"When you go to Buras, can you check on Andrew Pobrica," a Red Cross volunteer at the Metairie headquarters asked me. "We heard his brother John died a few days ago, and we are concerned about Andrew. Also, John had a pregnant cat. Will you see if she's around?"
Hurricane Katrina came ashore in Buras, Louisiana, with winds of 125 mph winds and a 28-foot storm surge. The small Plaquemines Parish town southeast of New Orleans sits astride Louisiana Highway 11 on the banks of the Mississippi River, as the river flows through the delta toward the Gulf of Mexico.
After the floodwaters receded, John Pobrica returned to Buras and found his house trailer battered and broken. Like so many Katrina survivors he set to work cleaning up and putting his life back together again.
When the American Red Cross set up a Point of Distribution (POD) in nearby Port Sulphur, John stopped by for food, water, ice and supplies because his trailer no longer had utilities.
Red Cross volunteers befriended the older man and sometimes brought him supplies and checked on him. They were deeply saddened when a report came that he had died.
Look for the refrigerator in the tree!
With few street or road signs left, directions to find someone in areas hit by Katrina are by landmarks, not unlike the old green auto travel guides from the early 20th century.
"John lived in a destroyed trailer park south of the Buras water tower," the volunteer said. "Katrina knocked the water tank over so it sits on the ground like a big blue pumpkin. It says ‘Buras’ in large white letters on the side. The trailer park is about half mile south on the right side of old highway 11. A white refrigerator is up in a tree, and three 55-gallon drums and an American flag are out front. You can't miss it." She drew a map to make sure.
"Is it as far south as the dead horse hanging in the tree?" I asked, referring to a now infamous landmark left by Katrina.
“No, that's further south, just north of Boothville."
As photographer Tom Jacobson and I drove south toward the Gulf of Mexico, the damage that Katrina had caused became worse. Houses and trailers were shifted off their foundations or were gone completely. FEMA trailers and private mobile homes sat next to foundations, and FEMA trailer parks were set up were set up as housing for public safety workers or construction workers.
Residents have hung out an American flag to show that they were returning. Flags were everywhere. Here in the delta people live close to the land and to the sea and there is a sizeable fishing community. Locals are mostly Cajun, but Bosnians, Croatians and Vietnamese also live here. All are self-sufficient with a strong sense of family and community.
John’s not dead – you just talked with him!
The directions to John's were perfect. The refrigerator was still in the tree. We pulled in to the lane next to the barrels and the American flag. Broken hulks of mobile homes were spread over the land. Squeezed into a grove of trees next to the road was the battered mobile home where John continued to live while awaiting his FEMA trailer.
An older man greeted us as we drove in. He wore white rubber boots (known locally as Cajun Reeboks), jeans tied at the waist with rope, a gray t-shirt and a red bandana around his neck. He was dirty and sweating from cleaning up storm debris on this warm, sunny day.
I introduced myself and asked, "Is Andrew around? John's brother?"
"Sure is," said the man. "He's right over there, on the other side of the ditch. See him with the straw hat on?"
I thank him and walked over to talk to Andrew. I told him who I was and how sorry we were to hear about his brother John.
"What about my brother?" he asked.
"We heard John died a few days ago. There were a lot of Red Cross people who liked him and they wanted to let you know that they'll miss him."
"My brother isn't dead," he said with a laugh. "That's John over there. You just talked with him."
Feeling a little foolish I followed Andrew back to John. He looked very much alive, and I shook his hand.
"So you're John," I said. "Are you dead? You’ve got a pretty strong grip for a fellow who has kicked the bucket!"
“No, I’m not dead yet,” he grinned. He assured me that as far as he knew he was very much alive.
"I was gone for about three days helping someone clean up their place," he said. "Maybe someone come lookin' for me while I was gone, do you suppose?"
"Maybe," I said.
John and I talked about Katrina, his neighbors and his brother's straw hat.
"You know, that's a woman's hat he's got on," John said. "I never married but he did, and that his wife's hat. He says it keeps the sun off better." He explained that Andrew and wife had been staying in Belle Chase since the storm.
He pointed out his trailer surrounded by storm debris and items he has salvaged. A narrow winding path he has made from flattened tin cans leads to the trailer door. He showed me with pride some of the plants that he is nursing back to health after Katrina.
"That's our new FEMA trailers," John then said, pointing to two white travel trailers across the lane. A crew was connecting one to water and drain lines. "The front one is Andrew’s, and I’ve got the one in the back. We'll be able to move in pretty soon. It has been quite a wait."
I gave John a bag of cat food for his cat. “This is from some of the Red Cross volunteers who asked me to come and check on things. He said the cat, Lucky, was doing fine. "There's a male cat that's been coming around, and we might be having kittens here pretty quick."
At 77, John is determined to rebuild his home and relies on his strong faith in God to help him.
"But I don't go to church much. I can see the Lord in the trees and plants, and I talk to him a lot and it helps through the tough times. When I die, I'm going to be one of the gate keepers at the pearly gates," he said. "You thank those Red Cross ladies for worrying about me, but you tell 'em that I'm fine and to drop in anytime." Then he added, "Would you like some greens, you? I got a batch of fresh greens that are pretty good."
I thanked him and asked in parting; "I’m just curious. How high up is the icebox in the tree?"
"Some folks came here from the university a while back, and they measured it at 18 feet and 3 inches off the ground. We're going to leave it up there awhile. It helps people find us."
"John, thanks for not being dead," I said. "I really enjoyed talking with you."
"Come back, you," he said as we parted. "You really made my day!"