On a warm Saturday afternoon in September in one of south Louisiana’s many sports parks, parents clustered as they waited on, and sometimes watched, their children playing soccer.1 In between two fields, two men sat on a small set of bleacher benches, catching up on events in each other’s lives, just as other men and women all around them were doing.Their conversation followed the general conventions of most such speech events in north America, with an especial focus on a recent dramatic event, the flooding of the area, acting as a lens through other topics passed.
In the middle of the conversation about the flooding, one of the speakers performed a legend about vehicles being abandoned in the rising water, principally for the insurance money. The other speaker didn’t notice the change in genres until, having repeated the story many times in his mind, returning to it again and again, he realized three days later that he had, in fact, encountered a legend. The essay that follows is an attempt to give the legend about “trucks under water” a place within a larger set of discursive conventions that are themselves situated in, and perhaps a manifestation of, a larger set of ideational concerns. My understanding of this legend is that its text accomplishes a great deal, and it accomplishes it with less than two hundred words. In other recent work on American legends, I have examined the efficacy of legends, which can vary in size and structure considerably, but in the case of this legend, I would like to take up the matter of textual compactness and efficacy more directly, because I think we need to account for it: how does a text this small invoke such a large dramatic and moral universe?
On August 11 the weather reports for portions of south Louisiana predicted heavy rain. Such a prediction is not unusual for the region, neither is flash flooding. So most residents were not concerned when the rain began to fall that night. Even when unusually intense deluges occurred early Friday morning and the National Weather Service began to issue flash flood watches for certain parishes, most residents were content to wait it out, having waited out tropical storms like Allison and hurricanes like Lili, Katrina, Rita, Gustave, and Isaac to name but a few of the recent storms. Over the course of the next three to four days the mesoscale convection system — as it later revealed itself to be — inundated the region with 7.1 trillion gallons: more than three times the rainfall of Katrina.
By August 15, ten different rivers were at or near record flood stages, flooding areas that had not flooded in recent memory nor in recorded history. In some areas, the water stayed in houses and homes for days, only slowly receding as crests moved slowly away from the soaked parts of the state. Fortunately, only a small number of deaths are attributed to the flood, but over a hundred thousand homes were damaged or completely ruined, often in areas which were already poor and in many cases in areas where few homeowners had flood insurance.2
In the wake of the storm, many in Louisiana criticized the media for ignoring the non-named weather event. Much of the reporting that followed focused on the eastern part of the system, which affected areas east of Baton Rouge. There has been relatively little coverage of the areas in and around Lafayette, an area which was already suffering from the downturn in the oil industry, which has led to a large number of layoffs and even closures of some operations.
Asking someone how they did during the flood is now a part of most conversations, and in most instances the verb to do is used, as in “How’d you do?” with “during the flood” sometimes being appended to the question, and sometimes not. Once the question became well established as a part of contemporary discourse in the weeks that followed the flood, it is generally the case that if someone asks you “How’d you do?” with no other reference, they are in fact referring to your status during the flood.
In most instances, responses come in two forms: “we got water” or “we were lucky.” In the case of water, there is usually some discussion of the height of the water and the sequence of events leading up to evacuating one’s home and then what has transpired since then in terms of renovating and returning. When an interlocutor has been lucky, most respond with reference to family or friends who were not so lucky. In this way, both a network of people is instantiated but also a more developed map of what happened is created. With each report of someone who was flooded, interlocutors increase their sense of what happened where. (This communally curated map is not unimportant: official sources remain rather poor at identifying areas affected by flooding, and knowing what is, in the current mind, more likely to flood is an important part of knowing where to buy and where not to buy.)
On the Thursday night before the rains began, most of us simply heard a big rain was coming. (I was again at the soccer fields.) The rain began that night, August 11, and it continued to rain for the next four, five, six days. But the amount of rain and where it rained varied by the hour: you might find yourself in the middle of a downpour, call a friend to report it, only to have your friend report back that it was only drizzling where she was. Residents of Louisiana are somewhat used to this localization of rain, and are also used to flash flooding thus also occurring a number of places. As a rule, residents keep track of where streets are out, and while some streets routinely flood during such times, flooding can also be fairly random. People simply plan their trips through towns according to the mental map they develop — and it should be noted that this might only be partially based on news reports from official outlets, which tend to focus on major arteries.
I note all this in order to establish the very ordinariness of natives not thinking twice about driving even when official flash flood warnings are issued by the National Weather Service. So the idea of someone driving around during the middle of what was only later termed a once-in-a-century weather event should not be met with raised eyebrows. Almost everyone in the area has lived through a named storm that did not flood or otherwise cause a danger. For one thing, most official agencies overstate possible dangers in order to emphasize the need to be safe (and no one wants to be the one who understated a danger). For another, even those storms which have pummeled a region do not do so evenly, most residents take it as a given that it is better to try and turn back then not to try at all, if you need to go to the grocery store or get to work — many businesses remained open throughout the flood simply because they, and enough employees, were not affected by the unevenly occurring event.
With that as frame for understanding the narrative embedded within a larger conversation, I will note that my friend and I were catching up, having not seen each other much since the flood which had disrupted so much of life in our corner of the world. After we participated in the basic parts of a flood conversation, we extended the conversation, as is acceptable, by engaging in some longer, more detailed accounts of events surrounding the flood. My friend began to tell me about a friend of his who had almost lost his truck in the middle of the flood. As noted above, it was not the case that the flooding was well established, let alone the information about where it was flooding was evenly distributed. Stories about places flooding that do not normally flood are part of the larger set of genres, and they are often framed in terms of driving and coming upon such a place rather suddenly or unexpectedly. So when my friend’s story began with an account of his friend who lives in a nearby town along one of the major waterways in the area, it was not remarkable that he was out driving. Here’s the story as I remember it:
So my buddy was out. And he went to cross the bridge, and he’d been across it not long before and it was okay, but now he could see it was kind of deep. So he got part way in, and then he decided “nah ah” he didn’t want to risk it. But, you know, some trucks were. . . My buddy said he saw some nice trucks. Some nice trucks got flooded out. Some guys just drove their trucks in the water. I guess they were already under water with their payments, so they thought why not, you know? Anyway, my buddy says he saw some trucks and their windows were rolled up. You know if you got stuck, you’d roll your windows down to climb out. But their windows were up. So they were pushed. People got to the edge of the water and then pushed their trucks in. He said he’d seen a bunch of nice trucks with their windows up. You know, I guess people were just doing what they felt they had to do. I’m not saying it’s right. But I can understand it.
A closer look at the text reveals some interesting features that escaped my notice when I experienced it as a live performance. It was, perhaps, these features that worked on my mind and slowly pushed me to the realization that what I had encountered was no anecdote but in fact a legend. This confusion — or, perhaps better, simply fusion — is built into the opening frame of the text, which transitions from a local character anecdote — which abound in the present moment — to the legend. If we break the text into a series of clauses, the first six are narrated from the perspective of “my buddy” who goes out, attempts to cross a bridge, and then decides not to:
So my buddy was out. And he went to cross the bridge, and he’d been across it not long before and it was okay, but now he could see it was kind of deep. So he got part way in, and then he decided “nah ah” he didn’t want to risk it.
The narration here is steady: a point of view is introduced and it is the subject of the speech, distinct from the speaking subject of the narrator. “My buddy” is introduced, becomes “he”, and he does things. The final clause here gives us a bit of internal speech, which, as we will see, is part of how this legend works: it offers us interior views of others who engage in questionable behavior to which we will, in the end, be empathetic.
In the next four clauses, the subject of the text wobbles, shifting from “my buddy” to trucks to a third party, “some guys” who are through the repetition of “some” paired with “nice trucks”:
But, you know, some trucks were. . . My buddy said he saw some nice trucks. Some nice trucks got flooded out. Some guys just drove their trucks in the water.
The transition to legend is fairly clear here: the point of view shifts; there is an appeal to the audience — only one of two, with the second coming in the conclusion; and a slightly awkward passive voice that hints at the moral ambiguity at the heart of the text: “Some nice truck trucks got flooded out.” In some ways the assonance between nice and guys — which is followed by the assonance of trucks and just — plays out in the overall moral of the story: some nice guys did a potentially unjust thing.
At this point, halfway through the text, the text gives us its own interpretation of events rather baldly:
I guess they were already under water with their payments, so they thought why not, you know?
The text insures that we do not miss the parallelism between the common metaphor of being under water and the actuality of being under water, something which for many might also apply to the overall regional economy. It also offers us the first of several interior perspectives: “[some guys] thought why not.”
With the moral force of the legend laid out, the text proceeds to give us the methods used, with a trio of lines that focus on the windows as a sign of what truly had happened: windows were up; they should be down, but they were up. This up-down-up movement leads to the logical conclusion provided in a short clause for emphasis: “So they were pushed.”
What follows is a very effective re-instating of another popular metaphor, of people being on the edge, but here it is again concretized in reference to the water and its meaning doubled in the process: “People got to the edge of the water and then pushed their trucks in.” The text then moves back to its opening frame, bringing back the original subject of the story, my buddy, who glimpses “a bunch of nice trucks with their windows up.” This line effectively wraps up the story by repeating the two visual elements, nice trucks with their windows up, that can only add up to one conclusion.
While that is an effective dramatic stopping point for the text, it also offers a coda, a double coda really. First, there is a proffered conclusion: “[people] did what they felt they had to do” that effects a moral distancing: the doubling of they in “they felt they had to” makes it clear we are no longer inside the minds of the secondary protagonists, but outside looking in. This emotional distancing is completed with, second, the closing pair of clauses, which offer a short, heavily metered accommodation: “I’m not saying it’s right. But I can understand it.”
The story itself begins like a number of flood stories: streets, and yes even bridges, which are normally passable are discovered to be impassable. In most narratives of this kind, this opens up the conversation to a discussion about water actually flowing over the bridge and even how deep it was. It is not unusual for such narratives to feature a decision to turn around to emphasize the impassable nature of the route, but what comes next literally turns our heads as the protagonist in the story seemingly looks around him and sees other trucks, like his, that have attempted to pass and have not made it. That the trucks are not immediately in front of the protagonist within the storyworld and that the narrative wobbles a bit here, changing agency a couple of times from the friend, to trucks, to unnamed individuals was later what nagged at the back of my mind and made me reconsider if I had not indeed heard a legend but taken it at the current face value of such things post-flood.
The matter of trucks in south Louisiana probably deserves some treatment. The region has long been dominated first by agriculture and then by the oil industry, both sectors that require a fair amount of heavy equipment that needs to be hauled from one job to another. Pickup trucks are ubiquitous, and and while most will think of trucks the size of a Ford F–150, it is not uncommon to see the likes of 250s and 350s parked in driveways. Most are also extended or crew cabbed, and because both farmers and oil workers tend to work in a variety of environments, most trucks are just a bit more elevated than trucks elsewhere. The overall outcome is that pickup trucks are the coin of the realm, and where other regions might focus on fancy cars, foreign or domestic, as status symbols, in south Louisiana it is the truck.3
These trucks typically start in the low thirties and can rapidly rise into the eighties, with an average price of around sixty to seventy thousand dollars. Because car loans are shorter than most mortgages, many face monthly payments exceeding their mortgages. But farmers have to have them and fold them into the cost of their farm operations, and many workers in the oil field and adjacent industries just regard them as part of what you own and who you are, and when times are good in the oil industry, men can make six-figure salaries that make a $700 a month note look like a pittance.
But times have not been good in the oil industry of late. As Economy Watch notes, “the Oil Industry is considered … one of the biggest and one of the most important industries in Louisiana if things like taxes paid amount, impact on Economy and number of people [employed].” In the two years leading up to the flood, as gas prices dropped, the oil industry shed 12,000 jobs in south Louisiana. Many are used to the fluctuations in the commodity, but as prices remained low, not only was the primary sector hit, oil exploration and production, but also all the adjacent sectors: the oilfield service companies, and then, the companies that served the services. Area newspapers slowly switched from hopeful stories about what would happen when oil returned to a price above $50 a barrel to stories of how workers and their families were adjusting to what was coming to be considered the new normal (see, for example, Truong). It was becoming increasingly clear that a good number of the jobs would never be coming back.
The legend addresses the current situation for many head on: many people before the flood occurred were already “under water.” The flood was simply a physical manifestation of a less visible economic reality. The rising waters were a concretization of a landscape that was already flooded with pain and desperation. The mud-filled waters that creeped and then drowned people’s homes and left behind the danger of black mold were simply confirmation that the current situation could not hold. For many more than has been reported, it is said, it was simply the last straw and they have left their homes behind, much like what we are told happened in Las Vegas.
The current legend was told in the context of the flood as it occurred in Louisiana, where the homes that were hit hardest were in one of the more newly-developed areas, where many people had moved to be closer to their jobs and to be further from the city.4 Youngsville has been one of the most, if not the most, fastest growing municipalities in Louisiana, trebling in size in the last two decades. Much of the growth as been filling in cane fields along two lane roads that run between it and the neighboring small municipality of Broussard and the larger hub city of Lafayette which lies north of both. Much of the growth of both can be attributed to the easy access to Route 90, which serves as the oilfield service industry’s corridor; to the high value that area residents put on being “out in the country”; and, finally, white flight must also be considered one facet of the larger impulse.
Since encountering the version of the legend presented above, I have asked other residents of the area if they have heard anything about vehicles being abandoned during the flood — and that is the extent of the prompt “vehicles abandoned during the flood”, with no mention of insurance, though sometimes I have substituted “car or trucks” for “vehicles.” I have received a number of positive responses, many of which cite as evidence for their claim a report seen on a local television station. Inquiries to local news outlets have turned up only stories that are basically requests from authorities either urging avoidance of or caution when using local roads due to debris or abandoned vehicles: e.g., “The following areas are still reporting problems with high water in the roadway. The public is asked to avoid these areas until the water subsides and the streets are cleared of abandoned vehicles” (KPEL).
Finding no evidence for actually abandoned cars in the historical record, it made sense to seek out possible verification from the foil in the legend, the insurance industry. A representative of one of the big three insurance companies, who noted that his company probably insured one car in six in the region, responded that, while such cases were not unknown, there were no such cases pending before his company in the month since the flood. He noted that it was important to understand that the industry regularly distinguishes between clear-cut cases of fraud and insured individuals simply being stupid — he noted that the latter was simply one function of insurance, catching us when we are not at our best. While there had been a few cases of people having driven their vehicles through a flooded area and then claiming that the vehicles had been flooded in place, there were no cases, of which he knew, of people driving cars or trucks into flooded areas and leaving them there.
Moreover, he noted, in those confirmed cases of insurance fraud of this kind, it is rarely the case that the insurance disbursement will pay off what is owed completely. The nature of being upside down, he observed, is that your vehicle is already worth less than what you owe. Even receiving full compensation will leave you with money stilled owed on a loan. In most instances — and it was especially his experience with the flood — people plead to have their vehicles not totaled. In these cases, he said, cars and trucks are usually paid for and the person is not able to afford, or would rather not take on, a monthly loan payment. Unfortunately for him and the insured, insurance companies will not pay more to repair a car or truck than it is worth in terms of resale value.
And so, in terms of veracity, not only is there little evidence to support our legend, the stories from the other side, reveal that far from pushing trucks into the onslaught of flood waters, most individuals were really left high and dry when their insurance company declared their vehicle a total loss and simply issued them a check for its current value, which is often far less than the value the vehicle has for them or what it would take to replace it.
I began with a question: how do two hundred words do so much work? First, one immediate and obvious answer is to be found in how long it took for this interlocutor to realize that the story was a legend and not an anecdote: its fit with its environs was very good.
And the environment here is not simply the topical context of flood discourse but also the larger ideological network, as I have already suggested, of people already drowning metaphorically, such that abandoning an artifact that not only has high high utility but also high social status achieves such effective narrative closure.
Second, the text offers something which is perhaps a function, or dimensions, of the larger set of legends, and that is ontological plurality. By offering a version of the things as they should be—if things felt were made manifest—the narrative is in fact offering an alternative world. As Hilary Dannenberg notes in her discussion of multiple temporal dimensions in novels, the effect of creating an alternative possible world is to intensify, or sometimes frustrate, the narrative force of texts by offering more than one possible version of events.
I think it is fairly safe to say that the force of the legend is that it not only inherits the gernal traits of the actual world, as most mimetic narratives do, but that it also inherits traits of a particular set of narrative genres whose expectations had been established in the preceding month.
It is perhaps too late to establish this now, but one question I have is how soon after the discourse genres, the discourse worlds, of the floods arose did the legend itself take shape? No doubt it also inherited pieces from previous legends on similar topics. In the months to come, I hope to trace those pieces and their vectors to understand how this came to have so many trucks under water.
Truong, Thanh. 2016. Low prices devastating Louisiana oil industry businesses, workers. WWL TV 4 (May 14). http://www.wwltv.com/news/ local/lafourche-terrebonne/low-prices-devastating-louisiana-oil-industry-businesses- workers/191042106.
Economy Watch. 2010. Oil Industry Louisiana. (June 29). http:// www.economywatch.com/world-industries/oil/louisiana.html.
KPEL 96.5FM. 2016. Lafayette Parish Road Closures (LATEST UP- DATE). August 15, 8:44 AM. http://kpel965.com/lafayette-parish-road- closures-latest-update/.
- The exact date is September 17. ↩
- It’s also the case that many individual only hold flood insurance because it was a requirement of their mortgage. Many who owned their homes outright no longer held or had never had a flood insurance policy. Normal homeowner’s insurance does not cover damage caused by rising waters. (The irony of storms in Louisiana is that if a tree crashes on your roof and the rain pours in, you are covered, but if the water comes up the yard, you are not.) ↩
- With the rise of the medical industry in the region and the seeming preference of doctors for more traditional forms of status vehicles, this trend seems to be changing somewhat and Lafayette now has its fair share of very expensive SUVs and German sports cars. ↩
- The other area to be hit by the flood was east of Baton Rouge, an area also enjoying some development as a result of urban flight, but also one with a more pronounced local identity: Denham Springs and Walker are outside the French triangle but not yet in African American timber country, they are an incursion of highland Southerners from the rest of the South. Many identify as rednecks, and the kind of class inequalities that lurk below the surface in many urban-rural dynamics can be glimpsed in various events in the area. ↩