They looked into the eye of Hurricane Katrina, and did not blink.
My job took me to lower Plaquemines Parish this week, down a slim finger of developed land on the west bank of the Mississippi River. We drove down Louisiana Highway 23, the single route that will take you all the way to the end of the state, as close as you can get in a car to where the river meets the Gulf of Mexico.
With me was Ken Dugas, Parish Engineer. The sky was clear, the sun bright, the grass and trees full of life. So every few miles, Ken reminded us of the destruction, the death and flooding that had visited upon the people of Plaquemines almost eight months ago.
I had not visited this part of the world much prior to now, so except where I saw piles of debris along the road, I did not know the extent of the damage.
"See those slabs down that street?" Ken would point out, "There used to be 6 or 8 houses there. When the water came through, they were all pushed up against the trees in the back."
I saw lots of FEMA travel trailers. I'm used to seeing them in the heavily damaged areas of New Orleans, parked in front of or next to the gutted houses. Except down there, it was just trailers. I began to realize that the houses were gone--washed or blown away. The violence visited upon Plaquemines far surpassed what we experienced here.
As we drove south, we saw the Mississippi River levee on the left, a long pile of dirt that holds the river in its banks and also keeps hurricane storm surges in check. On the right side, sometimes off in the distance, but sometimes near, is another levee, the "back" levee, that keeps the marsh water, lakes and gulf water at bay.
At least that's the way it works during most hurricanes.
In the early hours of August 29, 2005, the eye of Hurricane Katrina passed over Buras, one of the small bergs along the highway. The counter-clockwise rotation of powerful winds and Katrina's record-breaking storm surge resulted in near total destruction of lower Plaquemines. Wind and debris shredded houses and knocked down radio and cell phone towers. Water rolled up and over both levees: south of Buras, the water rushed over the back levees, while to the north, the Mississippi River flowed unabated into thousands of homes and businesses.
Ken worked through Katrina and has hardly stopped since. He rode an airboat to rescue people, distributed food and water, and worked to get the roads cleared and the water pumped out.
"Over here, we found a dead horse up in a tree," he states matter-of-factly. "See that blue building? That used to be a doctor's office." The building leans heavily to one side, its walls cracked and bent beyond repair. "It used to sit over by those stairs," he notes, pointing at a handicap ramp and steps at least 50 yards away.
Another parish employee told me how he worked during the hurricane. Angelo (I did not get his last name) supervises the operation of the many pumping stations along the slender stripe of inhabited parish. As Katrina approached, Angelo was manning the southern-most station in the system--in the town of Venice, where the boats outnumber the houses.
When wind and tide began to threaten dangerously, Angelo headed north, stopping at each station along the way to dismiss the other pump operators and secure the buildings. He and his men rode out the worst of the storm in Belle Chasse.
For several days, flooding prevented his crew from getting back to their stations. With the many large holes in the levee system, it would have made no difference to run the pumps anyway. But once the breaches were plugged and boats and provisions became available, Angelo and his operators returned to work and began to pump lower Plaquemines dry.
For many days they lived at the pump stations, ate MREs and worked to keep the intakes clear of debris and the pumps turning. After two weeks, most of Plaquemines Parish was dry.
It was right about then Hurricane Rita passed to the west of Plaquemines Parish. When the hastily repaired levees did not hold, they had to pump the parish out all over again.
There's been all kinds of news coverage of New Orleans, and folks in Mississippi have been well compensated for the beating they took from Katrina when that monster came up on their beaches.
But the good people of Plaquemines suffer silently and almost unnoticed. They were pelted by the peak winds of Katrina and washed in water from both the salty gulf and the muddy river. As they struggled to recover from one fight, they took another beating from Rita.
These are the kind of people that build nations. The kind of people who will bury their dead, sweep out their homes (if still there) and go back to work the next day.
Ken and Angelo are just two of the amazingly dedicated, hard-working public servants I met. They did what they did not for fame and glory, not for prestige or money. They did it because it was their job. Period.
To them and to all others like them, I say, thanks for a job well done.