Joy Banner's family took shelter in a house on a plantation their ancestors helped build. "They were not able to have this kind of house for their own protection when a hurricane hit them," she says.



It was just one week ago that Hurricane Ida roared through southeastern Louisiana. People are cleaning up and trying to put their lives back together now. When Gulf Coast residents decide not to evacuate ahead of a big storm, they then ask themselves, where do I want to ride it out? NPR's John Burnett has the story of one family that found safety in an unlikely structure.

JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: When the Banner family sought shelter from the storm, they looked for the sturdiest building in the tiny community of Wallace, La. So they decided to ride out Ida in the Big House on the Whitney Plantation.

JOY BANNER: Oh, wow. It's just unbelievable.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Twin sisters Joy and Jo walk through the grounds, strewn with toppled trees, building material and broken limbs.

JOY BANNER: Those trees were snapped. They're gone. Everything looks so different.

BURNETT: The banners are Black. They've lived on this rich alluvial soil beside the Mississippi River for generations. And they say their enslaved ancestors helped construct this Creole plantation house 230 years ago for a German planter and slave owner named Jean Jacques Haydel. As it happens, it was to this handsome, white-columned manse that the Banners and their parents, Harriett and William, fled last Sunday.

JOY BANNER: And just being back here and going through the experience of being in a hurricane in that house and then literally - I mean, that was our place of refuge. It's really made me appreciate the skill, the craftsmanship of the enslaved people. They were not able to have this kind of house for their own protection when a hurricane would hit them.

BURNETT: Whitney Plantation is not like the other historic plantations located along the famed River Road that winds along the Mississippi. This acclaimed plantation museum was the first in America dedicated to the telling of the slave experience. Joy Banner, who lives a mile and a half away, is communications director here. She unlocks the padlock and lets us into the dining room, which is furnished with elegant table settings from that era.

JOY BANNER: And this is where we were for 17 hours.

BURNETT: At one point, the wailing wind stopped, and they saw the sun again. And they thought the storm was over. But when the winds picked up again, they hurried back to the Big House. The eye of Hurricane Ida was passing directly over the Whitney, but they were safe.

JOY BANNER: You can feel that this is pretty, you know, thick plaster on brick that is used for the construction of the bottom portion of the house, which is where we stayed.

BURNETT: I mean, look at these walls. They're more than a foot thick.

JOY BANNER: And this was built in 1791. It's seen hurricanes before. It's seen Betsy. It's seen - now it's seen Ida.

BURNETT: Her sister, Jo.

JO BANNER: So ironic to run to the big house. You know, I never imagined, as a descendant of the enslaved, that we'd be running to this house.

BURNETT: The Big House at the Whitney Plantation is considered one of the finest examples of decorated wood architecture along River Road. In one room, you can still see the initials of the mistress, M.H., monogrammed on the ceiling of the parlor. Again, Joy Banner.

JOY BANNER: (Laughter) As much security and safety as the house provided, there's still the sense of, you don't belong here. Like, the house is not for you.

BURNETT: Ida caused extensive damage on the Whitney Plantation. The original slave cabin stood, but two sharecropper cabins that were brought onto the property were flattened. The ancient oak trees lost a lot of limbs, but they survived. The pigeon roosting houses are OK. The stately, whitewashed Antioch Baptist Church, which was built by emancipated slaves and moved here from across the river in 1999, was also heavily damaged. The Banner sisters' mother, Harriett, says she'll never forget the day of the storm.

HARRIETT BANNER: It was just so loud, and it sound like maybe the train was coming through. And you look out, and you saw the beautiful trees. And they were just all over the place. It was terrifying.

BURNETT: Harriett Banner believes it wasn't just the thick walls and cypress shutters that protected them. There's a Catholic tradition down here in St. John the Baptist Parish where, when a hurricane is coming, you sprinkle bread that was blessed on St. Joseph Day around your house to protect it.

H BANNER: So I brought my St. Joseph bread. And then when I got to the Big House, I'd sprinkle holy water and threw the bread around - you know, around the house. And I kept my rosary in my hand. So I prayed. I gave it up to Him, and I said, Lord, it's in your hands. And that's what calmed me down (laughter).

BURNETT: Whitney Plantation has closed for the time being. The management is seeking donations for what will be expensive repairs. As for the Big House, it lost its chimney, some cedar shingles and a few windows, but it stood strong against the storm just as it was built to. John Burnett, NPR News, Wallace, La.

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