The Good Pirates of the Forgotten Bayous: Fighting to Save a Way of Life in the Wake of Hurricane Katrina

The Good Pirates of the Forgotten Bayous: Fighting to Save a Way of Life in the Wake of Hurricane Katrina

by Ken Wells


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How a plucky coterie of Louisiana shrimp-boat captains faced down the most destructive hurricane in U.S. history—only to realize that the struggle to preserve their centuries-old culture had just begun

With a long and colorful family history of defying storms, the seafaring Robin cousins of St. Bernard Parish, Louisiana, make a fateful decision to ride out Hurricane Katrina on their hand-built fishing boats in a sheltered Civil War–era harbor called Violet Canal.  But when Violet is overrun by killer surges, the Robins must summon all their courage, seamanship, and cunning to save themselves and the scores of others suddenly cast into their care.

In this gripping saga, Louisiana native Ken Wells provides a close-up look at the harrowing experiences in the backwaters of New Orleans during and after Katrina. Focusing on the plight of the intrepid Robin family, whose members trace their local roots to before the American Revolution, Wells recounts the landfall of the storm and the tumultuous seventy-two hours afterward, when the Robins’ beloved bayou country lay catastrophically flooded and all but forgotten by outside authorities as the world focused its attention on New Orleans. Wells follows his characters for more than two years as they strive, amid mind-boggling wreckage and governmental fecklessness, to rebuild their shattered lives. This is a story about the deep longing for home and a proud bayou people’s love of the fertile but imperiled low country that has nourished them.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780300217384
Publisher: Yale University Press
Publication date: 08/25/2015
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 288
Sales rank: 1,256,814
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.20(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Called “the Cajun Carl Hiaasen” by Tom Wolfe, Ken Wells is an editor-at-large for Bloomberg News in New York and a contributor to Bloomberg Businessweek.

Table of Contents

Preface to the Paperback Edition ix

Map of the St. Bernard Parish region xix

Prologue 1

The Storm

A Monster Cometh 11

1 Ricky at the Helm 13

2 Ronald on the Invincible Vance 19

3 Susan Robin Goes for a Drive 26

4 Stormy Traditions 33

5 Cajun-Spanish Roots and Pirate Connections 37

6 Charlo's Dawn 49

7 Matine's Dilemma 56

8 Ricky's Ark 69

9 Charlo Adrift 83

10 The Human Tide 87

11 Charlo in Limbo 97

12 Herbie and Mike's Strange Adventure 101

13 The Long March 108

14 Cruel Tuesday 113

15 A Day of Reckoning 126


16 Nine Days Beyond the Flood 135

17 The Imperfect Storm: Anatomy of a Not Altogether Natural Disaster 146

18 Pioneers in the Rubble 162

19 Dancing with Boats 179

20 A Short Journey of Hope 193

21 Hard Realities of the "Federal Storm" 199

22 The Toll upon the Land: The MR-GO Must Go 208

Epilogue: South Toward Home 217

Notes on Sources 235

Acknowledgments 243

About the Author 245


A conversation with Ken Wells

Q: Unlike other books on Katrina that focus on the destruction of property, your book really is about cultural destruction, isn’t it?

A: My book is about the struggle for survival of Louisiana’s distinct—and irreplaceable—bayou culture and the wetlands ecosystem that has nourished that culture for more than two and a half centuries. This is a place that had sat, pretty much until the post–World War II oil boom, isolated and relatively unchanged for two hundred years.

Q: Tell me a little about the place where the story is set—St. Bernard Parish.

A: In its pristine state, it was a low-country paradise that sprawled with game-rich marshes and primeval cypress forests, and bays and bayous teeming with fish, shrimp, crabs, and oysters. Even today, though its wetlands have been battered by development and industrialization, it supports (or did until Katrina struck) a robust seafood industry and a colony of indigenous, self-taught boatbuilders practicing a level of craftsmanship found in few other places in America.

Q: What about the main character in the book, Ricky Robin?

A: Ricky barely squeaked out of high school, yet as a high school senior he sketched out plans for his 56-foot steel shrimp boat, the Lil’ Rick, on the pavement of a school parking lot with a piece of chalk. With no drafting or engineering training, he welded the boat together by himself in the backyard of his parents’ home, designing and making all the mechanical systems as well (all before he turned twenty years old). By that time, though, he was already a master boat handler and a preternaturally good fisherman who had learned, in his parlance, “to think like a shrimp.”

Q: It is hard to think about a book on Katrina as uplifting, but yours is.

A: I’m writing about a decidedly blue-collar, ruggedly independent people whose decisions to face down Katrina lay in deep cultural anchors. It’s a story of people who—when they realize no one is coming to save them—rise up to save themselves and their neighbors in the face of raw peril and a disaster of unimaginable proportions. Finally, it’s a story about a resilience rooted in an exquisitely deep notion of home, and the tug of home, family, and culture in a place terribly upended.

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