Don't let the wave upon wave of Hurricane Katrina literature discourage you from picking up The Good Pirates of the Forgotten Bayous. It offers a harrowing account of the storm hitting St. Bernard Parish, and besides covering the devastation, it digs into the roots of the people and communities on the coast that were exposed to the raw fury of the storm surge. Good Pirates reads like a Louisiana cultural study filled with local color and dialect. It is both a dignified testament to the spirit of the people of lower St. Bernard Parish and Louisiana's bayou country, and a solid historical journey through the area's past.
Ken Wells is a Bayou Black native and was a reporter for The Wall Street Journal at the time of the storm. Hours after Katrina's landfall, he rushed back to his Louisiana home to cover unfolding events. Though initially stationed in Baton Rouge, Wells was quickly lured to St. Bernard Parish, where there were early but unconfirmed stories of catastrophic flooding and trapped citizens. After reporting on the storm and its immediate aftermath, he took a three-month leave of absence to stay in New Orleans and work on the book.
Wells begins his account of the storm on the deck of Ricky Robin's shrimp boat, Lil' Rick, on the eve of the hurricane's landfall with the storm lurching at the coastline. Robin is the descendant of a long line of seamen, and he proudly traces his heritage to the first settlers of St. Bernard, including a possible relation to the pirate Jean Lafitte. Robin chose to stay on his boat for the storm, which sets the stage for several interconnected stories, as the Lil' Rick becomes a makeshift shelter for a cast of residents. Among them were Charlo Inabet, 90-year-old Matine Verdin and her disabled son Neg.
The flooding of St. Bernard Parish happened rapidly; by 11 a.m. Aug. 29, 95 percent of it was under water. Roadways became rivers as Robin's panicked wife drove a minivan towards the levee. Matine and her son escaped their home by floating on a couch. 'A river is suddenly running through the house," writes Wells, and readers feel what it's like to be in Matine's living room, watching her shoes float by. Inabet was washed from the second-floor roof of a friend's fishing camp. Ricky desperately tried to keep his boat from sinking.
The first part of the book, titled 'The Storm," is a series of personal narratives and firsthand accounts told to Wells by Robin and other St. Bernard residents. The result is a chronology of the devastation along Bayou La Loutre in Yscloskey, Hopedale and other areas of lower St. Bernard. He also offers a cultural journey through the area and its settlement by the French, Cajuns and Spanish, particularly the Isleños people.
Part two, 'The Aftermath," covers a range of stories of personal happiness and sadness as well as economic and environmental issues. Intertwined with homecoming stories are Wells' own experiences. He's also a talented reporter and ably digs into the political and economic development that affected coastal erosion and the disappearance of natural storm protection. He asks pointedly, 'Did this really have to happen?" He says the reason for the erosion of the Louisiana estuary, from St. Bernard Parish to the Texas border was 'for the purposes of oil and gas exploration."
After leaving Bayou Black in his twenties, Wells watched the abuses of coastal Louisiana from a distance. In his own displacement, however intentional, he is able to understand the pain he describes, and it shines through. In his own description of his book he says: 'It is a story about the longing for home, and the determination of a proud bayou people to reclaim, against formidable obstacles, a sense of home in a place where the world has been forever rearranged."