It was supposed to be a weak tropical system. There was no name, no hype, no national media coverage. While the country focused on the Olympics and presidential politics, Louisiana went through the worst natural disaster since Hurricane Sandy. The rain fell and rivers overflowed their banks in places that have never flooded before.
Heavy overnight rains caused flooding in the lower-lying areas on Friday, August 12, but there was no warning in Denham Springs. At 5 a.m. on Saturday, neighbors woke neighbors and got out with the clothes on their backs. There were rescues by fishing boats and the National Guard. Churches opened shelters and families opened homes. The water kept rising and some evacuees were rescued twice in one day. Facebook was the connection and source of communication.
“I made me a stick to put in the yard,” says Doug who lives in a camper eight miles from Denham Springs, but was helping friends clean out their houses. “I thought it would just flood a little bit and everything would be all right, but it wasn’t all right. The water started coming up on that stick and I knew it was bad. I compare it to turning a sink on low and then trying to fill it up with a fire hydrant. It was that damn bad. It was a Forrest Gump rain, coming down sideways.”
Sixty thousand homes lost. 13 people dead. 30,000 people rescued. 6,900,000,000,000 gallons of rain in one week. 31.39 inches of rain in one day, according to figures from Gov. John Bel Edwards and CNN.
Multiple households in families lost everything. Not just their homes, but cars and jobs, because businesses and schools flooded too. Groceries were hard to find. A week after the flood and a new grocery store was still filled with broken bottles and rotting, molding food.
Miles of sofas, mattresses, sheet rock, insulation, record albums, children’s books, Christmas trees and plastic pumpkins line the streets and highways of the 20 parishes declared as disaster areas. Teddy bears, venison, golf clubs, Mardi Gras beads, a suit of armor and kitchen sinks hauled to the curb before the mold set in. Choir robes, sheet music and church pews. Piles of debris waiting for adjusters and warnings to looters written on discarded doors.
It is just stuff, but people cried over losing the things that mean something — wedding pictures, baby books and a handkerchief from the father figure who passed away a year ago.
Many returned to homes that smelled like mud and sour towels. Rooms filled with wet furniture and slimy floors or stinking fish and a copperhead snake inside the door. An exhausted single mother stayed in a shelter with nine children and nowhere to go. And people returned to work and realized that life does not go back to normal that easily.
Victims do not understand why national media coverage and help were slow to come. Many said, “Good people helping each other should be newsworthy.” After the flood, good people with good stories were easy to find. Survivors took care of one another, even if assistance was hard to accept.
“We are usually the helpers, the ones who would be serving in a time like this,” says Katina Browning, who escaped the flooding with just her husband and six kids. “Some people have a lot of pride, I am one of them. It is hard to accept help, but I am so grateful for what people have done and our family taking us in. Strangers we don’t know have helped us. One lady took us into the store and bought drinks and food for my kids and gave my husband $100. We didn’t have a vehicle and didn’t know where to go. I broke down and cried and thanked her.”
A Facebook post read: “From the 10 percent to the 90 percent. Throughout the coming weeks there will be so much to do, I just kindly ask ‘The 90 Percent’ please allow us ‘10 Percent’ to help you during your time of need. We are here to help you!!! Please allow us to help you do your clothes, and clean out your homes. Please allow us to grieve with you at this sad time. Please allow us to help you to pick up the pieces and make them better.”
Mickey and Lanette Watson in Denham Springs are part of the 10 percent picking up the pieces. They have cooked more than 2,400 meals from their kitchen, covering every lunch and dinner since the flood.
“My son said it best, ‘I kind of feel guilty that we didn’t get flooded,’” Mickey says. “If we didn’t do this, who would? They would have waited on the Red Cross for a few more days. No one else was doing this. I do the cooking and feeding every year on a mission trip in Nicaragua. Now we are having our own mission trip at home serving our neighbors. Eighty to 90 percent of the church members we know are flooded. I am cooking for 13 hours a day and my goal is to keep this going through next weekend.”
Watson’s meals began with a reheated pot of white beans saved from a canceled police benefit. Neighbors cleaned out their pantries and it grew into serving 450 people each meal in a drive-through line at Amite Baptist Church.
The police benefit. Only six weeks ago, Baton Rouge was ripped apart by the shooting of Alton Sterling by a white officer followed by the killing of three police officers by a black man. Black, white and blue flags supporting the police still hang on trees. The flood that brought destruction also brought healing.
“A few weeks ago it was white versus black here. We were going through rioting and at some points, it felt like it was the police against the civilians,” Lori Reese says. She held a wedding picture of her sister, the only picture recovered from her sister’s home. “When this flood happened, it brought our community back together. At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter what color skin you have. Our community is sticking together. Whatever we can do for each other, we are trying to do it. All lives matter.”
Evacuees still live in a shelter at the Celtic Media Centre in Baton Rouge, one of the biggest movie studios in the South. Approximately 3,000 came the first night and it became a small city protected by the National Guard and Louisiana State Patrol. Families sleep on cots in soundstage warehouses and curfew is 10 p.m. There is one shelter for people with pets. Dogs and cats stay in cages and vets and groomers stop by.
“Our pets are family members. We had to save them too. We weren’t leaving if they weren’t coming with us,” Amanda Mosley says. Her pit bull is famous in the shelter for his barking. “The first day was tough, everyone was barking. I try to cover his cage and keep him quiet because a lot of people were complaining. He normally doesn’t bark, bark, bark like that. The first night was mayhem and you could barely walk through here. Animals pick up on that.”
Everywhere are the stories of gratitude and faith during natural disaster. Eunice is a 16-year-old girl in the shelter who grew up in Congo and Zimbabwe. She has been homeless before, but it is easier this time.
“I lived in Africa most of my life and have seen worse than this,” she says. “My father was in the military but we couldn’t get in touch with him because he was fighting in the war. My mom didn’t know what to do. We slept in the street for two years. Someone blessed her with a $100 bill and she started a business selling chips and candy.”
That $100 bill brought them to the United States and her mother is a housekeeper in Baton Rouge. “I wasn’t surprised or shocked or sad by the flooding, because tomorrow isn’t promised,” Eunice says. “I didn’t think I would ever be homeless again, but I feel blessed to be here. At least I have a roof over my head and can feed my empty stomach and still dream. There are no mosquitoes to bite us. That is better than homeless in Africa. Look at this dress and shoes I just got in the donations. Thank you to everyone who donated. May God bless you. I will never be grateful enough.”
Ruth has lived in her home in Denham Springs for 40 years; around the same neighbors. She watched Matlock DVDs the night before the flood. “God is good,” she says. “He saved me, but it was pretty close.”
She closes her eyes at night and still sees the water. “It was the closest I have been to the river in a long time. I am not bitter, I am going with the flow. Literally. I don’t have flood insurance and hope FEMA has a heart. It was time to clean out the house and renovate. I am just thankful for the kindness.”
There are stories of men who have friends they can count on.
“The guys who are helping me are the best of the best,” says Roger, an emergency room security guard in Denham Springs. “We may not look very clean and we look like something out of the movie Oh Brother, Where Art Thou, but we pull together during tragedy and we help one another.”
Their belief in Jesus gives them the strength to carry on. “We have to rely on one another. When the shit hits the fan, we are all we have. This storm affected 20 parishes. We will have this rebuilt before anyone else knows what is happening.”