It is morning. The woman on the radio said Hurricane Rita passed through in the middle of the night, but it probably does not feel that way to Boogie Augustine, who is drinking Bud Light in his white pickup truck near a gas station off the Interstate. The rain is sheeting sideways and the wind is gusting so hard that it rocks the truck. If you get out of the truck, you can lean into the wind and not fall over when you should, and the rain hurts when it pricks your skin. Boogie knows this because he got out of the truck to look at two gas pumps that had been blown over by the storm. He is wearing red shorts, white sport socks and white running shoes.
Boogie lives in Hackberry, Louisiana, a town near the coast, in a house he built a few years ago. The house backs onto a canal, which eventually connects with the Gulf of Mexico somehow, he can’t quite explain how, but that’s the case.
Yesterday, as weather forecasts on television showed the hurricane moving toward land, Boogie and his wife, daughter and son-in-law drove away from the coast and stayed with family on the other side of the Interstate, where it was safer. When the television said the hurricane had blown through, they decided it was safe to check on their house, so they put some beer in the truck and started driving. Then they saw the toppled gas pumps, so they stopped to look, but now it is time to get going again.
I know this because I am at the gas station, too. I drove here from Houston in a black Jeep with two men: a photographer and another newspaper reporter covering the storm for Canada. Boogie rolled down his window and told me his story as the rain soaked my notebook. Even though I am leaning against his truck, I have to yell so he can hear my questions over the wind. We’re going to check on the house, Boogie says. I ask him what he expects to find. Boogie touches his trimmed white moustache and blinks a few times. This makes me think he is going to cry, but he doesn’t. I don’t know, he says. So anyhow, that’s what we’re going to do, he says.
Boogie puts the truck in gear and pulls onto the two-lane highway in front of the gas station. The power poles next to the road are tilted and some have fallen down. They look like grave markers in an old cemetery. Boogie drives slowly, as if he were in a school zone, and steers his truck around the poles. Another white pickup truck driving the opposite way stops, and the driver lowers his window to talk to Boogie. This man is Kyle Swoop, one of Boogie’s neighbours, and he, too, is trying to get home. He pulls a U-turn and joins our convoy. A few minutes later, another man in another white pickup truck falls into formation; we follow in the Jeep.
Boogie turns right on an unmarked road strewn with broken cedar boughs. I don’t know which direction we are travelling. The sky is grey and I cannot see the sun, but we must be headed south eventually, because Hackberry is closer to the coast than the gas station. There are ranches and farmland on both sides of us, and as we drive closer to the coast, there is more water in the ditches.
Then the trucks stop. Power lines are strung across the entire road, and the men must drive both over and under them to get by. We have no way of knowing whether the wires are still carrying electricity. Boogie pauses for a few seconds, then eases his truck between the wires. The other trucks follow.
We keep driving. The plains on either side of us now are flooded, and the fences are submerged. In one field, horses stand knee-deep in water. One ranch house looks like it is floating on a lake. In front of it, the pointed roof of a gazebo pokes above the waves.
About a kilometre later the trucks stop again because a power pole has fallen across the entire road. The ditches are flooded and the men have no way to get by, or so we in the Jeep assume. But Kyle Swoop hops out of his white truck, pulls a chainsaw out of the back, straddles the pole and saws it into pieces while Boogie and the other man watch. The rain is still sheeting sideways, and Boogie has pulled a hunting jacket over his T-shirt. His legs are still bare. The photographer, the other reporter and I trade cameras and take pictures of each other on the road while we wait and take turns talking to Boogie.
Kyle kicks the cut-up pole into the water one piece at a time, but he does not want to drive on. He hops back in his truck, turns around and heads back toward the Interstate. “Good luck, Boogie!” he hollers out the window. Boogie and his family and the other neighbour continue down the road, and Boogie, the journalists have decided, is the story.
A few kilometres closer to Hackberry, the road disappears under water and Boogie cannot drive any farther. Some of his neighbours, however, are still determined to get home. As Boogie and I stand on the road talking about it, four men pull up in all-terrain vehicles. One is hauling a skiff. They lower the boat into the ditch and jump in. None of the men are wearing life jackets as they motor through flooded fields toward Hackberry.
“That’s it, the party’s over,” Boogie says. “We can’t go through that. We’ll have to try again tomorrow.”
He pulls two more cans of Bud Light out of a cooler in the back of his truck, hops back in the cab and turns the truck around.
As we drive back to Houston, the other reporter tells me that somewhere along the road to Hackberry, Boogie told him he was just a crazy coonass trying to get home. Later I look up the word coonass and learn that it is a derogatory term meaning “ignorant, backwards Cajun,” although some people use it with pride.