The Admiral Drops in for Barbecue

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Most Sunday afternoons, David and Dianna Delatte have supper with their children and grandchildren at their house in Maurepas, La. Before they eat, they sit outside in the car porch, next to the Virgin Mary statue and the dog, Sally, and talk about gas prices or the Tigers, Louisiana State University's football team. David, 62, was born next door, and now lives within a few miles of dozens of Delattes. It's a relatively unusual situation, made more so by the fact that almost all the family members' first names begin with the letter 'D.'

Since Katrina, the Sunday talk has been about the unraveling of New Orleans, 60 miles southeast of here—and the strange experience of living in the country next to a lost city. Last Sunday, a helicopter hovered above as the family talked. "Right after Katrina, you couldn't go five minutes without hearing a helicopter," says Dennis Delatte, one of David's sons. But the black and orange Coast Guard helicopter kept getting closer—and louder. "I said, 'Man, that thing's fixing to land,'" remembers Dennis, 36.

As they watched, the helicopter did indeed land—in the strawberry field across from the house. It came down so fast that it kind of bounced. So the entire Delatte family, including Sally, who usually prefers to remain draped across the porch bench, headed over to investigate. As they approached, people began to emerge from the helicopter. They stared at the Delattes. "I bet they're saying, 'Look at these hillbillies coming out of the woods," said Darci, Dennis's wife.

One of the first to disembark was Vice Adm. Thad Allen, the man appointed by Pres. Bush to lead the Katrina response and recovery effort. And what Allen actually said was, "How much you want to bet these people offer us some barbecue?"

Allen had been shuttling back and forth between press conferences and devastation when the helicopter began having transmission problems which finally forced them to land in the strawberry field. For weeks, he and his aides had been working long hours on little sleep, which may be why they seemed pleased to suddenly find themselves off the radar.

As the Delattes walked up, Dennis recognized Allen and his blue Coast Guard work uniform. "You look like the man in charge," he said. "I'm the man," confirmed Allen. Then Allen told the Delattes they had the same accent as Lieut. General Russel Honore, the leader of the military's response to Katrina and a fellow Cajun. Meanwhile, the pilots let the kids play in the downed helicopter, and Sally settled down in the shade underneath.

Then the Delattes offered everyone barbecue. At first, the stranded crew politely declined. But soon a couple of the women returned with overflowing trays of ribs, chicken, hamburgers and smoked sausage." No one could resist. "The girls were really happy with the chocolate cake," says Dianna, beaming.

A half hour later, another helicopter appeared to drop off mechanics and take Allen away. He handed out his special Admiral coins, thanked the Delattes for their hospitality and disappeared.

For the next five hours, until well after dark, the mechanics worked on the helicopter. "The mosquitoes were just tearing them up," says Dianna. "I imagine they found out what red bugs is, too," laughs David. So the Delattes fed the mechanics. A neighbor bought them some bug spray. "I worried myself 'til I went to sleep, worrying about those little guys," says Dianna.

A week earlier, Debra Delatte and her sons Dayne, 5, and Deryn, 3, had seen a FEMA helicopter with engine trouble land in another field up the road. Once again, the pilots let the kids play up front. But this time, the VIP onboard did not linger. Within minutes, the British Ambassador was whisked away by another helicopter, Debra says.

With all the men dropping from the sky of late, the Delatte children have become a little jaded. "The kids used to get excited when they saw a helicopter. Now they don't even look up," says Darci. "I look up sometimes," interjects Nicholas, 5.

After telling the story, the Delattes, true to their reputation, brought me inside for smothered deer meat and red beans and rice. "Other people call it 'venison.' We call it deer meat," says Darci. Outside, the wind kicked up, tussling the branches of the old trees out back. Hurricane Rita approached.