Cajun country, and culture, hit by storms, spill and now flood

Image: Rising Rivers And Tributaries Continue To Flood Southern Communities And Farm Land
Flooding from the Atchafalaya River partially submerges garden flowers and a shed on Wednesday in Simmesport, La. The river has backed up after Mississippi River water was diverted into it via the Morganza Spillway.Mario Tama / Getty Images
/ Source: The Weather Channel

"There's something real down here. People are more in touch with the earth and more in touch with each other," says Cajun and lifelong Louisiana resident Elaine Clement.

Louisiana's Atchafalaya Swamp is at the heart of the Great Flood Disaster of 2011. As homes become flooded and the Mississippi River swells to levels that haven't been observed in decades, all attention turns to the so-called Cajun country.

Cajun country is an area steeped in mystery and magic. Mornings dawn in the swamp with a thick coating of mist on the water. The only sounds you can hear are fish jumping and the occasional hum of a boat engine. It's one of the ultimate places you can reach for isolation and closeness with nature. But now, due to rising flood waters, this way of life could disappear.

"It's just ... different than the rest of the United States," says Clement.

Clement, who grew up in Morgan City and now lives in Lafayette, would know. She has spent most of her life studying the Cajun culture and educating people about it. To her, the survival of the culture comes down to the astounding resiliency of its people. They live every day with the powerful forces of nature and weather.

"We've had hurricanes the past 5 or 6 years, the oil spill last year, now this. There are some places people are starting to leave, but still... it's our home."

Last week, the Army Corps of Engineers was faced with a heart-wrenching decision. It either could save Louisiana's biggest cities or sacrifice one of its greatest treasures: the swamp. In the end, the cities won.

Few know much about the Atchafalaya, which sustains a life cycle both unique and necessary.

  • Largest swamp in U.S.;
  • Includes 8 parishes;
  • Largest city is Morgan City (about 13,000);
  • 30,000 people threatened by ongoing flood;
  • 11,000 homes, buildings could be flooded.

For those who've visited, and certainly for those who live there, the Atchafalaya is mystical.

"I fell in love with the area and people right away. They make you feel instantly at home and like family," said Howard Sappington of The Weather Channel. Sappington traveled to the Atchafalaya Swamp with Jim Cantore to film an episode of "Cantore Stories."

"There’s something magical about being out on the Atchafalaya with the sun setting through those magnificent cypress trees," says Sappington.

Some people live deep in the swamp on houseboats or camps set up on stilts. Others live in the small cities and communities that have popped up on the dry land. They're in a constant battle with the water: building levees, filling sandbags, and hoping to hold back the water.

HENDERSON, LA - MAY 15: Houseboats are secured to a tree due to water rising on the Atchafalaya River on May 15, 2011 in Henderson, Louisiana. Residents of the houseboats expect to evacuate within the next few days. Water is predicted to rise to the flood stage of 27 feet in the area. The Morganza Spillway floodgates were opened for the first time in nearly forty years yesterday to lower the crest of the flooding Mississippi River. Heavy rains have left the ground saturated, rivers swollen, and have caused widespread flooding in Mississippi, Missouri, Illinois, Kentucky, Tennessee, and Arkansas. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)Mario Tama / Getty Images North America

The Atchafalaya is the heartbeat of Cajun society in America. Many people still speak French and they have a patois all of their own.

"They are warm, funny, outdoorsy people that love life and welcome strangers like family," says Sappington. "They are proud of their heritage, food and culture. Almost all of these Cajuns 45 years or older speak fluent French. They like to tell jokes and love for visitors to experience their culture, including their lovable alligators."

Still others head to the Atchafalaya to drop out of society, preferring the mist-covered waters to the daily interaction with people.

"You've got the world here in some ways," says Elaine Clement. "We share each other's cultures. Cajun, French, Quebecois, African, Belgian. It's unique from the rest of America."

It's because of weather, and floods in particular, that the Atchafalaya Swamp and Cajun culture have been able to grow and thrive.

"The reason South Louisiana exists is because of the flooding of the Mississippi River," says Clement. "The levees were put there because of the flooding. That deposited silt and eventually created land that people built their homes and cities on. The flooding essentially built this area. Now with the levees, the oil drilling, the hurricanes, it's hard."

Now, as the floodwaters continue to filter downstream at record levels, residents are really concerned about the strength of the levees. Many of these levees were built by cities, subdivisions and neighbors who are simply trying to fight the powerful force of nature. The only thing keeping the Mississippi River from invading their homes is a dirt dam.

"That's the biggest problem right now. Will the levees hold? It's kind of a test. This is supposedly an historic flood," says Clement.

As the relentless onslaught of the floods continues, it's more than just a swamp that's threatened. One of the many unique cultures that make America a melting pot is in danger.

"We are people that are very conditioned to picking up and moving on," explains Clement. "We thrive in a crisis. It struck me, too, that even during the hurricanes, nobody stayed in the shelters. That's because we took people in. We take of each other."

Why do they stay there when the constant battle with nature seems, ultimately, a losing fight?

"It's home. We love where we live. Does it make it easy? No. But we keep on."