as it a cultural or class attack because there is a history of racial mixing down here.  It is not unusual to see folks with European, African, and Native American ancestors that identify with the Cajun or the Creole culture.

Cajuns recount endless stories of how they were prohibited from using French on public school grounds. Apparently the educators used the excuse that the French being spoken in the Cajun homes was an illiterate French. In fact, few of the hundreds of thousands of French-speakers could either read or write the language. The same is true today.

The reason state and parish school systems decided not to build on the French language tradition is not known. Perhaps they decided there was no future in Americans learning to speak a second language. Perhaps they felt they did not have the resources to deal with bilingual education. Perhaps, because of the extremely high rate of illiteracy in Louisiana, they decided their major missionary effort should be directed toward teaching the English language.

In any event, the negative reaction to French in the public education system had its effect, but not the total effect many desired. Students generally held to the no-French rule while on the school grounds, but once home, they returned to their native French tongue as the method of communication. Thus, English became a second, learned language to them, a “foreign” tongue.

Still, the culture down here thrives and we (in the Gulf coast) are now recognized as having created original forms of American Music–jazz, blues, rock and roll, as well as the only premier American cuisine.  We’ve very much developed a “live and  let live” approach to life because if you had a very narrow outlook on life here, there are very few places you can move to and be protected from the ‘other’.

Also, I think because we’ve been highly adaptive over the history of the area just because of the geography. There’s been this idea in government that we’re easy to take advantage of  because we’re ‘simple’ and therefore folks do it. Let’s face it, this is not an easy geography even though food and water are plentiful.  You have to be very inventive just to survive the geology of the place. Again, I know folks around here that grew up with out electricity and running water in some cases because if you live in the middle of a swamp, it’s hard to bring the little necessities of life to you.

I found living in the French Quarter that many tourists come down here and behave unlike they would nearly any place else because they think we’re different down here.  They wouldn’t take a piss on their own homes, but they used to do it on mine all the time. They wouldn’t bare their genitals at home, but they are under the mistaken impression that it’s legal here.  I even see folks openly smoke pot in front of the police because they think we live under different laws. I’ve never seen the press-at-large disabuse them of these ideas.

It’s also hard to explain the impact that both the oil and gas industry as well as the chemical industry has had on the area also.  While our political leaders–world known for their corruptibility–have long seen selling our resources as a way to their personal fortunes as well as jobs for the rest of us, it’s hard to deny that we’ve been taken advantage in every deal.  We even tolerate some of their antics (think former Congressman William Jefferson and Governor Edward Edwins) as long as they let a little of that benefit fall out of their pockets so we can pick it up.  I was amazed at the number of folks that stuck with both of these guys just because they were basically good at bringing home just enough benefits.  Hopefully, you know that the deal that Louisiana gets on its national resources has historically been different then every other state with similar resources.

Still, I have never seen the anger down here as what we’ve seen since the Gulf Oil Spill.  If there ever was a reason to use the phrase ‘straw that broke the camel’s back’, I would say this is it.   It has caused both Donna Brazille and James Carville to openly criticize the President. They know better than any one what folks feel down here after decades of neglect and abuse.

Here’s an example of the response we deserve.  It’s from LBJ’s response to Hurricane Betsy. I know that LBJ was a different kind of man than we usually see in the White House these days, but he really had the right idea.

After the storm passed, Louisiana Senator Russell Long, the son of the legendary Senator and Governor Huey Long, called President Johnson to get the President to tour the devastated areas. In Long’s unique style, he let the LBJ know that the Betsy had severely damaged his own home and had nearly killed his family.

LBJ arrived in New Orleans five hours after talking to Senator Long. Reporters noted that he was shocked by the suffering and in particular by thirst of survivors in one shelter. He immediately announced that the “red tape be cut,” and he took personal control of operations, which he continued—according to the Washington Post—“day and night.”

The community story on this disaster that all the old folks tell around here is how LBJ showed up in the lower ninth ward with a flashlight at one shelter.  He shined it on his face and said something to the effect that I’m your president and I’m in charge.

Notice how different is this story from the Port Potemkin staged visit we saw on Friday?  What type of community memory will this disaster create?

Update: frang at The Seminal provided some of the vital missing links for me that I wanted to make sure I shared with you!!

I think the PBS program that you’re looking for is the “Fatal Flood” episode of the American Experience series. Here’s the link:

The community story about LBJ was related in the book The Tin Roof Blowdown by James Lee Burke who is one of my favorite authors. The story takes place during Katrina and here is the exchange between the main character, Dave Robicheaux and the no-nonsense Helen Soileau:

“What did you think of Lyndon Johnson?” she asked.

“Before or after I got to Vietnam?”

“When Hurricane Betsy hit New Orleans in ‘65, Johnson flew into town and went into a shelter full of people who had been evacuated from Algiers. It was dark inside and people were scared and didn’t now what was going to happen to them. He shined a flashlight in his face and said, ‘My name is Lyndon Baines Johnson. I’m your goddamn president and I’m here to tell you my office and the people of the United States are behind you.’ Not bad, huh?”

One Comment on “At the End of our Ropes”

  1. bayouchild says:

    Thanks for the link. Love your blog.