Cajuns Put Their Lives on Hold to Help Neighbors Near Abbeville, LA
By Leann Phenix Hebert
How a Central Texas cowgirl ends ups up sleeping a night in a FEMA trailer in Southwest Louisiana is a story into itself, but it's the not the story that needs to be told. The vital story is how countless Cajuns are surviving with no homes, few trailers, little feed for their pets and livestock and dim hope of things improving in the future.
After a nine-hour trek from Bertram, Texas to Abbeville, LA with a 2,000-pound delivery of donated feed and supplies for Vermilion Animal Aid (www.vermillionanimalaid.blogspot.com), a 501-3c nonprofit, I was tired and grateful to have a place to sleep. My Shiloh Shepherd and I tried to get comfortable in one of the few FEMA trailers in the region.
As I was swatting the mammoth mosquitoes that were sharing the trailer with us, I heard a mother coyote howling and barking just outside my trailer door. Her puppies answered her, and I was relieved to hear them. The wild animals are very much present here, hungry but surviving, and so are the people. A handful of Louisianans are making sure those in need in Vermilion Parish don't go hungry, and they are just as protective of their own as the mother coyote is.
Vermilion Parish's Best Friends
I found Vermilion Animal Aid through animal welfare contacts in Austin. In normal times they serve Vermilion Parish, a large costal community west of New Orleans, by housing unwanted animals at their sanctuary and by investigating animal abuse cases.
They now serve as the last thread of hope for the hundreds of people and animals who were thrown into chaos thanks to Hurricane Rita. Daily they care for 2,500 head of cattle, 400 horses, 200 dogs and many cats, sheep, goats and chickens. Beth Trahan, the President of the organization, works side by side with Larry and Joelle Rupert and Brenda Hebert (no known relation to my in-laws).
Flash (the dog) and I drove into Abbeville after dark. We were met by Joelle, a charming example of why I love Cajuns so much. She's a self-pronounced Mother Hen, and her caring nature extended immediately to me.
"Have you had anything to eat?" The first words out of Joelle's mouth made me feel right at home. "How was your trip? Don't worry about anything, we'll take care of you."
I followed Joelle to Brenda Hebert and Cindy Greene's farmstead. Or what was left of it. We all went into Brenda and Cindy's cramped RV where they told me the story of their 18 hours stranded in hell.
The Night of the Flood
Brenda and Cindy told me they stayed in their home for simple reasons. Human reasons. They thought they were not in Rita's path until it was too late to get themselves and their animals out. They had lived through many hurricanes in the past. Mostly, they stayed to be with their animals.
"We fled to our large, heavy tractor when the flood waters got too high in our farm house," Brenda told me. "We were joined there not only by our friend Chip, but by snakes trying to get out of the flood. All of us were in the tractor cab for seven hours, watching helplessly as many of our horses drowned in the flood waters."
One factor made the group even more nervous: Brenda couldn't swim. When the flood waters threatened the tractor, Chip roped Brenda like she was a calf and then he and Cindy pulled Brenda behind them as they swam to reach the rooftop of a nearby house. "We got into the attic alive and even found our dogs swimming in the wreckage. We spent 11 hours or more up there until a rescue helicopter swooped down and the three of us became another image shown over and over on TV," Cindy said.
The Red Cross visited. Apparently they handed out bologna sandwiches and oranges. Then they left. The local authorities donated one item – bales of hay that were so wet that few animals could eat it.
Luckily, Vermilion Animal Aid kicked it into high gear and became one of the parish's bright spots. Brenda and Joelle teamed up to store feed and supplies in a large trailer outside Brenda's RV. Donations come in and are usually dispersed in less than 24 hours. The supply truck stays empty for days on end. Brenda shared with me that she hasn't worked for a paycheck in five months. She has worked all day, every day, to help her neighbors and their animals. She fields as many as 60 calls a day from neighbors looking for help.
How to Help
As I sat alone in the FEMA trailer that night, I felt that humanity failed these people and the ones they love and have a responsibility to care for. Animals depend on us for everything and thousands of pet owners did just what Brenda, Cindy and Joelle did – they stayed put to stare down a Category 4 hurricane in order be there for their animals.
I thought of the homes, fields, fences and lives washed away. But I also had undeniable images of neighbor helping neighbor -- the kind of people who show up on your doorstep as you sift through the devastation of a flood-ravaged home, and they tell you everything will be alright. And then they help you get back to alright.
Be that kind of neighbor. Help Vermilion Animal Aid help those who are struggling to get a foothold towards being okay.
Students, teachers, community and civic groups can all help by raising much needed cash or by purchasing gift cards to nation-wide chains. Farming communities can help the farmers of Vermilion Parish put up thousands of acres of fencing that washed out to sea.
As I was leaving I promised Joelle that I would do anything I could to help people know about their plight. I said I wanted to especially help the animals. She reminded me of this truth: we cannot help the animals until we help the people who care for them.
To help the good people of Abbeville, call Vermilion Animal Aid at (337)893-7388 or visit their web site at www.vermilionanimalaid.org.
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Leann Phenix Hebert lives in Bertram, Texas with her husband on a ranch filled with four rescued dogs, seven donkeys and three horses. Her email address is Leann@Texas.net