Migration — Abbeville, Beauty and Devastation

Monday, August 04, 2008

Today’s article on the people of New Orleans who have still not recovered from Hurricane Katrina in the NY Times made me reflect on the plight of my own family who survived Rita but still have so little.

These people are my father’s relatives who live in and around Abbeville, Louisiana, a town of about 12,000 halfway between New Orleans and the Texas border. It’s home to the best gumbo, jambalaya, po’ boys and shrimp fettuccine I’ve ever tasted. And they even sell Creole butter in the grocery store. My sister-in-law loves to inject it into her fried turkey.
I didn’t eat crawfish pie in Abbeville, but I did have it in my daddy’s hometown of New Iberia, about 20 miles to the east, where they also make the best hot sauce.
In Abbeville and its surroundings, the rice from the paddies winds up at Riviana, which is sold up here in Yankee territory as River Brand medium grain enriched rice. I much prefer it to the Carolina long grain that my dad insisted on. (He became a rice snob after he met my great-Uncle Frank Chisholm. (See “You Can’t Go Home Again,” Parts I and II). The shorter grains hold the flavor of all those good Creole seasonings much better than Uncle Ben’s.
Sugar from the cane fields may get processed at the Erath Sugar Company or go into Steen’s syrup. It tastes less refined than Karo, more like molasses, but I still prefer our local maple syrup.
Now off the food kick and back to the topic at hand. Abbeville’s signature draw is pretty Magdalen Square, which literally separates church and state, with St. Mary Magdalen Church on one side, and the courthouse on the other.
As pretty as the town center is, poverty lurks everywhere with abandoned store fronts scattered through downtown and boarded up houses half collapsed in many neighborhoods. By one account, the median household income was about $22,000 in 2005, while the median home price was a little less than $55,000.
The town dodged the worst of Katrina, which hit well to the east, but in September 2005 Rita slammed into the Louisiana coastline just west of Vermilion Parish. Eight inches of rainfall, 100-mph winds, and a storm surge from Vermilion Bay combined to drive some 12 feet of water into an area that sits only 18 feet above sea level. Terrific information about Rita and other storms that have hit Louisiana and Texas appears on at NOAA.
Wind made rescue efforts difficult, as these photos attest.
I called my cousin Jay Ardoin, who has lived in Abbeville all her life. She was planning to stay home, but after the water started to rise and the power went out she and the rest of the family spent a couple of nights in the third floor of the courthouse, which sits on (very slightly) higher ground than her house. She stayed calm through the entire ordeal, having survived a great many such storms, though I think none quite so devastating.
The area still hasn’t recovered from the loss of crops and cattle, and I worry about  everyone down there. They live on the edge literally and figuratively. As I write, rain from the outer ring of Edouard is headed toward them.

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