US & Canada

Viewpoint: How Hurricanes Katrina, Gustav and Isaac changed Louisiana

A satellite image of Tropical Storm Isaac
Image caption Tropical Storm Isaac, shown here, gained hurricane strength as it approached New Orleans

As Hurricane Isaac hits Louisiana, Rod Dreher recalls how storms have shaped his state's identity.

If you're reading this, well, good for you. I'm probably not reading it, because I almost certainly have lost electric power by now. Hurricane Isaac is passing overhead with the mass and menace of the Imperial Starcruiser in the opening scene of Star Wars. Help me, Johnnie Walker Red, you're my only hope!

I kid. I kid because as I write this, hours before the first rain bands from Isaac make landfall here in south Louisiana, I'm fairly anxious, and could use a drink.

I moved away from this state 20 years ago, so it has been many years since I've had to prepare for a hurricane. It's no fun.

On this very night seven years ago, I went upstairs at my Dallas home and prayed hard for New Orleans as Hurricane Katrina bore down on the city.

Nearly four years later to the day, I was covering the Republican Party convention in Minnesota, but could hardly focus on the politics for worrying about what Hurricane Gustav was doing to my friends and family back in Louisiana.

Now I'm back where I grew up, about two hours north-west of New Orleans, and am startled to see people taking hurricanes far more seriously than they did when I was younger. Katrina and Gustav changed them - some for the better.

Small town survival

On Monday, I looked in on my doctor, Tim Lindsey. He and his staff were working to see as many patients as they could before the storm hit. In the summer of 2005, Tim moved back to this, his hometown, and started his medical practice.

A few weeks later, Katrina tore through New Orleans. A call went out for all available doctors to report to a field hospital in Baton Rouge, where the sick and the wounded from devastated New Orleans were being taken.

Doctors there were forced by circumstance to perform surgeries on a basketball arena floor. Tim saw people more needy and desperate than he ever imagined.

Some of them made their way up Highway 61 to our village of 1,700.

Image caption Hurricane Gustav delivered more damage to the state of Louisiana in 2008

"They'd lost everything," he told me. "And our little town stepped up."

Churches, local government, businesses, banks - nearly everyone opened their wallets to the Katrina refugees. Many local people also opened their homes. Tim and his medical partner, Dr Chaillie Daniel, treated anyone who came to their clinic, not knowing if they would ever be paid.

The Katrina experience confirmed Tim in his decision to be a doctor and to practise medicine in a small town. He learned that sometimes, it takes a whole community to heal the broken and the broken-hearted.

Three years later, Gustav struck. New Orleans was largely spared, but the Baton Rouge area suffered greatly. The rural community where my Louisiana family lives was without power for nearly two weeks, an eternity in the sweltering, humid, mosquito-ridden Louisiana summer.

And yet, their suffering brought a lovely epiphany to my relatives and their neighbours. People came together to help one another. The men picked up their chainsaws and cleared the roads of fallen trees. Families pooled their resources, and made long trips into the next state for ice, fuel and supplies.

At night, they would all gather outside on a back porch by the glow of a barbecue grill, a large fan turning the muggy air and blowing mosquitoes away. They would grill meat and drink cold beer from the cooler. They would talk until late in the evening.

"To tell you the truth, I was sort of sad to see the lights come back on," my sister told me after it ended. "It was so great to be together like that, every night. And now everybody's going to go back to their TVs and their normal lives."

Which they did, but they did not forget their duty to each other.

A hurricane homecoming

On Monday, my father and a neighbour came into town with an extra portable generator for my family and me. Later, he and another neighbour rolled up with six empty fuel cans.

I rode with them in my dad's pick-up truck to the gas station, and paid for the petrol that filled them all.

It was the least I could do, given how much I have forgotten about the practicalities of country life in the years I've been away.

Image caption Hurricane Katrina stuck seven years ago this week

But it was something. It doesn't matter to these country people what you give. Only that you do.

Now, as you read this, the hurricane is upon us. Forecasters say it will rain hard for three days; there will be terrible flooding in places. We will have tropical storm winds for 24 hours and the threat of tornadoes. We may lose power for weeks.

But come what may, we will all be in it together. The storm will give us opportunities to sacrifice for each other, and even for strangers who show up on our doorsteps.

There can be blessing in brokenness, if you know how to look for it.

And if we families, friends, and neighbours find ourselves in the days to come sitting together around the fire cooking meat and telling stories to ward off the weariness, the drear, and the black of night, well, what could be more ancient and human than that?

Rod Dreher writes from St. Francisville, Louisiana, and blogs at The American Conservative's website.