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The Good Pirates of the Forgotten Bayous

The Good Pirates of the Forgotten Bayous: Fighting to Save a Way of Life in the Wake of Hurricane Katrina

Ken Wells
Copyright Date: 2008
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 272
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  • Book Info
    The Good Pirates of the Forgotten Bayous
    Book Description:

    With a long and colorful family history of defying storms, the seafaring Robin cousins of St. Bernard Parish, Louisiana, make a fateful decision to ride out Hurricane Katrina on their hand-built fishing boats in a sheltered Civil War-era harbor called Violet Canal. But when Violet is overrun by killer surges, the Robins must summon all their courage, seamanship, and cunning to save themselves and the scores of others suddenly cast into their care.

    In this gripping saga, Louisiana native Ken Wells provides a close-up look at the harrowing experiences in the backwaters of New Orleans during and after Katrina. Focusing on the plight of the intrepid Robin family, whose members trace their local roots to before the American Revolution, Wells recounts the landfall of the storm and the tumultuous seventy-two hours afterward, when the Robins' beloved bayou country lay catastrophically flooded and all but forgotten by outside authorities as the world focused its attention on New Orleans. Wells follows his characters for more than two years as they strive, amid mind-boggling wreckage and governmental fecklessness, to rebuild their shattered lives. This is a story about the deep longing for home and a proud bayou people's love of the fertile but imperiled low country that has nourished them.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-15295-1
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Map of the St. Bernard Parish region
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Prologue
    (pp. 1-8)

    On Monday, August 29, 2005, the day that Hurricane Katrina began its assault on the Louisiana and Mississippi Gulf Coast, I was thirteen hundred miles away, looking fitfully out my ninth-floor office window with an unfettered view of the hole in the ground that once was the World Trade Center. That chronically dispiriting sight notwithstanding, it was a pleasant enough morning in lower Manhattan, but it had gone by fidgety. I was a reporter with theWall Street Journaland had spent some of the morning scanning the wire services on my PC for Katrina bulletins—and not only for...


    • A Monster Cometh Official Bulletins from the National Weather Service
      (pp. 11-12)

      A hurricane watch is extended westward to Intracoastal City, Louisiana, and eastward to the Florida-Alabama border. . . . There remains a chance that Katrina could become a Category 5 hurricane before landfall.

      A hurricane warning has been issued for the north central gulf coast . . . including the city of New Orleans and Lake Pontchartrain. . . . Coastal storm surge flooding of fifteen to twenty feet above normal tide levels . . . locally as high as twenty-five feet along with large and dangerous battering waves . . . can be expected near and to the east...

    • 1. Ricky at the Helm
      (pp. 13-18)

      Ricky Robin suddenly has a bad feeling about things.

      It’s well beyond midnight, maybe three in the morning, who knows. Ricky’s lost track of time.

      It’s incorrigibly dark beyond the glare of his generator-powered floodlights mounted above the fore and aft decks of theLil’ Rick, the sturdy fifty-six-foot steel trawler he built with his own hands three decades earlier. The wind has picked up and is bawling like a rabid cat; rain is machine-gunning his wheelhouse windows.

      TheLil’ Rickis beginning to shudder and rock and, worse, tilt.

      It’s not supposed to tilt. Ricky Robin, a seaman all...

    • 2. Ronald on the Invincible Vance
      (pp. 19-25)

      Ronald Robin, Ricky’s older first cousin and best friend, is tethered a few boats west of Ricky’s, on theInvincible Vance, a handsome, broad-keeled fifty-seven-foot boat known hereabout as an oyster lugger. The boat belongs to his eldest son, Van Robin. Ronald’s own boat, the elegant, hand-hewn thirty-eight-footEvening Star, is tied down to a dock on short ropes a few spots away on the south side of Violet Canal. The captains standing at Violet regard each other more or less as family—indeed, many are in fact related, even if only distantly. It’s a small world down here.


    • 3. Susan Robin Goes for a Drive
      (pp. 26-32)

      Susan Robin, Ricky’s wife of thirteen years, has spent a jittery night in her brother’s modest home on Violet Street just two blocks off the Violet Canal and three long blocks from the St. Bernard Highway. She had begun the day in her father’s smaller house two streets away, where she, Ricky, and her two teenage daughters have been staying with her dad, an ailing widower, while they remodel their family home down in Yscloskey. But everyone has gathered at her brother’s now because his house is a bit closer to Violet Canal, where Ricky is standing by with the...

    • 4. Stormy Traditions
      (pp. 33-36)

      If you ask the Robins why they stayed to face Hurricane Katrina—a storm that turned out to be the most destructive and costly natural disaster in U.S. history—they give a lot of stock answers. They didn’t think Katrina was really coming their way; by the time the storm changed tracks and grew dangerous, evacuation was no longer an option; they know and trust their boats and feared losing them if they left them tied unmanned to the docks.

      But the bedrock answer lies in a kind of nonchalance born of long experience, and the power of stories.


    • 5. Cajun-Spanish Roots and Pirate Connections
      (pp. 37-48)

      Gils Robin Jr., Ricky and Ronald’s first known ancestor in Louisiana, is enumerated as an adult in the 1776 Spanish census of this low country, but he almost certainly got here years before then. He wandered into a wild, pristine, and oddly populated paradise. Though of French Acadian stock—Cajun in modern parlance—Gils would soon enough find himself living among Spaniards from a world far flung even from Europe.

      Gils Robin (in the old days, pronounced Roe-BEHN in the French) settled first in neighboring Plaquemines Parish but came to make his permanent home on lands that would become part...

    • 6. Charlo’s Dawn
      (pp. 49-55)

      Charles Inabnet—“Charlo” to his friends—is another man not given much to worrying. But he’s a bit worried now. Dark has long come, the wind is raising an awful racket outside, and he’s alone in his compact three-bedroom wood-frame cottage on the Hopedale Highway. It sits about three miles south of Yscloskey, where Ricky and Ronald Robin grew up, and about twenty miles below Violet Canal, where the Robins are now riding out the storm. Charlo’s power went out three hours before, at 7:50 p.m. He has made a brief excursion outside since then, worried about rising tides from...

    • 7. Matine’s Dilemma
      (pp. 56-68)

      Armantine Marie Verdin, ninety, lives seven miles below Violet Canal with her disabled son Xavier, seventy-one, in a cozy peach-colored house on Bayou Road, just down from the lovely eighteenth-century Bayou Terre-aux-Boeufs Cemetery. Hers is a countrified neighborhood and a countrified existence.

      Her yard holds a garden bearing tomatoes, cucumbers, green beans, and squash that she plants and tends each spring. Wisteria and bougainvillea paint their way up posts and trellises. Hackberry, live oak, magnolia, and even an imported palm tree grace the yard. An old-timey cistern catches rainwater, which Matine, as she is called, still prefers to drink over...

    • 8. Ricky’s Ark
      (pp. 69-82)

      Back near Violet Canal, the scene outside Susan Robin’s rain-streaked van windshield, looking northwest up the St. Bernard Highway, is disturbing to say the least.

      The half-mile-long canopy of stately oaks up ahead is rapidly becoming a tunnel filling with a gathering tidal surge. Giant branches are bending and swaying. Water is also beginning to sheet in higher from the roadside off to her right. The wind continues to buffet the van. Power and phone lines are crackling, snapping, and whipping overhead.

      Any thoughts of getting to shelter in Chalmette have been crushed. But returning to Violet—where clearly a...

    • 9. Charlo Adrift
      (pp. 83-86)

      It takes a while to surface from the dark, briny, tumultuous surge that sucked him under, yet Charles Inabnet finds himself strangely calm. For the moment, he can divine little of his circumstances save the lightening sky, the warm water, the fierce currents dragging him onward. He knows three things: his shoes and shirt have been stripped away, he’s lost his dentures, and he isn’t going to die—at least not immediately.

      The beast that dragged him down has surrendered him back to the surface.

      He starts to pray again, but not for himself. “I knew people were hurting,” he...

    • 10. The Human Tide
      (pp. 87-96)

      “C’mon, get him in here.”

      Back at Violet Canal, Ricky Robin offers his hand to a man named Mellerine, who had been plucked a few minutes before from the roof of his house in the Violet subdivision. He’s now in a small boat, one of several under power and operated by an impromptu navy of volunteers picking their way around the neighborhood. Having saved themselves from the flood, they are now trying to save others.

      Peril awaits the rescuers. Katrina’s gales still whip viciously, the currents are treacherous, and the water is jammed with flotsam. Boats getting hung up in...

    • 11. Charlo in Limbo
      (pp. 97-100)

      Monday afternoon has grown late and Charlo, tethered to his tree, dozes in and out of consciousness. The backside of the storm has come and gone. The winds have dropped and an eerie calm descends. Birds chirp, squawk, and flutter. The sun comes out to dapple the water.

      It would be an otherwise pleasant late afternoon on the bayou—a time of day, with the heat and humidity dropping, that you might boil up a bunch of shrimp or crabs on your butane burner out in the backyard and knock back a few beers—were not the land covered in...

    • 12. Herbie and Mike’s Strange Adventure
      (pp. 101-107)

      The gray floating coffin is an unpleasant surprise. It is riding low, bobbing in the light winds and current, moving slowly across the path of the boat in which Herbie Verdin and his nephew Mike Vetra are easing along. It’s not the only shocking thing they have seen in the short reconnaissance of their stricken neighborhood. There are the dogs curled up in tree branches, too traumatized and afraid to come down.

      Herbie, when he encountered the coffin, had come looking for two specific dogs—black-and-tan coonhounds that he feared had been left behind in a pen by their owners...

    • 13. The Long March
      (pp. 108-112)

      Just after dawn on Tuesday, Charlo Inabnet decides: it’s time to go. If he spends another hour or two atop the container, shirtless and shoeless with no protection from the sun on a morning already growing cruelly hot, he’ll be broiled alive.

      He lets himself down slowly, realizing how much his strength has ebbed, gingerly testing the bottom with his bare feet. His toes find spongy ground; the water comes to about six inches above his knees. It won’t be an easy walk. He intends to head up through Yscloskey, just a couple of miles away, and from there in...

    • 14. Cruel Tuesday
      (pp. 113-125)

      By late Tuesday afternoon, Ricky Robin is aboard a friend’s airboat motoring through the vast, wrecked, debris-choked lake that St. Bernard Parish has become, heading east-southeast for his hometown of Yscloskey sixteen miles away. He’s temporarily left theLil’ Rickand its ever-rotating roster of passengers in the capable hands of his cousin Dwight. His mission: to see how his house in Yscloskey, and that of his parents who live next door, fared in the storm.

      The comings and goings of the citizens’ flotilla at Violet Canal have brought snippets of news from many areas of St. Bernard Parish—all...

    • 15. A Day of Reckoning
      (pp. 126-132)

      It’s Wednesday, early yet, another cloudless day, the sun still tucked down behind distant trees, an ephemeral mist hanging over the water, the temperature tenuously cool on a day that by midmorning will again grow unbearably hot. Ricky Robin rises early from his mattress at Verret and bids his goodbyes to Charlo, Frankie, and Chuckie, who have decided to stick together. Ricky and an acquaintance named Huey, who has also spent the night at the station, find an abandoned motorboat inside the Verret levee and shove off in it. The water inside the protection levee has dropped some, but not...


    • 16. Nine Days Beyond the Flood
      (pp. 135-145)

      It’s Thursday, September 7, another cloudless, hot, and muggy day. I’m driving with my new acquaintance, Ricky Robin, in the Katrina-dented van that saved Susan Robin and her family, through the mud-splattered, wrecked, and by now largely empty and mildewing precincts of St. Bernard Parish.

      We motor slowly past the rows and rows and streets and streets of battered, silent houses with mud caking their lawns, waterlines up to their eaves, and storm drift (and sometimes boats) on their roofs; past fallen trees, upended utility poles, downed power lines lying like uncoiled dead snakes on the shoulder; past cars decorating...

    • 17. The Imperfect Storm: Anatomy of a Not Altogether Natural Disaster
      (pp. 146-161)

      Two days later, I’m driving through the community of Meraux, named for a St. Bernard physician, plantation owner, and sugar baron, in the north central quadrant of St. Bernard Parish. My tour with the Robins had mainly taken me along the west side of the parish, save for our eastern jog along the Florissant Highway into Yscloskey. I’d not seen St. Bernard’s most populated areas: Meraux, and the enclaves of Arabi and Chalmette, which sit just below the Lower Ninth Ward, encompassing the parish’s elongated commercial and industrial heart along a four-lane boulevard known as Judge Perez Drive.

      I’m getting...

    • 18. Pioneers in the Rubble
      (pp. 162-178)

      I lost track of Ricky and Ronald for a few weeks after our tour of St. Bernard, except for a photograph that someone emailed me in mid-September. George W. Bush had paid a visit to the New Orleans region on September 12 and stopped off briefly in St. Bernard Parish. The photograph was of Ricky, in a T-shirt, jeans, and his white shrimper boots, and the president having a chat before Bush hopped back on his presidential helicopter. The president had also stopped in to see Junior Rodriguez, the parish president. Junior is a large, flamboyant man who walks with...

    • 19. Dancing with Boats
      (pp. 179-192)

      Where the Mississippi makes a sharp bend known as the English Turn, State Highway 39 exits St. Bernard Parish and dives, hugging the river, deep into the eastern side of Plaquemines Parish. A few miles in, the road leaves the clutter of development and the land opens up, the high, grassy levees of the river on the right, sprawling farmsteads and fields on the left, broken now and then by woodlands. There are no actual towns here. But the road wanders, curling with the river, through sparse and sometimes faded settlements still clinging to the place names of the grand...

    • 20. A Short Journey of Hope
      (pp. 193-198)

      On a sunny midmorning in early June, more than eight months after Katrina, I drove through the lingeringly bleak streets of the Lower Ninth Ward, where the traffic lights were still out, the potholes were still unfilled, the houses were mostly still abandoned, rotting, and forlorn, and headed down the St. Bernard Highway for Yscloskey. The tableau in St. Bernard was not much cheerier, though there was more life.

      House gutting was in full bloom; pickup trucks stacked with building materials stood in modest lines at reopened gas stations; Family Dollar on the St. Bernard Highway was doing a brisk...

    • 21. Hard Realities of the “Federal Storm”
      (pp. 199-207)

      The journey of the Gonzales house is as close as I can come to finding a happy ending in post-Katrina St. Bernard Parish. The Gonzaleses, when the new year dawned in 2008, were still not moved in. It took about three more months, and another $8,500, to slowly jack the house up to its final elevation more than thirteen feet above the ground, and another month or so to affix it to the steel pilings. But these days the house sits jauntily bolted to its impressive metal stilts, a proud monument to the family’s determination, even obsession, and the generosity...

    • 22. The Toll upon the Land: The MR-GO Must Go
      (pp. 208-216)

      “It’s hard to believe, huh?”

      The speaker is Gatien Livaudais (pronounced GAYshun LIVohday), a St. Bernard landowner from an old-line parish family that had acquired about twelve thousand acres of wetlands in the eastern part of the parish long before the MR-GO. I’m traveling with Gatien and some friends in his sturdy aluminum outboard down Bayou Dupre, the ancient natural waterway whose man-made appendage is Violet Canal. We’ve motored several miles already in the direction of Lake Borgne to the east, traveling through pockets of trashed marsh out of which Katrina took giant bites. As we approach the intersection of...

  7. Epilogue: South Toward Home
    (pp. 217-234)

    Among those who have settled back in St. Bernard Parish are Matine and Neg Verdin. But their adventures, difficulties, and sorrows didn’t end on that day when they left theLil’ Rickand crossed the Mississippi by barge to a seemingly safe haven on the other side. They soon learned that there were no interim shelters on the river’s west bank, much of which was still without power, and they ended up being dropped off, along with scores of other St. Bernard barge people, at a crowded highway overpass near the town of Harvey. They were given what supplies the...

  8. Notes on Sources
    (pp. 235-242)
  9. Acknowledgments
    (pp. 243-244)
  10. About the Author
    (pp. 245-245)