Mee New was crying. Crying hard, because that's what big, fuzzy cats do when they've climbed up to the top shelf in the garage, and the water is rising, and there are only a few inches of air between the wet stuff and the ceiling.
But Cajun-named Mee New might just as well have been crying for Intracoastal City. This city way down at the end of the Vermilion River is where the United States' health supplements come from, where men with rough hands and chipped fingernails snare the oily fish that are ground up to extract omega-3 fatty acids. But it's not really a city anymore, this place at the mushy underside of Louisiana, where land meets open water. It's a lake. The water is up over the stop signs, and six-foot fences have disappeared under floodwaters moving so fast and choppily that they look like ocean currents.
The only people who can get here are the sturdiest of sorts, a small armada of Cajuns with pretty French names and sunburned skin and don't-mess-with-me bravado. The bayous were full of them Saturday, gliding high and quick in airboats, and so was the Vermilion River, where they were spinning steering wheels on fast Boston Whalers and kicking up wakes in flat-bottomed, aluminum boats. They did not wait for the president or FEMA or anyone else to tell them that there were people out there -- out there and desperate, on rooftops -- or that there were dogs paddling hard or that someone had to save Mee New.
"I got out of the sheriff's office in about 20 seconds," said Steve Artee, as his son, Chris, made a hard, boat-tilting turn on the swollen Vermilion. "They just took my cell phone number, and I was gone. That's because Kathleen Blanco wasn't involved."
Artee yanked 10 people to safety Saturday, making trip after trip down the Vermilion River, which had jumped its banks and, for a time, had become a north-flowing river instead of a south-flowing one because of the awesome force of Hurricane Rita's storm surge into Vermilion Bay. Artee's disdain for the bureaucracy back at the state Capitol in Baton Rouge, the administration of Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco (D) that was so heavily criticized for its response to Hurricane Katrina, is endemic here.
Haste made Artee a lifesaver. He found one family in an attic, where they sat on a pile of three mattresses. Another family was stranded in a broken-down old boat, drifting in the Vermilion, with no supplies. Deep in Bayou Country, it is the guys like Artee in the camouflage hip-waders and the men in the white shrimp boots who were calling the shots. And they were in a hurry.
They were lining up in Abbeville, a little town south of Lafayette where the oyster houses fill every Saturday night, while the wind was still blowing Saturday. Tropical-storm-force gusts crashed through town, but there they were in their camouflage hats, pulling boats behind pickup trucks and lining up for block after block. The radio announcers were saying the National Guard troops were waiting for the weather to clear before coming in from Baton Rouge. But not the Cajuns. They jammed into the old courthouse, with its thick columns, trading tips, ready to go.
"Sixteen people stuck up in a house out by Mouton Cove," a man with a thick head of wiry hair yelled out as he burst from the crowded corridor toward a red pickup truck.
In the backseat, a woman named Mindy yelled out the directions. As the pickup revved to life, she sneered out the window at a cluster of Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries agents. "They should be out there," she said. "Not sitting there."
"Out there" before them was a landscape turned almost indistinguishable by Rita. The sugar cane that is not submerged is flattened. The crawfish ponds and the rice paddies and the alligator farm out on the road south of town are deep underwater, and it's salty -- a fatal problem for the rice, which burns up in salt water, and for crawfish, which live for freshwater mud.
As Bobby DeHart, a shipyard owner from Abbeville put it, "They ain't gonna be crawfish-able anymore."
DeHart couldn't stop Saturday. Each house on the Vermilion held a friend or a "couzan," not so much a cousin in the strictest sense, but kin, nonetheless. And they were all underwater. His 20-foot fishing boat cut over the wakes of smaller boats, looking for people, looking for clues, signs of life. He found Ted Morgan.
Morgan, 42, was born in Intracoastal City, and he has a hurricane routine: Stash some food for Mee New and his dad's dog, a blue heeler named Tattoo, and make for the tugboat upriver. It was a routine that went back to his grandfather, whose name was Shelton Morgan but who named his business back in 1929 -- the first in Intracoastal City -- "Shell Morgan" because he sold gas to the shrimpers.
Morgan was frantic Saturday. "I lost my house and my business, but all I can think about is my cat," he said after jumping off the tug into DeHart's boat. "You think I'm crazy?"
The waterway opens up wide downriver and gets fierce. Morgan blinked against the spray as DeHart steered past shrimp boats with 100-foot-tall booms lifted up into the woods or drifting slowly, as if steered by ghosts.
Main Street in Morgan's town felt more like a canal, a dark brown waterway running past the little orange-sherbet-colored hotel where a pile of Hurricane Katrina evacuees were living until a few days ago. DeHart could cruise down the street in his boat as if he was in some strange parade that no one was there to see. The water was tie-dyed colored, made slick and shiny and awful by the gas tanks that oozed into the muck. One of Morgan's 126,000-gallon gas tanks idled in his yard. The sign on its side read: "Tank cleaned."
"I don't know what to do," Morgan said. "I'm going to live somewhere. Someone is going to take me in. I've got relatives."
Gas fumes rose off the water. But Morgan ignored them. Something else had caught his attention, something he'd heard before, but never so plaintively: Mee New crying.
He was out of DeHart's boat before it lurched to a stop, and through the shoulder-high water and into the garage. Seconds later, he had his Mee New, a wet and shivering silver tabby, but a live one.
From there, it was into the metal workshop, out the door and into the hardware store down the street, calling all the while for Tattoo, as his friends told him to watch out for snakes. DeHart gently offered to make another loop, and another, but the men in the boat had already accepted what Morgan could not.
The ride back up the Vermilion took them past Morgan's aunt's house, with water up to its roofline, past the broken shrimp boats, and his wrecked little town. It got almost quiet, except for the rumble of the motor, and Mee New crying.