By Debra Minor Wilson
Times West Virginian
Sometimes you never know how strong your family is until it’s put to the ultimate test.
Linda and Ken Hebert and their daughter Julie were living in Meraux, St. Bernard Parish, La., when Hurricane Katrina unleashed its violence on the Gulf Coast in August 2005.
They lost everything ... their house, even their wedding and baby pictures. Their entire community was wiped out.
“It was horrifying, terrifying and devastating. We were out in a boat on the water for five days,” Linda said.
They found a friend’s oyster boat and searched for camps along the swampy waterway. They found only one still standing. Fortunately, it had a generator and radio. On the fifth day there, they heard that boats were picking up people and taking them to safety.
Just how safe that really was, they weren’t that sure of.
“We were told it wasn’t safe to walk the streets,” she said. “It was like being in a Third World country. Buildings were burning. Shots were being fired. It was scarier than being out on the water.”
Things were looking pretty desperate. Then a longtime friendship saved them.
While Ken served in the Marines, they were neighbors with a couple from Fairmont, George and Dawn Miller. They maintained that friendship throughout the years. When the Millers saw how bad things were in their friends’ neck of the woods, they drove down to rescue them.
“They brought extra gas, which was good, because you could not find gas from Louisiana to Tennessee,” Linda said.
The Millers let the Heberts stay in their house while they began building a home of their own here.
“And because of our military connections, we found someone to call Brad (their son, who was in Marine Corps boot camp) to let him know we were OK,” Linda said.
You would think the family would move back to their home state.
No. They chose to stay in West Virginia.
They had visited the state before while visiting the Millers.
“We absolutely love it here,” she said. “But Louisiana is always in our hearts.”
They appreciate all the help and support they’ve gotten so much that every April they throw a big “thank you” crawfish boil.
“Last year, we did 225 pounds of crawfish. We were lucky if there were 15 pounds left over.
“My family sends Ken crawfish to thank him for getting me and our daughter out of the storm.”
Witnessing the fury of a storm like Katrina can shake your faith.
“You question what goes on,” she said. “But spiritually, we held together.”
She feels for the survivors of Superstorm Sandy, she said.
“I know how difficult it is to lose everything. We lost our entire community. It’s being rebuilt, but not back to how it used to be.”
There’s not much difference between “a hillbilly and a Cajun,” she said.
“We’re both country folks who work hard and have traditions.”
Brad, now 25, has served two tours in Iraq and is finishing a degree in petroleum engineering at WVU.
Julie was in high school when Katrina tore their lives apart.
“It was most difficult for her,” Linda said. “She was a freshman in high school. School had just started up and a week later she had to come up here. I told her even if we went back, her friends were all scattered to the wind now and it would not be the same.
“But the teachers and students at North Marion were wonderful. They welcomed her with open arms.
“Now she sees this was something she had to go through.”
Now 21, she is a student at Fairmont State, studying respiratory therapy and dating her high school sweetheart of three years.
The Heberts keep a little Louisiana in their lives — crawfish, pralines, chicory coffee, Mardi Gras and muffuletta sandwiches — while also accepting local cuisine like pepperoni rolls.
She also likes the four seasons West Virginia enjoys.
“Louisiana also has four seasons: oyster, crab, crawfish and shrimp,” she said with a laugh.
“But we will not move back. We always dreamed of retiring to West Virginia. Now, I tell people, we just got here sooner than that.”
Her family has found its strength through adversity, she said.
“We’ve gone through a lot. But we’ve also built some strong family bonds. Things happen for a reason.
“We’re stronger, closer now. And I’m looking forward to seeing our family grow.
“Family is very important. When our son joined the military, I didn’t want him to. But we supported him. And we were there every time he came home to welcome him and when he left to say goodbye.”
From the kindness they’ve received from military and church, they’ve learned there are many kinds of family.
“Not just your blood family,” she said.
Email Debra Minor Wilson at email@example.com.