Expert: Croatian-Americans have come together in the wake of Hurricane Katrina _lowres

GuestColumn.Catano.Storm

Louisiana has been in the national and international news quite often these last few weeks. Much of the time, for better or worse, it has been in relation to disasters, past and present. Not long ago, settlement of the BP oil disaster was front and center. Even more recently, the upcoming 10th anniversary of Katrina has put Louisiana in the limelight. When John Barry’s lead article in the recent New York Times Sunday Review section asks “Is New Orleans Safe?,” you know something is afoot.

Being noted for past disasters isn’t the nicest way to make the papers. But disaster news often finds itself paired with another dimension of the state — one a bit more praiseworthy and just as newsworthy: determination. For every disaster article we see these days, there often appears something about our resolve to overcome catastrophes. There’s a bit of feel-good journalism in such writing, but clichés work for a reason: There’s usually an element of truth to them.

I’m thinking that a good part of our resilience comes from our diversity, our wide range of groups and peoples who bring their particular talents and efforts together to unify and strengthen our individual skills and mindsets.

Of course, we do regularly celebrate our diversity here: African, British, Cajun, Chinese, German, Indian, Irish, Italian, Native American, Slavic, Spanish, Vietnamese and so many more. In the midst of this fertile diversity, there is one particular community that has been playing its own role: the Croatian community of southeastern Louisiana.

Louisiana’s Croatians began arriving in notable numbers in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and again in the mid-’30s. Many of them settled along both sides of the Mississippi, with the majority finding a home in Lower Plaquemines on the west side of the river. As Carolyn Ware, professor of folklore at LSU, succinctly notes, once these early Croatians arrived, they found a situation that fit their abilities perfectly: “fishing oysters (and) living in difficult circumstances.”

Working quietly, they have indeed thrived, even as they remain only lightly known in a state that rightly celebrates its diversity — and its resourcefulness amid calamity. Hurricanes Katrina, Ike, Rita and Gustav ravaged the man-made oyster beds crafted by Croatian oyster farmers over the course of a century.

As bad as hurricanes are, the BP disaster was equivalent to pouring a layer of oil all over a farmer’s fields. Determined to continue in their way of life, the Croatians built new beds to replace the old. But not long after these areas had been reconstructed, oystermen and women found that juvenile oysters simply were not appearing and setting on the beds.

Since it takes three years for an oyster to reach a usefully marketable size, that meant facing years of low or no income. No matter. As John Tesvich quietly says, with no little understatement: “It’s a lot of work, but we’re kind of used to that.” And so their determination carried them through yet another set of disasters.

It’s a bit erroneous to say that the Croatian community has “come back.” They never went away — in body or in spirit. They redoubled their efforts and rebuilt even more oyster beds, cultivated as many juvenile oysters as possible to seed these beds and waited.

Meanwhile, they built themselves a community center below Jesuit Bend. Fiercely proud of their heritage, and equally proud of being American, they celebrated the Croatian-American Konoba’s opening with a Mass and, this being Louisiana, great quantities of home-cooked food.

I’ve been lucky enough to be around during much of this, mostly as a documentary filmmaker and a member of the LSU community. Following the Croatian community from Katrina to the Konoba and preparing their story for broadcast has been a humbling and elevating experience, yet one more marvelous example of our multidimensional lives in this state: disaster-prone, determined to survive, strong in our diversity. L’chaim!

James V. Catano is director of the program in film and media arts faculty at LSU.