This post represents another detour from my blog’s traditional topic of race, but I appreciate the outlet this venue has provided as my family has grappled with an unprecedented flood that destroyed the first floor of our home in South Louisiana and left tens of thousands of families with even more destruction and loss than my family. I have also deeply appreciated hearing from so many who were touched by my family’s story and shared it with others, donated to support flood relief throughout the Baton Rouge area, or even made their own trips to Louisiana to assist in cleanup efforts.
On the morning that I arrived in Denham Springs to help my family after devastating floods engulfed South Louisiana, I examined my brother’s photography equipment. I pulled lens after lens from an old black steamer trunk and evaluated each for whether the muck was caked on too thick, the residue had begun to rust the equipment, or water was still trapped inside. Those few that could possibly be salvaged, I cleaned, rinsed in fresh water, gently toweled off, and then packed away in Ziplocs filled with Louisiana rice, hoping the rice and a few passing weeks might work together to extract the remaining moisture.
One telephoto lens, the longest by far, was heavy with the water that remained inside. This was not just any water. Floodwater of the sort that devastated my hometown in August is a vicious combination of muddy river water, raw sewage, oil and petroleum, and runoff from other chemicals. It is foul. It is ugly. It sticks, and it stinks.
Inside of my brother’s camera lens, it looked like someone had dumped a full cup of clumpy, poorly-mixed Ovaltine behind the glass and then sealed the lens. I twisted the lens every way I could think of, flipped it and shook it in every possible direction, but not a drop of the muddy water leaked out. I wondered how this water had wormed its way into the lens to begin with, what minuscule opening the flood had found that I could not.
Every day of my short trip home, I found hidden water that had lingered even two weeks after the storm that dumped more than two feet of rain on the Baton Rouge area in just a couple of days. A discarded aquarium in the cellar sloshed with remnants of the flood. A deep kitchen drawer finally lurched open after it had been swollen shut, revealing pots and pans full of brown liquid no Cajun would mistake for a roux. A green plastic garbage can had wedged itself beneath the back deck, serving no purpose now other than to breed mosquitoes. The mud and muck squished beneath my boots every time I jumped off of the front porch, its wooden steps washed away in the storm.
A week after returning from my hometown, I am discovering that the waters remain a part of me, that the flood seeped into my psyche in ways that were invisible to me until my flight departed Baton Rouge. As our plane climbed, I looked down and saw the piles distinctly visible in front of so many of the homes below me, lives taken to the curb. I looked down and saw the muddy rivers, still slightly swollen with too much rain, winding their way to the Mississippi and indifferent to the memories they carried with them. I looked down and saw the thousands of people trapped, no longer by the threat of rising water, but by the physical, financial, and emotional ruin left behind.
Since arriving back in Seattle, I have tossed and turned nearly every night with dreams of gushing water, spreading mold, injuries and illness, escalating reconstruction costs, and even looting and violence. I have re-immersed myself in work, feeling grateful to have the normalcy and guilty not to have another day working beside my father to save the home he built. I have clicked through the videos and photos he took, trying to comprehend one family’s loss and extrapolate that out to tens of thousands of families across South Louisiana. I have sat dazed, feeling like I’m looking at the world through that murky telephoto lens. I have marveled at how my childhood home being nearly washed off the map has made me feel more steeped in the South than I’ve felt in more than a decade.
I did not live through this flood in the same way my family and many of my friends did, and my experience of the long rebuilding process ahead will be more vicarious than not, but the waters that washed through my hometown have cut new channels in me nonetheless. Compassion and concern for this complicated place of my childhood. The sense of impermanence that comes from throwing the crumbling walls of your brother’s room onto a backhoe, and the sense of permanence that comes from sitting with one of your mother’s dearest friends on patio furniture in the middle of her gutted living room, reminiscing and laughing despite the heartache all around you. Hope for our resilience in the face of nature’s devastation, and anger at our failure to acknowledge our part in how and why this devastation occurs. The sorrow we find in all that the waters took away almost overnight, and the strength we find in the waters that remain a part of us forever.