Saturday, March 14, 2009

PORT BON TEMPS by Billie Louise Jones

Port Bon Temps hung on to land’s end below New Orleans. Crushed cars were packed into the edge of the land to shore it up. There used to be a beach, but the tide ate it. There used to be marshes along the Gulf, but salt water had dried them up; the marshes began back from the town. Port Bon Temps, not a resort town, lived from the Gulf. There was an oilrig on the edge of the Continental Shelf, professional fishing boats tied up at the long docks, and a plant that processed shrimp, crab, and oysters. The people were mostly Cajun or Vietnamese.

Yvonne Laborde heard the Weather Channel giving an update on Hurricane Katrina and, carrying the baby, Aimée, went back to the TV. This time of year she kept the TV on, always, for the weather. She was a petite, dark woman with an anxious line between her eyebrows. Katrina had hit Florida and was gathering her strength in the Gulf, getting ready to move on Louisiana and Mississippi. It was Thursday, August 25, 2005.

Yvonne felt a terrible dread: She is bad, her.

Yvonne went out on the porch. The house was raised fifteen feet above sea level on steel stilts; the porch wrapped all around and the French windows had storm shutters. Hot winds from the Gulf slapped waves over the docks and into the road that ran along the waterfront.

She knew the feel of a tropical storm in the air. On the ground, Matt and Brittanie, ten and eight, threw balls for their big puppy, Loup Garou, half shepherd, half everything else. Yvonne leaned over the rail and called them to come up.

Their dark heads came up out of the hole cut in the front room floor for the stairs from outside. “Cher papa home soon, soon,” she told them.

They understood and grinned.

“Big storm!” Matt said cheerfully.

“We light candles,” Brittanie added. “Sing in the dark. We need more Cokes and candy!”

“We pack,” Yvonne said.

Bon Temps Platform was the biggest offshore rig in the region. It stood in 2,000 feet of seawater. Its concrete and steel legs were rooted 600 feet below the seabed. Its airgap was 55 feet, the distance between the surface of the sea and the lower deck; it could withstand a wave that high. Its topsides rose 90 feet above its bottom deck.

Two weeks on, two weeks off. The men on the platform, expecting to evacuate, went on about their work in the meantime. They watched Katrina’s parade as part of the job. Never any wishful thinking that maybe a storm would not be all that bad. Not a word of bravado. They had nothing to prove. They respected danger. The nature of the work required them to function through fear: extracting a highly volatile substance under extreme pressure in an environment where they were not meant to be. There was no margin for error.

The call came to close off the wells on Friday, August 26. Katrina was expected to hit land early Monday. Close enough.

Jack and Yvonne Laborde looked at each other and needed hardly a word to agree that they should not ride this one out.

Jack was a man of the wetlands, a dark Cajun with a long nose and thin lips. The minute he got home from Bon Temps Platform and he saw her packing clothes, water, and food, he closed the storm shutters and dragged sandbags to the doors.

She held up the albums of family pictures. They looked at each other. No need to say anything; he nodded and she packed them. He got the cardboard box where he stored their documents. He moved as much as he could up to the second floor. It was not likely that Katrina would send waves higher than fifteen feet at them, but it was better to make sure nothing of value was on the floor.

He loaded all he could get into the bed of his Ford longbody pickup and fastened the camper shell on. He stacked his Ithaca shotgun and Remington rifle in the gun rack and put his Glock under the driver’s seat. Yvonne put her pretty bone-handled Colt in the outside zip pocket of her diaper bag.

Matt and Brittanie and Loup Garou chased each other through the house. Aimée, already in her car seat, picked up the excitement.

On the way out of Port Bon Temps, Jack stopped the truck several times to pass a few words with friends about evacuating or riding out the storm.

Daniel and Emilie Breaux, Yvonne’s parents, lived by the fringes of the swamp. Narrow back roads paved with crushed oyster shells ran alongside earthwork levees and slow bayous; cypress trees trailed Spanish moss to the ground. Winds whipped the moss like pennants. Daniel and Emilie were already going down the steps with their arms open before Jack pulled the truck up in the yard.

Yvonne hugged them before she let the children grab their attention and spoke in French. “Papa, Mama, pack up quick, quick, and come.”

“Emilie, put on the coffee. What is this rush, rush? You live by the city now?”

Yvonne did not let them draw her into the house. They would not listen to her. They hadn’t followed the storm news because back by the swamp, TV reception came and went.

Jack said, “The Katrina is bad, her. Get in the car and follow me to my brother in Crowley.”

“Convoy!” Matt tugged his grandfather’s arm.

“We refugee once,” Daniel said and turned his mouth down. “We sat in a church basement for days. Hot like goddamn.”

“The stink. The dirt.” Emilie’s fingers expressed disgust. “And nothing happened.” She waved her hands at their intact house.

Daniel slapped the porch rail. “This house, she is indestructible. Yes!”

The Labordes would not stay for coffee, for supper, for anything.

Jack said, “We got to get by New Orleans. Think about the hurricane rolling up a gridlock.”

“Draw plenty of water,” Yvonne said. “At least, go to town for more food and insulin.”

Daniel shrugged away her concern. “The check, it comes on the first. Everything blows over by then.”

“The water will stand,” Jack said, “for a long time.”

Yvonne cried while she got the children settled in the truck. She did not look back.

Late in the day, Saturday, August 27. Three lanes of traffic moved by starts and stops away from New Orleans on I-10. The other side was almost empty.

When something up the road stopped everything, Yvonne said, “Why don’t they let people out on both sides?”

“This ain’t an official evacuation. Maybe they think it won’t be so bad.”

Yvonne punched the Breux number on her cell phone. No connection.

The truck radio said that Katrina was sustaining winds of 160 miles per hour.

Monday, August 29. Waiting for the hurricane, Yvonne could not sleep. In the dark hours of morning, she heard rain strike the tin roof. Storm winds tried the roof and shutters and howled around the house. Katrina began abruptly; her sounds were like a solid wall, no ebb and flow. Beside Yvonne, Jack was asleep, though restless, in the spare room of his brother’s house.

Yvonne reached for her housecoat and went barefooted to the front room. She sat on the floor in front of the TV and turned the sound on low. A satellite picture showed the entire hurricane. Katrina blew herself inland. Her center was so strong that the winds and rain whipping around her giant edges were more than a thunderstorm and lashed Crowley, in Acadia Parish, west of Baton Rouge, and reached higher up the state. Some crazy reporters were still in New Orleans and Biloxi. Rain dashed their cameras; the raindrops on the images gave Yvonne a feeling of looking through the TV like a window, into the actual storm. From what she saw, she knew how it was with Port Bon Temps and Bon Temps Platform and the Breux place.

Jack dropped down beside her and held her close. Jack’s brother, Ed, could not sleep well either and came out to the TV.

Yvonne tried to call her parents. The line was dead.

“Power lines down already,” Ed said. He worked for the power company. “I’ll be busy, me, for a long time. A long time – here, maybe there.”

The TV repeated old news that an evacuation from New Orleans had finally been ordered Sunday and that the Superdome sheltered those who could not get out.

“They only talk New Orleans on the TV,” Yvonne said. “What about us? People live all along the Coast and back in the parishes.”

“The TV can’t get back there,” Jack said. “The roads flooded already.”

Yvonne recognized reason, but she did not feel reasonable.


Emilie did not know anymore how many days had passed on the roof after the hurricane. There was only the heat and thirst, the steaminess and fumes of the floodwater. The asphalt shingles scorched through their clothes.

Daniel and Emilie had laughed when they talked about telling Yvonne how foresighted they were. They carried water, food, candles, and medicine up to the attic in plastic grocery sacks. They made a pallet up there. Daniel made sure the trap door to the roof worked; he put it in after he’d had to chop a hole in the roof during a flood some time ago. They climbed down the ladder from the attic. Though they would sleep on the pallet, there was no need to move into the attic. They turned the TV on to zigzagging reception. Daniel played his accordion, and Emilie sang.

The Katrina was a monster on TV, stretching from one end of the Gulf to the other. The light went out, the TV went out. Emilie started to climb the ladder while Daniel held the hurricane lantern high.

The flood hit with so much power that it broke the door in half. The water came up so fast, so fast, they were wet before they got to the attic. Daniel’s glasses fell off, and the water tore the ladder out of his hands before he could pull it up. The water seeped into the attic. Emilie grabbed the sheet off the pallet and bundled the grocery sacks into it. There was an old bureau in the attic to get on. The water came up several feet. Daniel waded into it to get their plastic water jugs. They looked up at the trap door to the roof. The hurricane wanted to peel the roof off; she was so fierce, that one, it would be death to go out to her. Le bon dieu, don’t let the water get higher.

When the storm stopped, the water was up to their waists where they sat on the bureau.

Crawling onto the roof, Emilie lost her glasses. She reached for them, but then the bundle came loose and spilled things. She saw only treetops and brown water that looked strangely thick. Things floated in the water, but she could not make out what they were.

Daniel’s hands were shaking, so she gave him his insulin. She could not find his heart pills in the bundle. The can opener was gone, but she used Daniel’s belt knife to pry open cans of tuna and beans.

The floodwater did not go down.

Their water ran out. They drank a can of DelMonte stewed tomatoes.

If rescue did not come soon, they would have to drink the floodwater and trust to medicine later.

They got so tired they passed into sleep on their precarious perch.

Emilie felt the sun hot on her face. Her skin burned.


She touched him. He was dead. She stretched out beside him.

“Hail Mary, full of Grace. Be with us now and in the hour of our death.”

Holding Daniel, she pushed off the roof.


September 8. Thursday.

“Don’t look in the water,” Mike Mayeux warned them.

Jack and Yvonne could not get news of her parents. The phone and power lines were down and the roads flooded. They could not get back to Port Bon Temps even by sea because the docks were broken up. A wall of water twenty-nine feet high had surged over the Coast. The TV news showed them only one glimpse from a helicopter: clouds of black smoke billowing out of the processing plant, on fire in the midst of standing flood water. Most of the Coast was still too torn and shattered for rescue teams to go in. No one knew how many people lived back in the coastal parishes and where they were.

“They only talk New Orleans,” Yvonne said bitterly. “Let them send cameras by us.”

Jack did not try to reason with her.

Bon Temps Platform was hit by ninety-foot waves. It stood, but no one knew how much damage there was to the pipes on the seabed. Jack could not work until an underwater repair crew got down there.

He called around to the men on the drilling crew. Most had people they could not locate. Mike Mayeux joined a rescue team, out of a town as far south as the road went anymore. He took his flatbottom boat to places that would be hidden from a helicopter flying over.

Men in the crew helped each other. Jack and Yvonne drove through sopping wet country to find him. The team was an improvised group of volunteers with some Coast Guard liaison, working out of a school cafeteria. So far, no one had worked anywhere near the Breux place.

Yvonne heard a man say, “Ain’t no one alive back there. You got to keep hope, yes, but when the water comes in that fast and that high….”

Mike was willing to take a calculated risk, but only so far as it was calculated. Jack understood. Yvonne would go with them; no discussion; she was controlled beyond tears.

“We got to sleep on the boat coming and going,” Mike warned her. “Days, days, I can’t guess how long.”

Tight-lipped, she nodded.

“Rowboats, flatbottom boats, canoes, pontoons, pirogues, but not motors.” Mike explained, “Not to stir up the waters.”

They loaded the boat with canned beans and meat, water and mosquito spray, rifles for protection. They wore rubber hip boots and life vests. At night, Mike tied the flatbottom boat to a tree and stretched mosquito netting across it.

The water was brown and murky, except for floating oil slicks with a purplish green sheen. The current was slow, stagnant. The smell was not like anything they knew. It was so hot and humid the air felt sticky. The boat slid out into an eerie silence, no sound but the oars in the water. Yvonne realized: no gulls, no pelicans. There were no power poles standing. They glided by treetops, slowly, Mike taking care not to snag on submerged trees. The trees….they looked wrong, Yvonne thought. It came to her that the trees were bare; the storm had stripped off their veils of Spanish moss; some places, shredded plastic hung in the branches. Dead rats and debris floated; roofs crumpled like old paper; furniture; garbage bags; fallen trees and toys; a refrigerator with magnets stuck on the door.

Something bumped the boat. A young woman, either bloated or pregnant. Mike pushed the body away with an oar. Yvonne did not look in the water again.

They paddled down the main streets of parish towns, a few store tops above the water, wreckage a danger below.

“Where are the looters?” Jack cracked.

“People lost their initiative,” Mike hooted.

Yvonne knew the grisly humor of men who worked with danger.

People on housetops called to them. Mike rowed up to them. “I call for help.” He held up a battery-powered unit. They always tried to get him to take the children. It hurt to leave them behind.

A helicopter hovered low over a roof with a family on it. The rescue worker came down the cable with no sign of hesitation in his body.

“Coast Guard,” Mike said.

“Great guys,” Jack said.

Yvonne knew the laconic respect of men who lived with danger for other men who lived with danger.

Further south, the damage was worse. They passed empty stilts standing up in the water like ruined temples of old.

They came to a house that had been torn up and wedged into a grove of treetops. Yvonne recognized the red roof and gingerbread trim, a neighbor’s house. They called out; no answer.

They paddled the flatbottom boat over what would be the bayou, levee, and road leading to the Breux place. Water was up to the eaves. The roof was half-peeled but still on. Mike tied the boat up. Jack crawled onto the roof. The two men helped Yvonne up.

She inched carefully to the trap door and looked down. She straightened up and shook her head.

The men looked into standing water almost up to the ceiling.

“Now I know, me,” Yvonne said. She would not cry until they were back in Crowley, when it would be all over.

“They say another one comes.” Mike put much meaning in the simple statement.

Yvonne nodded. “We go now.”

Jack held her. “I do the rescue with Mike until the Platform calls us.”

Yvonne expected no less. “It is the right thing to do, cher.”


PORT BON TEMPS earned an Honorable Mention in the 2008 Competition.


Billie Louise Jones was born in Louisiana, raised in Texas, and has lived in a number of places. She began writing at age twelve, originally wanting to be an historical novelist. She has been published in Phoebe, The New Orleans Review, Struggle, Primavera, South Dakota Review, Dan River Anthology, Northwoods Anthology, Palo Alto Review, Under Hwy 99, The Storyteller, The Long Story, and Elderhostel's Anniversary Odyssey Anthology. Billie Louise Jones currently lives in Arkansas, where the directions to her home include "turn off the paved road."