The Big One

Five years ago from right now Louisiana was a different state. Not since the Great Flood of 1927 had there been so many refugees encamped on the state’s higher grounds, but back then the refugees were mostly from down the bayou apiece. Five years ago, those seeking sanctity had traveled from Southeast Louisiana, the state’s most populous center. For the most part the state’s cities survived the waters of ’27; in 2005 the world wept at the sight of New Orleans under water.

“THIS IS THE BIG ONE” proclaimed the front-page headline of the Town Talk, Alexandria’s daily newspaper, on Monday, Aug. 29, 2005. A companion Associated Press story had an equally frightening and unfortunately prophetic headline: “Experts expect storm to turn New Orleans into Atlantis.” Another story, which could have also applied to the rest of the state above Interstate 10, said that Central Louisiana had “become refuge for evacuees.”

I was reading the Town Talk that morning because I too was one of the evacuees who had sought refuge, first in Mansura and then Marksville. Most of us thought that we would be away from home for only about three days.

Indeed, by late morning of the 29th, the news was encouraging. The hurricane, as many do when approaching New Orleans, had wobbled off to the right, sparing the city its dead center. Only later in the day came the news that would change our lives forever: The levees had broken. New Orleans would indeed be turned into Atlantis. Our three-day stay would be extended into two months, punctuated by a body blow from Hurricane Rita, which seemed to cruelly want to go where Katrina had not touched.

I always look forward to exploring Louisiana, though not for the reasons that kept me away from home then. What I remember most about those two months was that the weather, except for the days of Rita, was extraordinarily beautiful, as though Katrina had blown all the clouds to Canada. The blue skies made a vibrant background for the cotton fields, which were extraordinary that summer. The fields of Central and North Louisiana were a fluffy white as if it were snowstorms and not hurricanes that had passed. There has not been such a good year for cotton since.

Were it not for the nagging uncertainty about the rest of our lives, rural Louisiana would have been a relaxing place to be those months. I became familiar with all the quirky little roadside restaurants, including a place in Marksville called The Rice Pot.

Laptops came into their own during Katrina, especially among the exiles, though wireless was still in its infancy. The hotel lobby at the Paragon Casino Resort became a place where exiles would crowd, staring at their screens for news, any news.

Mansura, where we first stayed, played an ironic role in our saga. That was the same town to which many of my ancestors had evacuated in ’27. Once more, high waters had driven people to its borders.

Five years later, and life goes on. Farmers have been planting soybeans and corn more than cotton. Folks in some parts of the state have more recent memories of hurricanes Ike and Gustav. There’s a new hotel at the Paragon with an atrium over a pond that includes live alligators. The Rice Pot is no more and has been replaced by an auto detailing shop.

New Orleans is no loner Atlantis and, in some ways, has been on top of the world since the Saints won the Super Bowl.

Autumn is Louisiana is normally a happy time, especially if we can be convinced that “The Big One” is something that is experienced only once in a lifetime.