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How’s Bayou? Outwitting Gustav

He was our hurricane.

Madewood post-Gustav

Make no mistake: Katrina caused great inconvenience in Napoleonville — conveniently remote at seventy-two miles northwest of New Orleans. We lost power at Madewood for fourteen hours that blustery end-of-August Sunday night, and most visitors for more than a year, but Katrina wreaked no havoc anywhere near us.

Rita, blustering in less than two weeks later, blew down a tree that needed to go anyway. The bride who had scheduled her wedding at Madewood the following weekend decided she didn’t really want to get married anyway, but forgot to inform two guests, Mrs. George and a neighbor, “Miss Noon.”

It turned out to be a beautiful day; and I invited the two ladies, distressed and angry that they’d come all that way for nothing, in for tea and cookies in the parlor.

Eyeing the contents, Mrs. George slyly enquired, “You married?”

“Yes,” I replied, “unfortunately,” playing along with her game.

“Can we poison her?” she carefully enunciated as her eyes narrowed. “I could get used to this.”

For weeks after Katrina and Rita, we hosted family, business and personal friends, and government workers from FEMA, GSA and other alphabet agencies — well into November. But mostly we put on Katrina baby fat as we sat around and waited to return to the Crescent City.

Gustav was another matter, our come-uppance.

Millie and I were almost packed for Machu Picchu and the Galapagos Islands that last weekend of August, 2008, when we heard that Gustav was headed toward Louisiana. We moved our scheduled Tuesday flight out to Atlanta, first to Monday, then abandoned it and booked the last two seats out of New Orleans on Sunday. TSA staff and Air Marshals waved us through security with our sandwiches and bottled water as MSY went into lockdown.

We figured Gustav would fizzle, and we could carry on to South America; if not, we could cool our heels at the ATL concourse hotel and watch planes take off and land until it was safe to return and deal with disaster.

The first clue to our future travel plans came when Millie texted a friend, a Katrina refugee at Madewood who had decided to flee New Orleans for the perceived safety of Madewood, a tranquil haven from prior storms.

“Can’t respond now. Roof peeling off. Must go help.”

We started searching furiously for news of when MSY would reopen, stunned that the storm had shifted and passed almost directly over our National Historic Landmark abode.

Text messages kept popping up: “Moving bedroom furniture where water coming through ceiling.” ” Kitchen window out.” ” Another tree down.” Gloria, our housekeeper in New Orleans, and her son Ryan, initially excited about seeing Madewood for the first time, huddled together in the dark while Gloria fretted that she’d left her Rosary beads at home as winds howled and things went crash in the dark.

We began receiving cell-phone photos of antique canopied beds swathed in black visqueen and fallen trees that had missed outbuildings by mere inches.

Machu Picchu and the Galapagos Islands would have to wait. We flew home.

As I drove up to the house on Thursday, I couldn’t believe that the skyscraping pine on the front lawn had been uprooted, its tip missing the elaborate entrance gate by less than a foot. “Thank God,” I thought. “If it had fallen in the other direction, it would be sitting at the dining room table.”

All the evacuees had left, swearing to check a storm’s projected path more closely before linking their fate to Madewood. I began to hear some of the personal stories, one of which resonated for weeks.

A couple from Thibodaux, barely more than half an hour down the bayou, had fled to Madewood and camped out in the Honeymoon Suite with their star-quality, beloved and amazingly fluffy cat. As the winds roared overhead, they cracked open one of the floor-to-ceiling shutters to take a peak. Bam! The shutters flew open like something from Psycho, and in a flash, the cat was gone,apparently forever.

They offered exotic treats to anyone who would crawl under Madewood to search for the cat. They had better luck convincing resident animal lovers to wander through the cane fields calling the cat’s name. Days later, the posters went up.

Enter a famous pet psychic from California — of course, whom the family had hired to discern where the fabulous feline might be found. Put a cage in the cane fields with food in it, the psychic advised over the phone, sure of the cat’s location nearby.

Sure enough, the cage door dropped down on cue, the cat lingered over its favorite treats inside, and The New York Times wrote it all up, to everyone’s delight.

We spent the next three months with roving machines pulverizing huge tree trunks; staff restoring order to rooms in the Charlet House, an 1822 riverboat captain’s house on the grounds that suffered the most damage; and roofers rappelling up and down the sides of buildings with stacks of shingles under their arms.

We celebrated when all the repairs were complete — then the water started dripping through seams where old roof met new in the Charlet House whenever it rained. It would be weeks before the roofers could return to seal the deal — but, thank God, guests had booked some of the rooms.

While stocking up on more cleaning supplies at the new Dollar General store, my eye caught the remnants of the summer clearance sale. Six small, brilliantly-hued plastic wading pools. Waterproof. Twelve inches deep. Rain coming through the roof. The answer!

We huffed, and we puffed, till all six were fully inflated, and placed them in strategic spots in the attic, where they remain today, dry as a bone, but poised and ready for the next fateful storm.

It’s an ill wind that blows no good, I thought, from Gustav to the air in our lungs. And if the Charlet House attic looks like a remote corner of a Toys ‘R’ Us warehouse, so be it. We’re good for the next wind that huffs, and puffs as it struggles to blow our house down.


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