Sunday, September 2, 2012

Suffering in the wake of Isaac--and in the shadow of NOLA

The New York Times has reported several stories in the past several days from rural Mississippi and Louisiana, stories that suggest--or outright assert--that rural communities are struggling mightily in the wake of Hurricane Isaac, but that most of them are garnering little attention because of the focus on New Orleans.

The first story was this one datelined Picayune, Mississippi, population 10,878, and it tells of the storm-related death of 52-year-old Greg Parker, a father and tow truck driver who "lived on a road named after his family."  Parker died Wednesday night after trying to help a stranded driver during the worst part of the storm.  He died when an oak fell on his truck, and he was the only fatality attributed to Hurricane Isaac.  Kim Severson writes in her story:
With nearly every national news organization focused on New Orleans and whether its new levees would hold, the death of Mr. Parker was barely noted. 
But then again, neither was much of what happened to Mississippi during the storm, even though its 26 miles of beach and the network of rivers that flow to the gulf took on a huge amount of water and wind for the nearly two days that Isaac sat over the state. 
It has always been that way when it comes to hurricanes, especially in Katrina's aftermath, people here say.  That storm tore up the state's Gulf Coast, wiping away towns along the beaches and destroying homes deep into Mississippi's southern counties.    
The second story ran on Saturday, focusing on Plaquemines Parish, a long, skinny parish that stretches southeast from New Orleans, with the mighty Mississippi flowing right down its center 'til it spreads out in Delta at the mouth.   Plaquemines is spread over many miles, stretching from Belle Chasse, essentially a suburb of New Orleans, to Venice, a tiny community at the far, watery end of the parish.  The parish's total population is 23,628, but its poverty rate is just 11.6%, low for such a sparsely populated county in the South.  The headline for Campbell Robertson's Saturday story is "In Louisiana, the Water Gives, and Takes Away," and many folks featured in the story are from Venice, population 202, including shrimper Acy Cooper, who has just made his way back in his boat, after the weathering the storm in New Orleans.  He returned to Venice soon after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, sleeping on his boat and eventually bringing his family, too.  They lived there for months without power, and they expect to be without power for sometime again this fall.

Another quintessentially rural voice from Plaquemines is 53-year old Aleen Barthelemy of Phoenix, an unincorporated place not designated by the U.S. Census Bureau.  She waited out the storm in a hotel, planning to return home as soon as possible.  Barthelemy is quoted:
Call me crazy .... I don't want to be nowhere else.  If this happened a hundred times, I'm going to move back a hundred times.
Like her father and grandfather, Barthelemy was born and raised in Plaquemines Parish.
"You know that 40 acres and a mule thing?  That's how that started," she said.  It's country there, slow-paced and familiar, and it is worth the trouble. 
And that speaks volumes about rural people and places, volumes that urban folks often can't understand.

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