Yesterday, I received the first photos of my family’s house in Denham Springs, Louisiana, and it’s moved me to reflect further on everything that has happened over the past week. Below is the story of what my family has endured. It is long, very long, because I wanted to capture what the day-by-day of this has been like, the little signs of progress and the many moments of heartache. Parts of it are repetitive of updates I’ve shared throughout the past week on Facebook, and my chronology may be off in spots where I’m mixing up the blur of these long days, but I wanted to put it all in one place, even if it’s a bit off topic from this blog’s typical theme.
I don’t share this to elicit sympathy or sad-face emojis or donations to my family (please donate instead to relief organizations that are working on the ground if you are inclined; I’ve suggested several at the end of this post.) I share this because the people of Louisiana are being ignored-the destruction they are facing, their immense suffering, and their incredibly resilient spirits-and others need to understand what is happening.
This is just one story, and we are lucky. There are tens of thousands more stories like this is Southern Louisiana right now, and most have seen much more devastation than my family.
Last Thursday, I was catching up with my aunt in Baton Rouge and she mentioned the rainy weather. I jokingly responded, “Good, send some our way. Seattle’s been dry for weeks.” The next morning, I saw a friend on Facebook post that her house in Denham Springs was flooding, and they’d lost everything because it happened so fast. That moment felt surreal to me, and even now her post from that Friday morning feels like a harbinger, like an opening of literal floodgates. Suddenly, I started seeing updates all over from friends reporting that the rainstorm hovering over Southern Louisiana was more serious than anyone expected or was prepared for. Later that evening, one bewildered friend, a teacher, would ask, “Was all of this flooding predicted and I’ve been too into the first week of school to notice? I’m still trying to wrap my mind around this… Our rain gauge is showing 20.02″ and it’s still raining.”
I called my dad and stepmom Mary, and Mary answered. She’d tried to go to the school where she teaches that morning, but arrived to find out that the sheriff had shut down the schools. My dad was at Home Depot loading up on cinder blocks to raise the furniture off the floor, and I was astounded that he was expecting our house to get water in it. We’d flooded before in the yard, but nothing had ever touched the house that my parents built nearly 35 years ago. In the record-setting flood of 1983, water lapped at the front porch but stayed outside where it belongs.
Mary said they’d seen a report on the news that the Amite River, which winds its way between Baton Rouge and Denham Springs with a bend not half a mile from my house, was forecast to crest at 44 feet on Sunday. Flood stage is 29 feet. During that legendary flood of 83, the Amite crested at 41.5 feet. When they heard the forecast, Mary said my dad was speechless for several minutes. My dad raised me with a healthy dose of reverence and fear for the Amite and its swift currents, and he knew the power that was headed their way. I asked Mary if they planned to sandbag to keep the water at bay, and she said Dad had told her it wasn’t going to make a difference and they were better off focusing on saving what they could. My aunt encouraged them to come stay with her in Baton Rouge on higher ground, but they wanted to do what they could and ride it out at home.
I checked in a few more times throughout the day. They had loaded up on nonperishable food and bottles of water. They filled the upstairs bathtub and assorted pots and pans with fresh drinking water as well, like we used to do during hurricanes when I was a kid. They brought the microwave upstairs and some paper plates and plastic utensils. My dad filled an ice chest so that he could continue to savor the chicken pot pie they’d just made. (He really loves chicken pot pie.) They drove Mary’s car to a friend’s house on higher ground, though she would find out later that her car was submerged even there. They parked my dad’s truck on the highest ground on our property and drove the cab up onto ramps. It would come out of the storm mostly unscathed, with just damp floor mats caused by the wakes of rescue boats passing on the road. They worked in the yard, collecting items that might float away and securing the canoe, bateau, and kayak to the house in case they needed them for a quick exit. With great foresight for what the days ahead would hold, my dad brought his tools and mitre saw upstairs, emptying as much as he could out of his woodshop, a shop he lovingly built this summer, with a giant barn-style window overlooking the pond in our backyard.
That afternoon and evening, they started working inside. My dad built a platform of cinder blocks and plywood, first a couple feet high, but as predictions of the Amite’s crest level inched up and up, he rebuilt it higher. He and Mary and our neighbor worked together to put several pieces of furniture and other items on the four-foot-high platform, and they traded time at the neighbor’s house helping him get ready as well.
They carried our family photos upstairs, although I wouldn’t know for several days whether the photos had been spared, not wanting to ask my dad and make him feel guilty for an oversight. My dad wrapped Mary’s family’s upright piano in plastic sheeting and duct tape, hoping it might somehow stay dry. It would later topple over into the floodwaters, ruined.
On Saturday, Dad and Mary woke up planning to continue moving more items upstairs, thinking based on the reports they’d seen they had another full day before the water would reach the house. Evacuations and boat rescues were beginning around town, and I texted Mary the emergency rescue number as well as the number of a guy with a boat who was offering on Facebook to evacuate people and pets. I urged her to pack a bag with crucial medication, food, and some dry clothes in Ziplocs and keep it handy. I told her to charge up both of their cell phones. Dad is notorious for never having his phone charged.
My wife and I went to a friend’s house for the afternoon, but I kept refreshing my phone, watching friends on Facebook post photos and updates from back home. I excused myself and stepped outside to check on Dad and Mary. I tried calling the house and got a no-service signal. Dad hadn’t charged his cell phone yet, and Mary wasn’t answering hers. I tried the house again and it rang several times and then crackled, but no voice answered on the other end. I tried twice more, and Dad finally picked up, sounding tinny and faint. We talked for about 90 seconds, often repeating ourselves to overcome the crackly connection. They had four inches of water in the house already, and it was rising fast. They had no running water. They had cut the power downstairs but still had power upstairs. But he couldn’t stay on the phone. They were trying to salvage what they still could. I told him to charge his cell phone and that I would call that night to check on them. I told him that I loved him. I didn’t tell him to call for help and get out of there, though every part of me wanted to.
When I got home, I wept in my wife’s arms. I wept with worry for the safety of my family and the feeling of helplessness being 2,546 miles away. I wept with frustration at myself for not insisting that they leave the house, knowing that my dad would not have acquiesced but that at least I could say I tried. I wept for the memories being washed away. I wept for that rug in the living room that transformed into a stage when my dad helped me choreograph the routine for my 5th grade talent show. I wept for the mantel around our fireplace where my dad is at his happiest with a roaring fire and his kids all at home. I wept for the huge chest that stored our Christmas decorations and forever retained a scent of pine and cloves, one of my favorite smells in the world. I wept for the remaining traces of my mother being swallowed by the river, the room where she watched the hummingbirds flit by after she was too sick to make it up the stairs, the room where I read and sang to her and told her I was afraid of life without her, the room where she died. I wept for my younger brother, living abroad in Taiwan, with nearly everything he owned sitting in our house’s only ground-floor bedroom, while trinkets of mine that I haven’t given a passing thought to in years were safe and dry upstairs. I wept with grief for all the friends losing everything in that very moment. I wept for Baton Rouge, torn up with racial tension and national scrutiny just a month earlier and now facing a new and different kind of heartbreak. I wept until I was exhausted.
After working all day Saturday, my dad and Mary retreated to the second floor of the house, where they would spend the next two days trapped without running water, without air conditioning, and without smart phones to look up the river flood stages or phone numbers to the power company when the lights started to flicker upstairs. I spoke to them as they settled in for the night, and they joked that they were camping out like college kids. The water was knee-high downstairs, but they were in good spirits, and my dad told me about two wild boar he’d seen swimming through the yard that afternoon. He had grabbed his camera and videoed the boar while they swam to an “island” near the azalea bushes at the front of the driveway and ate every last azalea.
I asked my dad if we could make an emergency plan in case I couldn’t reach them, and he said no, they’d be fine. I didn’t insist, but I told him I would be calling regularly.
My brother Casey called from Taiwan that evening. I’d sent him an email the day before letting him know what was happening. After making sure everyone was doing ok, he asked whether I knew if Dad and Mary had gotten a few items out of his room, his photography equipment and a hard drive with who knows how many photos stored on it. I texted Mary the locations of the items he was most concerned about, and he reached Dad by phone as well, but most was already underwater. They’d brought many of his things upstairs but hadn’t seen the photo equipment or the hard drive he had under his bed.
On Sunday morning, Mary told me the water was close to four feet, and my dumbfounded response was “In the house?!?!” My dad said it didn’t seem like it had risen any further in the past several hours. It was about half an inch below the platform he had built in the living room, and he was afraid to walk downstairs and cause any wake that might send it higher. I checked the river stages, confirming that the Amite had crested overnight at 46.2 feet and was slowly starting to drop. They shouldn’t get any more water inside.
With no running water, my dad carted buckets of floodwater upstairs so they could use them to flush the toilet. He joked that maybe he could empty out the house that way. We called and texted throughout the day, and I gave them status reports on the Amite and let them know what I was seeing online about the scale of the unfolding disaster. When the power went out, Mary called and asked me if I could look up the power company’s phone number. I told her I’d make the call to report the outage and for her to conserve her cell battery. I made the call, and 10 minutes later, Dad called to tell me that the power had come back on. That felt pretty good, even though I logically know I had nothing to do with the power coming back on. As soon as FEMA aid applications became available online, I started gathering information to help Dad and Mary apply. Like the majority of people in Denham Springs, they do not have flood insurance, and their regular homeowner’s policy won’t cover the damage to the house or lost possessions.
I talked to my older brother Dobin, who lives in Florida and was eager to get to Louisiana to help as soon as he could. He was debating whether to fly or drive, and we wondered how long it would be before roads were passable.
The next morning, Monday, I woke up in tears, having dreamed of rising water all night long and feeling entirely incapable of trying to face a “normal” day. But the news from Louisiana was hopeful. The waters were dropping. Mary could see the front door knob again. By that evening, the water was out of the house, and they were mucking and mopping. They moved the fridge, which had been lifted up by the waters and dropped a few feet away, blocking the entrance to the kitchen. The water was so high and so powerful that the extra fridge in our laundry room sat perched atop the dryer. Dad and Mary gathered up the spoiled food, some of which had floated around the kitchen, and put it in garbage bags on the porch since the yard was still full of water. Disturbingly, a rotisserie chicken remained unaccounted for and wouldn’t be located for a couple of days. Dad worked outside in his kayak, collecting some of the items that had floated around the yard and returning them to the porch. That night, Mary brought a bottle of wine upstairs as they hunkered in for another night, able to move around the house again but still unable to leave the flooded property.
Dobin flew into New Orleans on Tuesday morning and was able to borrow a truck. The water had continued to drop, and there was a passable route to the house, so he arrived that afternoon with fresh food and supplies, and the three of them worked all day. Dad moved his sump pump to the cellar, which was still full of water and the site of the broken water pipe that was keeping them without plumbing. The water heater had fallen over and was floating around the cellar, damaged beyond repair. They tackled the mattress in Casey’s room, but it was so water-logged that they had to cut it into pieces to get it out of the house. That night, they drove to my Aunt Shannon’s house in Baton Rouge and took desperately-needed hot showers. She said they looked like new people after washing up. They ate a hot meal and slept there. My dad said he slept like a baby, but Mary tossed and turned.
All four of them went back Wednesday morning. My aunt picked up several bags of rice to try drying out Casey’s photo equipment and hard drive. They continued to work on getting the fabric surfaces out of the house, including moving the couch out and tearing up the carpet in Casey’s room. Casey’s dresser drawers had swollen and warped shut, so they smashed in the back with a sledgehammer, and my aunt filled eight garbage bags with his clothes to try to clean at her house. Trying to help however I could from afar, I sent her information on how to sanitize clothes after a flood. Dobin worked on cleaning and fixing the air conditioner, and by the end of the day, he had it running for the second story. (The duct work did not get floodwater in it, thankfully.) They all stayed at my aunt’s again that night.
Thursday morning, my dad headed out early, but his plans of picking up breakfast on the way to the house were foiled as everyone else in town seemed to have the same idea. The rest of the family joined a little later after running some errands, including buying a new water heater. My aunt tried to pick up MREs and bottled water on the way to the house, but the distribution center by our house was out of supplies. Dad and Dobin worked on installing the water heater, working in the several inches of water that still remained in the cellar. My aunt and Mary worked on cleaning out Casey’s room and the laundry room, tossing out bags and bags of things beyond saving. My aunt and I spoke at the end of the day shortly after she got back to her house to fix dinner for everyone. She said driving through the town’s streets was eerie, with everyone’s possessions lined along the curb like barricades.
In the days ahead, they’ll put my dad’s tools to good use as they turn to tearing out the sheet rock and spraying to remove mold, along with continuing to throw out the many things the Amite took. I’ve sent them gloves, masks, safety glasses, and heavy-duty trash bags, and I’ve booked a ticket home to help do what I can next week.
And that brings me to now, one week after the day that the floodgates opened in Denham Springs, a suburb of about 10,000, where an estimated 9,000 had flood damage with next to no warning. In Livingston Parish, where Denham is located, 75 percent of homes are expected to be a “total loss,” and while Livingston Parish bore much of the brunt of the storm, folks in Baton Rouge and nearby Ascension Parish were hard hit as well. Some areas got more than two feet of rain in a span of just a couple of days, more rain than Los Angeles has received in the past three years. At least 13 people have died, many are still missing, tens of thousands were rescued from flooding homes, and many are still in makeshift shelters today with no place else to go. Scores of families have lost everything, and most had no flood insurance.
My family’s story is not unique. If anything, we’re lucky. Many of our treasured family belongings made it upstairs out of the water’s reach, but most families in Denham don’t have a second story and were only able to save what they could carry out with them or maybe tuck in an attic before evacuating. Although I fretted about Dad and Mary trapped upstairs, the fact that they were able to ride it out at home meant they could get to work quickly to get the muck out before it dried and start getting ruined furniture out before it began to mold and mildew. Dad and Mary have Verizon, whose service was strong and steady throughout the crisis, while those with AT&T could not place or receive calls for several days, leaving family members who were scattered in different shelters cut off from one another and uncertain of one another’s fate. And of course, we are lucky because everyone in our family survived.
In all of this, watching from afar, I have seen two stories clearly play out. The first is the way that Louisiana has banded together. From the moment it became clear that this was going to be serious, a so-called “Cajun Navy” got to work, just regular folks with boats who set out to rescue thousands of people whose calls were going unanswered at the overwhelmed emergency line. Social media became a lifeline as people called out for help and friends spread their pleas as far as they could, helping direct the unofficial first responders to those in urgent need. Patching together text messages and social media updates from one shelter to another, loved ones were able to locate each other when the phones failed. One of my longtime family friends, displaced from her own flooded home, showed up to volunteer at a shelter and gathered the names of folks who were trying to check on family members and friends, using Facebook to pass along every scrap of information she could find on who was located in which shelter. And then, when the immediate danger subsided and the waters began to recede, the offers began poring in, tips on how to salvage family photos, offers to tear out sheet rock and carpet or move furniture, invitations to come-one-come-all jambalaya cookouts.
The second story I’ve seen play out is actually a lack of a story. This has been a week-long catastrophe, and countless friends outside of Louisiana have told me that, apart from my relentless posts about it, they would have scarcely heard of what was happening. That lack of attention also means a lack of financial resources and donations that Louisiana will need badly as a long, hard process of cleanup and rebuilding begins. I’ve written a lot about that already on Facebook, and I won’t recount my dismay at the lack of media attention in detail here, except to say that the country’s blind eye to this suffering seems like so much salt in the wound.
On this blog, created to reflect on difficult issues and events after the news cycle has churned on to the next story, I often use phrases like “in the wake” to talk about the muck and mire left behind, the stuff that many don’t see or don’t want to think about because it raises too many challenging questions. It’s never felt like a more apropos phrase. Louisiana will be feeling the aftermath of this “1,000-year storm” for months and years to come, and many families may never fully recover from the financial and emotional toll it took. In the wake of a tragedy like this, we have to ask ourselves why our country has responded in the way that it has (or hasn’t). And we have to ask ourselves why something like this “freak” storm, one of at least eight catastrophic storms in the U.S. in roughly the past year, is becoming commonplace. If we don’t have the attention span for a disaster like this in the moment it is most acute and heart-wrenching, how can we expect to sustain attention, not to mention action, to address the environmental degradation that lies at the root of these disasters? In the past week, our country let Louisiana drown without a second thought, and if we don’t act, as a country and a world, to meaningfully address climate change, we are saying that we don’t care if Louisiana drowns again. Or if Thailand is swept away into the sea. Or if Boston is buried in unprecedented snow and ice. Or if California burns.
If you’ve made it this far through my post, thank you for taking the time to see this devastation through my family’s eyes. If you are interested in donating to recovery and aid efforts, please consider any of the following:
– Greater Baton Rouge Food Bank: The local food bank lost 500,000 pounds of food to flooding, and they are replenishing supplies so they can resume getting emergency food and water to shelters. http://brfoodbank.org/home/contribute/
– Capital Area United Way: The United Way is coordinating distributing items to shelters and others in need. You can send shipments (Amazon Prime two-day!) to 700 Laurel Street Baton Rouge, LA 70802. There is a list on their website of items they need most desperately. http://www.cauw.org/flood
– Livingston Parish Schools flood response (not tax deductible): This is a flood-focused expansion of a longtime initiative that gets school supplies to families in need. My stepmom is a teacher in the Livingston school district. http://037ceab.netsolhost.com/WordPress/2013-donation-dates/