As The Mississippi Flood Threatens Louisiana, An Internet-Era Thoreau Bids Farewell To His House On The Atchafalaya
"They say the water is coming," Jim Delahoussaye wrote on his blog early this week. "They have exploded the levees in Missouri to save Cairo from drowning. They say for us to prepare for the worst flooding since 1973, or even 1927."
Delahoussaye (rhymes with "who say") is a biologist and anthropologist in his early 70s who lives 200 feet from the Atchafalaya (rhymes with "jambalaya"), a river in Louisiana's Cajun country. His back window gets a lot of use. On his blog -- which reads a little like what another nature-lover with a French surname might have written if there'd been Wi-Fi service on Walden Pond -- he offers a running commentary on the daily dramas that play out on the stretch of river just beyond his backyard.
Most years, these dramas are of a magnitude that allows him to safely escape harassment from reporters for national publications.
"I see a great egret flying by, and a great blue heron, and a cormorant," he wrote in one of his early posts. "Ray Bauer came by this afternoon to collect shrimp from the traps in the river." Another time he wrote, "[t]here is a strange thing happening (or not) with the frogs."
This year, though, there is strange thing happening with the river itself, and if the floodwaters that sloshed through Cairo and Vicksburg earlier this week come crashing down the Atchafalaya –- an official "if" that most locals here seem to be interpreting as a "when" –- Delahoussaye's back window will offer a view of one of the bigger dramas in the country.
Only, Delahoussaye won't be there to watch it.
"We're packing everything today and moving everything out," he said by phone today. "We now we think we know the maximum extension of the water, and it's enough to put the levels of the gauges that we go by at 29 feet. That puts it within a foot of our back porch and too close for us to take a chance that it might not reach inside the house."
He was looking at the river through the window as he spoke.
"I'm watching big trees and things float down it," he said. "I could put a catfish line in my backyard and catch catfish where last week I mowed grass."
Delahoussaye's town, to the extent that it can be called a town, is called Butte La Rose. A couple days ago a reporter from CNN went down there and noted –- how could he not? -– that the town's 800 or so homes were called "camps" and that these camps have "funny names like Timbuktu, Abracadabra, and Bahama Mama's." A couple days from now, most of those camps will be abandoned.
The city sits about 50 miles south of the Morganza Spillway, a structure built to channel floodwaters away from the Mississippi and New Orleans, and if authorities open the spillway on Saturday night –- another "if" that's likely a "when" -– there will probably be a lot more catfish in Butte La Rose than people.
It's not just Butte La Rose that would be affected. About 50 miles further downstream is Morgan City, a town of 12,000 people. Morgan City has a levee system, but whether it stands up to the test of this historic flood is a question that has yet to be answered.
"We're all nervous," said Father Bill Rogalla, the pastor of two churches just outside Morgan City. "We're not so much worried about the initial water coming in, but what we're worried about is back-flooding and how long it's going to take for the water to drain out. They're telling us it could be all the way until the middle of July."
Rogalla didn't think there was that much that could be done in the way of preparation, though.
"There's only so much you can move," he said. "The sacramental records, I definitely would take those with me, and backups for the computers and Our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament -- that's primary. If we take that and we get flooded, we can still write checks and get things going again."
Back in Butte La Rose, Delahoussaye and his wife Carolyn and a few of their friends were packing boxes with books and clothes and labeling them and taping them up and getting ready to haul them off to a storage center. One of the friends helping out was Edward Couvillier, an 82-year-old native of the Atchafalaya swamplands who took exception to being called a catfisherman.
"I did a little bit of everything," he said. "I fished catfish, I fished crabs, I fished crawfish." Asked if Couvillier had any advice for people living along the river today, he said, "If you get water in your house, you just have to repair it. That's it."
Delahoussaye and Couvillier met decades ago, when the anthropologist embarked on a study of a community of people who lived on the river and survived by catching catfish.
"They were English, they were French, they were Spanish, they were Italian and all these languages were mixed," he said. "The one thing they shared was they were all houseboat dwellers for at least three generations. That's just awesomely fascinating you know."
Delahoussaye lived with them for ten years.
"They taught me what I could learn," he said.
Did they teach him anything about dealing with floods?
"They cope," Delahoussaye said. "It doesn't matter what you throw at them. They simply hitch up their britches."
*This piece was amended to fix the name of Morgan City.