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Blog #21 - The Accounts of my death have been greatly exaggerated

February 23, 2006

”When you go to Buras, be sure and check in on Andrew,” Debra at the Metairie Red Cross headquarters said. “His brother John died three days ago, and we are concerned about how Andrew is doing. Also, John had a cat and I’m worried about her. Can you check on that too?”

Hurricane Katrina came ashore at Buras as a Category 4 hurricane with winds of 125 mph. Buras is a small Plaquemines Parish town southeast of New Orleans, and it was hit very hard by Katrina.

It sits astride Louisiana Highway 23 on the banks of the Mississippi River, as the river flows through the delta on its way to the Gulf of Mexico. The further south you go the narrower the delta gets and the levees on either side get closer and closer together.

”How will I find the place?” I asked. With few street or road signs left, directions to find someone in areas hardest hit by Katrina are like the old green auto travel guides from the turn of the century – “…turn left at the big oak tree just down from the farm stand, then turn right at the third black cow…”

”Andrew lives in a destroyed trailer park south of the Buras water tower. John lived there with him in one of the trailers,” she told me. “Katrina knocked the water tower over so it is sits on the ground like a big blue pumpkin. It says ‘Buras’ in large white letters on the side, so you won’t have any problems finding it. The trailer park is about ½ mile south on the west side of Highway 23. There is a white refrigerator up in a tree, three 55-gallon drums and an American flag in front of their place. Look for the trashed trailers. You can’t miss it!” Debra drew a map for me to make sure.

”Is it as far south as the dead horse hanging in the tree?” I asked, referring to a now infamous landmark left by Katrina.

”No, the horse is further south, just north of Boothville.”

Cajun Country

As Tom and I drove further and further south toward the Gulf of Mexico the hurricane damage became worse. Houses and trailers were shifted off their foundations or were gone completely. FEMA trailers and private mobile homes sat next to cement pads and foundations, and here and there were trailer parks of little FEMA trailers set up to provide housing for public safety workers or construction workers. People hung out an American flag to show that they were returning, and there were flags everywhere!

All the way south cars and debris were neatly stacked next to the road for pickup. House debris was often cleaned up and woods and fields were bulldozed of trees and hurricane detritus. The countryside on either side of the road had the raw look of freshly worked land, but it was clean and fresh as well. Here and there houses were under repair, and some new construction had begun. The destruction was terrible, but Plaquemines is coming back!

Here in the delta people live close to the land and the sea and there is a sizeable fishing community. Natives are Cajun, but there are Bosnians, Croatians and Vietnamese living here as well. They are self sufficient and there is a strong sense of family and community. When Katrina hit a 28 foot storm surge at Baras breached the levees in 3 places and overtopped them in several other places. Up to 12 feet of water was trapped behind the parallel levees for nearly 6 weeks until it could be pumped out. What homes were not blown away by the hurricane were flooded by storm surge waters. Neighbors went from house to house in their boats and helped each other evacuate to places of refuge. They asked little from government and did what they have always done – look out for one another.

John and Andrew’s home

Our directions to Andrew’s home were perfect. The refrigerator was still up in the tree. We pulled in to Pobrica Lane next to the barrels and the American flag to a scene of destruction. Where there had once been a trailer park now the broken hulks of house trailers were spread over the land. Squeezed into a grove of trees next to the road was a trailer listing to one side. This is the trailer that John had lived in, as best he could, while waiting for his FEMA trailer to be delivered and set up.

According to the information we were given, John had been an elderly man and was found dead in his trailer.

A man saw us drive in and came over to greet us. He wore white rubber boots, blue jeans and a t-shirt. He had been cleaning up storm debris and was dirty and sweating on this warm, sunny day.

I introduced myself and asked “Is Andrew around today? John’s brother?”

”Sure is,” said the man. “He’s right over there, on the other side of the ditch. See him with the straw hat on?”

I thank him and walked to the head of the ditch and then over to talk to Andrew. I told him who I was and how sorry we were to hear about his brother John.

”What about my brother?” he asked.

”I understand that your brother John died a few days ago. There were a lot of Red Cross people who liked him and they wanted to let you know that they will miss him.”

”My brother John isn’t dead,” he said with a smile on his face. Pointing back across the ditch to where our car was parked he continued “That’s John over there. You just talked with him!”

Feeling a little foolish I followed Andrew across a plank over the ditch and went back to John. He looked very much alive, and I shook his hand. “So you’re John,” I said. “I heard that you were dead, but that’s a pretty strong grip for a fellow who has kicked the bucket!”

He gave me a big grin and assured me that, “No”, as far as he knew he was very much alive. “I was gone for about three days helping someone clean up their place,” he said. “Maybe someone come lookin’ for me while I was gone, do you suppose?”

”Maybe,” I said.

He pointed out the trailer where he has been living. The trailer is surrounded by storm debris and items that he has salvaged and piled here and there. There is a narrow winding path to the trailer door that he has made from flattened tin can tops.

”That’s my new FEMA trailer,” John said. A crew had backed a white travel trailer into an empty spot nearby and was busy connecting it to water and drain lines. “I’ll be able to move in today or tomorrow. It has been quite a wait.”

John and I had a lively discussion about Katrina, his neighbors and his brother’s straw hat. “You know, that’s a woman’s hat he’s got on his head,” John said. “I never married but he did, and that his wife’s hat. He says it keeps the sun off better.”

John is 77 years old and a strong believer in God, “but I don’t go to church much. I can see the Lord in the trees and grass, and I talk to him a lot. When I die, I’m going to be one of the gate keepers at the pearly gates.”

”Maybe I’ll see you up there,” I said. “Make sure you give me a good report so’s I can get in if you get there first.”

”Sure thing,” John said with another big grin. “Say, would you like some greens? I got a batch of fresh greens that are pretty good.”

”I’m a little dirty right now from working, but it’s pretty warm out today and I’ll be able to take a sponge bath and look a little more presentable.”

”You look fine to me,” I said. “With your new trailer you’ll have a shower and running water and everything. It’ll be right up-town!”

John told me that the cat, Lucky, was doing fine but he thought that it might be pregnant. “There’s a male cat that has been coming around, and we might be having kittens here pretty quick.”

”Only one last question,” I said, getting into our car. “How high is the icebox up the tree?”

”Some folks came here from the university a while back, and they measured it at 18 feet and 3 inches. We’re going to leave it up there for awhile. It helps people find us.”

”Thanks for coming, you” he said as we parted. “You have really made my day!”

”John, thanks for not being dead,” I said. “I really enjoyed talking with you.”