Cattle wrangling on the bayou
Posted: Monday, September 26 at 09:35 pm CT by Bob Sullivan
SOUTH OF SWEET LAKE, La. -- Broadway plays keeps their energy by methodically adding characters to the stage; married couple, interrupted by a neighbor, who's interrupted by the garbage collector seeking financial advice, and so on.
Cowboys try to raise a collapsed cow from the road after they had been herded north over the Gibbstown Bridge (background) just south of Sweet Water, La. Monday. (Andrew Locke / MSNBC.com)
The scene at Gibbstown Bridge over the Intercoastal Waterway, about 10 miles north of the Gulf Coast, had that kind of comic absurdity -- albeit with a tragic bent.
The drive down towards Cameron, La., is progressively brutal; the roads are passable, but the downed trees are piled high, and eventually we are driving over dead power lines. Finally, there's a military checkpoint; no one goes in without registering.
Suddenly, as we're approaching the Gibbstown Bridge, we are stopped. We walk up the line of news vehicles, cops and farm rigs. There's even a monster truck with 10-foot wheels sitting on a trailer, presumably ready for rescue missions.
A monster truck, presumably to be employed as a rescue vehicle sits parked as soldiers of the 82nd airborne division from Fort Bragg, N.C. rest with their adopted Labrador retriever on the road just south of Sweet Water, La. Monday afternoon. (Andrew Locke / MSNBC.com)
Holding up the traffic is a small fleet of pickup trucks unloading portable stock gates across the road. The sound of scampering cowboy boots on pavement clicks through the air. We're about to see a free rodeo. A herd of cattle is about to be wrangled over the mile-long bridge.
Frightened cows scattered everywhere during the storm. At the moment, they are wild animals, homeless and dangerous, we're warned. Cowboys herd them up over the bridge and down toward the temporary corral, which guides them into a corner, and then eventually into a cattle car.
Most cooperate, but one calf panics and starts running away, back towards the bridge. She then makes a left into the bayou, steps into deep water, and collapses.
Another angry cow takes off and gets further away, running under the bridge. A man pulling a swamp boat on a trailer has another idea; he launches the boat, which the rancher quickly commandeers to chase and rope the cow.
By now, the spectacle has attracted several cameras and reporters.
"It's a press conference for cows," says one man.
And just then, right when the herd had been mostly controlled, the cavalry arrives. Actually, it was a contingent from the 82nd Airborne division. On foot. With a dog.
They had walked in, about two miles from Sweet Lake. Their maroon berets cut quite a contrast with the cowboy hats. They're annoyed they had to walk.
Why are you here? We ask.
"General (Russel) Honore, (in charge of relief efforts) told us, 'Not one cow dies on my watch,' " one tells us.
Gen. Russel Honore right, gives cowboy Cotton Herbert, of nearby Lake Charles, a business card. (Andrew Locke / MSNBC.com)
A few minutes later, just as they drop their backpacks, a spiffy new Unimog appears in the distance. There are orders to clear the road. It is, in fact, Gen. Honore, apparently here to make sure the cattle wrangling goes well.
Honore hops out of the truck, cigar in mouth, and talks to the oldest cowboy nearby, Cotton Herbert of nearby Lake Charles.
He hands the man a business card; they shake hands.
"He told me that if we have any cattle we can't get to, to call this number, and they have a helicopter fly in and drop them a bale of hay," Cotton tells me. "He's a hell of a nice man."
And as the general leaves, the press conference dissipates. The road clears and we head gingerly over the Gibbstown Bridge. I'm not sure anything prepared us for what we'd see there -- peeking over the crest of the mile-long structure, we get our first glimpse of Rita's real destruction. The world before us is turned into a swamp as far as the eye can see. The sight shoots right through me, reminding me of the breath I lost the first time I rounded a corner near Greenwich Village and saw Ground Zero.
Andrew grabs all the gear he can carry and jumps into a swamp boat headed down to Cameron. What he'll see, I'm sure, will be something no one should ever see.
'There's nothing left'