Ruby Wilkins grew up before the war in Vidalia, Louisiana, on the banks of the Mississippi. As a young girl, one day she and a friend put notes into bottles, sealed them and flung them into the wide river. Rene Bowers, growing up in Empire, Louisiana, found one of these bottles near the mouth of the river after it had floated a hundred or so miles. He opened it and wrote to the girl who had left a little bit of herself in there. All through the war, they wrote letters to each other. In 1948, they married. Six children were born of that delightful story. Sylvia, known to all as Patsy, was one.
Patsy Bowers became Tvrdeic ("tver-ditch") in 1973 when she married Roko, immigrant oyster fisher from Croatia. When he bought his first boat, a second-hand tug, he christened it after her, "Sylvia".
Roko worked the oyster fields off Plaquemines Parish, Patsy took the oysters to market, they had a daughter and a son. He set himself up with a storefront on Route 23, bought another boat and a refrigerated Volvo truck, they moved into a house next to the levee on the tree-lined "old road" through Empire that runs parallel to 23 but closer to the Mississippi. Around them on that road were various others of the Bowers family -- sister, brother, cousins, parents. And over the years, the Tvrdeics made five trips to Croatia. From all accounts, they enjoyed the connections with family on both sides. From all accounts, they lived a happy middle-class life.
Until a vast storm roared off the Gulf of Mexico and straight over Empire. Given advance warning of Katrina, Patsy and Roko had driven north, picked up the children and fled all the way to Natchez, Mississippi, to wait it out.
Then they returned. With Route 23 underwater because of breaches in the levee, Patsy's brother, a state trooper, took them in a van to Empire, off-road and along the top of the levee. The cliche is tired but apt: they returned to another world.
Fishing boats had been flung against the big bridge just south of Empire. Two were laid across the media on the road. Gas stations, convenience stores, banks, homes, churches -- indiscriminately, all were torn apart. Roko's Volvo hung from a tree -- an image that acquired a certain fame by itself, in a Parish calendar, in a Dutch photographer's book on Katrina and in countless photographs taken by stunned Empire residents. The shop was smashed: about the only thing left untouched, if caked in mud, was the "Roko's Oysters" sign that Patsy had bought Roko for his 60th birthday. Patsy's brother's house, situated 100 yards behind the shop, had been picked up and deposited whole in front. The boat "Sylvia" was impaled on a thick wood pylon in the marina. Their home? Simply, it did not exist any more. Just debris, including the twisted remnants of their swimming pool.
Showing me "before" and "after" pictures of all this in their trailer, watching my astonished face, Patsy suddenly gets up and walks over to a shelf. "My crystal survived," she says, picking up a delicately carved wine glass. "The case, I found it hanging in the tree across the street. But the crystal was lying, mostly unbroken, in the mud outside the house."
She stops for a second. "Of course, there was no house."
A long story began that day Ruby Wilkins threw a bottle into the river. She died in 2004, before Katrina. So she never knew the chapter of destruction the same river, driven by a great storm, was to add to that story.