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Commentary: Friends offer hospitality as storm rages

Mary Durusau Erwin (center) hugs her brother, John, during a meal served by the light of candles and one battery-powered lantern. Hurricane Gustav knocked out power to their Baton Rouge, La., home. UMNS photos by Mike DuBose.

A UMNS Commentary
By Kathy L. Gilbert*

Sept. 9, 2008

There are certain things John Durusau is used to doing.

He goes to his little sister’s house most weekends. He bowls on Tuesday, washes his clothes on Saturday and goes to church on Sunday.

Then there are the things he looks forward to all year, like watching the Jerry Lewis telethon on Labor Day.

Hurricane Gustav wrecked all that and more when it roared into Baton Rouge, La., and knocked out the electricity for more than 150,000 people, including John, his sister, Mary Erwin, and brother-in-law, Barry Erwin.

John, 58, has Down syndrome and changes to his routine really throw him off. He lives in a group home and goes to work every day, but he couldn’t do either of those things last week because both places were also without power.

He didn’t complain about the sweltering, humid, south Louisiana heat, but it did bother him that the clothes he put into the dryer early Saturday morning never got dry. And he was really disappointed he missed every cent Jerry was able to raise for his “kids.”

Every so often, he would ask, “When is the electricity coming back on?” and Mary would gently remind him that no one knew how long it would take. He would shake his head and get a big smile on his face. “We will just keep our fingers crossed, right?”

In the eye of a storm

Mary takes care of everyone, whether they deserve it or not and sometimes whether they want it or not.

She is my best friend and former college roommate, and she didn’t blink an eye when I asked if I could come to her house for the hurricane. She also graciously accepted two of my United Methodist News Service colleagues, photographer, Mike DuBose, and video producer, John Gordon. We arrived on the last flight to Baton Rouge Aug. 31, before the airport shut down in anticipation of the coming hurricane.

United Methodist News Service writer
Kathy Gilbert drives down Interstate 10 between Baton Rouge and New Orleans
on Sept. 1 during Hurricane Gustav. aaaaaaa 

We were watching the Weather Channel when the first strong winds knocked out power to their house around 9 a.m. Sept. 1. John G., Mike and I headed out Interstate 10 in our rented minivan. We were brave until a tree fell over both lanes of the interstate going east. Mike pointed out that if another one fell in the westbound lanes, we would be stuck in the middle of a hurricane in a minivan. Plus, we were the only people on the road, so being out in the storm didn’t seem like such a good idea any more.

Back at Mary and Barry’s house, we all took turns standing on the back patio or watching through the windows as 90-mph-plus winds rocked the house and split 100-year-old trees like twigs. It was a sight you couldn’t wrap your brain around; trees are not supposed to twist like that. The wind is not supposed to sound like that.

Large branches from a neighbor’s live oak tree punctured my friends’ roof in two places. At one point, a large, heavy branch fell on the gutter, mere inches from my face. At that point, I decided to go inside. But really, no place was safe, it was just the luck of the draw whether a flying projectile would find you, your house, your car or any other earthly possession you owned or person you loved.

Louisiana natives and longtime Baton Rougers, Mary, Barry and John have been through many storms—Andrew, Katrina, Rita, just to name a few recent ones. They remained pretty calm during the whole ordeal. Barry stood outside more than the rest of us, and occasionally he would rush out and move debris around to clear a path to the front and back doors.

Once the wind stopped, the scene that remained was one of utter chaos. Not one street looked like it did the day before Gustav arrived. Power lines were snapped, utility and telephone poles were inches high instead of feet tall. Beautiful old trees that were like members of our families were uprooted and lay helplessly in streets.

Southern comfort

However, no place in Baton Rouge had better food than we did, thanks to a gas stove and Barry’s culinary brilliance. Every morning we headed out to the United Methodist Louisiana Annual (regional) Conference office, and every night we came home to southern comfort cooked by flashlight. It gave me a new understanding of the phrase, “Eat your heart out.”

Barry Erwin cooks jambalaya
by flashlight.


Sunday: Shrimp Clemenceau (shrimp and roasted potatoes).

Monday: Grilled chicken and homemade salsa.

Tuesday: Shrimp and pasta.

Wednesday: Jambalaya.

Thursday: Shrimp and crab cakes.

The menu increasingly was dictated by what was defrosting the fastest, but the quality never wavered. And this was after long, hot days for Barry and Mary of chopping up branches, raking soggy leaves, climbing on the roof trying to stop the leaks and endless other miserable chores resulting from the storm.

By Wednesday evening, friends had brought them a generator, and you would have thought we had just won a million dollars. One lamp, a fan and power for the refrigerator—what luxury!

At dinner that night, John offered his philosophy on the storm. Reflecting on how long it would take to get back to normal, he would throw up his hands and say, “Don’t be sad, be glad.” And he would cross those fingers.

*Gilbert is a United Methodist News Service news writer based in Nashville, Tenn.

News media contact: Kathy L. Gilbert, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

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