‘Après Nous, le Déluge’

by Richard G. Johnstone Jr., Editor

Richard Johnstone
Richard Johnstone

I took a little French in college. Actually, I took a year of French, yet remember very little. Aside from the masculine and feminine forms of “the” (le, la), a couple of conjunctions (et, meaning “and,” and ou, meaning “or”), some prepositions (pour, or “for,” and avec, meaning “with”) and a smattering of verbs and nouns, I’ve lost the language through neglect over the last 30 years.

Still, there’s a phrase I learned back then that intrigued me, and thereby worked its way into my long-term memory. The events of the last few weeks brought it freshly to mind: “Après nous, le déluge,” which translates to “After us, the flood.” It’s unclear who first uttered it, though most historians seem to think that it was either French monarch Louis XV or his mistress, Madame de Pompadour. It was apparently said after the Prussian (German) army in 1757 overcame a manpower disadvantage of 3-to-1 to defeat the French in battle.

The words have a haunting quality to them, as a premonition of impending turmoil and tribulation, of unsettling, powerful forces washing away the social or political order. Other sources say that during the French Revolution, a year or so before his execution as a traitor, King Louis XVI spoke these words, as his royal court, his government, and the state church were crumbling around him. “Après nous, le déluge.”

It would be chilling and prescient indeed if any of the French-speaking residents of New Orleans had voiced these words on Aug. 28, on the eve before Hurricane Katrina whipsawed the Gulf Coast on Monday morning, Aug. 29, hammering New Orleans, much of upstate Louisiana, and the Gulf Coasts of Mississippi and Alabama, washing away homes and businesses, and wiping out innocent lives. Horrific hurricanes have happened before in the U.S., in Galveston, Texas, on both Florida coasts, in North Carolina and Virginia, and in New Orleans, too, decades ago. But this was perhaps the first mega-hurricane to play itself out on a 24/7 news stage.

Indeed, who among us didn’t watch in horror as some of the worst instincts of man, and woman, played out before our eyes on TV screens during those first few days after Katrina tore through New Orleans, and the levees broke. But I would be willing to bet that, for every vulgar and violent act, there was at least one act of generosity and altruism and heroism going on, out of the sight of cameras that, sadly yet expectedly, fixate on the outrageous and ugly sides of humanity.

Meanwhile, upstate in Louisiana and throughout Mississippi, there was a truly heroic story taking place, in rural areas far from network broadcast trucks. Our part of the story begins the day after Katrina tore through the Gulf Coast region, as four Virginia electric cooperatives send 17 line workers, armed with bucket trucks and digger-derricks, down to assist Mississippi electric cooperatives, which were facing about half-a-million outages, and the devastation of several entire electric cooperative systems.

In the days that followed, 52 more line workers — from three more Virginia electric cooperatives, plus two electric co-ops in Maryland and the lone electric cooperative in Delaware — made the trek down to Mississippi, to assist electric cooperatives whose poetic names —Singing River, Southern Pine, Pearl River Valley, Coast — belied the cruel fate their member-owners had suffered.

Working long hours and hard, hot days with shortages of even the most basic of necessities, these 69 line workers from Virginia, Maryland and Delaware labored against daunting obstacles to clear away the rubble of wrecked electric lines, poles and transformers, and to help local crews rebuild their systems, meter by meter, mile after mile.

But electric cooperative crews from Virginia, Maryland and Delaware were hardly alone in answering the call for help from down South. In an amazing story of aid arriving quickly and effectively to those in need, some 1,700 line workers from electric cooperatives in 14 states helped local crews rebuild entire electric systems in Mississippi, Louisiana and Alabama in a matter of days.

Remarkably, by Sept. 15, as this issue was going to press, there were only about 20,000 Mississippi electric cooperative consumers still without service. And yet, perhaps it’s really not so remarkable, given that it’s happened over and over again, through many decades of blinding snowstorms, battering floods, bruising hurricanes, and bitter ice storms. Neighbor helping neighbor. Cooperative helping cooperative.

October is Cooperative Month, the time when we recognize the significant benefits that cooperatives of all types — from credit unions, to housing, agricultural, and electric cooperatives — have brought to the American consumer over the years. There are seven “Cooperative Principles” that outline what we believe, and guide how we do business every day. One of them is “cooperation among cooperatives.”

So the help sent to the Gulf Coast isn’t really extraordinary, it’s simply the way electric cooperatives do business. It’s part of the culture of “neighbor helping neighbor” that helped establish electric cooperatives in the first place back in the 1930s, in rural areas and small towns across the country. And the principle of “cooperation among cooperatives” applies whether your neighbor is half a mile down the road, or halfway across the country.

“Après nous, le déluge” may have sounded haunting to me when I was a student. But no matter the language, the phrase could be, ironically, a call to arms for electric cooperatives. Because “after the flood,” wherever it hits, and however deep the waters, cooperatives will respond to their sister systems’ cries for help, sending crews and aid and comfort.


Home ] Up ] Cover Story ] Down Home ] Food For Thought ] [ Editorial ] Reader Recipes ] Lights, Camera... ] Say Cheese ]