Down on the Bayou

The lucky escape of one Louisiana parish.

The other day I drove south to Bayou Lafourche—a part of the Lafourche parish * that is as close to the Gulf of Mexico as you can get without a police escort or a boat—to see the effects of Katrina. While not the humanitarian tragedy that is New Orleans, Bayou Lafourche, which lies directly south of the city, was still hit hard and resources were taxed. As of Thursday, the power was out at all of the houses along the major road that runs through the bayou, but it wasn’t out at all the homes. The boats docked in the bayou were all lit up, drawing juice from generators. If seen from the air at night, these lights would have traced the exact path of the waterway, which was once the Mississippi before the river changed course.

This piece of information was offered to me by my hosts of the evening, Mark Bourg and Ronnie Thibodaux. They also offered me cold water from the fridge (I accepted) and a place to spend the night (I politely declined). I’m not sure whose boat we were on—such was the communal feeling among the men and their families. The kids huddled under a blanket on the sofa while the grown ups watched CNN and drank beer. Thibodaux, bearded and stocky, spoke with an accent that made “hard ” sound like “howed.” He described a bayou lifestyle that included all the typical Cajun passions: hunting, fishing, and spiced crawfish. A growling purple and yellow tiger, the symbol of LSU’s Bayou Bengals, stuck to the microwave.

Bourg, about 15 years younger than Thibodaux, could have been his offensive linemate. He talked wistfully about how he had been prevented from taking his son to the same places he’d gone with his father to hunt and fish, due to land loss that had reshaped the swamp. Thibodaux has been witnessing the effects of such erosion for years: Whenever he took out his bay boat, its GPS device (purchased in 2000) would tell him that the expanse of water in front of him was an island or some other land mass.

Thibodaux grabbed an old receipt from the desk drawer and began sketching New Orleans as a bowl nestled between Lake Pontchartrain and the Mississippi. It was the low-tech but no less effective version of the computer model I had already seen a dozen times on CNN. Then Bourg noted that down on the bayou, they faced the same situation. They were surrounded by water on two sides. If not for locks and floodgates, the community would have been as underwater as New Orleans.

Bourg, who serves on the North Lafourche Levee District, told me that their monetary needs were smaller than those of New Orleans, but that over the years they obtained the money to fortify the locks and gates. As a result, the houses along the Bayou were still standing. So here I stood, on a safe house boat, in the company of men who were experts in flooding and storm preparedness. The most striking realization was that the only reason I was there at all—to bask in their prudence and drink their cold water—was random chance.

These men made the decision to leave the bayou before the storm hit; Bourg went to Baton Rouge and Thibodaux went to the town that bears his family’s name. Only after the storm blew through did they return to their well-stocked houseboat. Bourg said that if the storm had changed course just a little, the citizens of Lafourche who failed to evacuate would be underwater right now. Bourg says his bayou’s system is a model studied by other communities as the ideal, but still, they are not designed to hold up to any hurricane beyond a category 3. Here, on this houseboat, we could marvel at how nature could overcome even the best preparation. In New Orleans, they despaired at what nature could do to the worst.

Correction, Sept. 8, 2005: An earlier version of this piece mistakenly referred to Bayou Lafourche as a town. In fact, Bayou Lafourche is a bayou in the parish of Lafourche. Return to the corrected section.