A Poet and Her Neighbors Respond to the August 2016 Floods
by Ava Leavell Haymon
While the unprecedented rain fell and fell, I was stranded in Washington state. I watched the storm on my laptop. Meteorologists, agog with excitement, pointed at a great wheel of heavy rain, its diameter reaching from Lafayette to the Mississippi state line, that slowly turned for three days in the same place. An unheard-of tropical storm that formed over land instead of ocean. A storm without a name, bringing the one-thousand-year flood. Hourly updates registered more and more inches of rain. Neighbors phoned to tell me my own house was dry, but I couldn’t get home. Planes weren’t landing at the Baton Rouge airport, and Interstate 10 from New Orleans was closed.
I read The Baton Rouge Advocate online: Photographs showed what looked like the surface of a wide turbulent river, disguising places I could only identify by the occasional street sign stretching high enough to be read above waterline; in other photos nothing reached above the water at all. I watched footage from Baton Rouge TV stations: independently, every citizen with a bateau in the garage cranked up his outboard to rescue the stranded, some in water still rising; they motored right on into legend as another Cajun Navy. Survivors jammed into shelters and homes of friends and strangers, politicians scrambled for aid, scientists presented graphs and records to communicate their amazement. Health authorities warned the water was toxic and black mold even more so. FEMA posted forms to be filled out immediately. Baffling, all of it. We fear hurricanes with ocean surges, the Mississippi River breaching levees. This was not ocean water, and not river water. This was rain.
Few mentioned that this was a city already in crisis. Alton Sterling shot at close range, four police officers shot by a sniper. Ancient hatreds and fears erupted. Our worst instincts and our unthinkable numbers of loaded guns. But attention spans are fickle, and now a catastrophe comes along, sudden and undeniable, a natural disaster, no one to blame. So which seizes our attention? Which way would you expect us to look? Which way would anybody look?
Disasters take place in many dimensions: media narrative, frantic phone calls, history, science. Only people experience disaster directly; I must see for myself. At last, I got a flight into New Orleans and drove toward Baton Rouge, speeding wildly. The massive volume of floodwater was easing south. Within hours, I-10 would be closed again. Next day, I found work in a shelter. Within a week, two evacuees moved into our house. Finally at home, I saw the ruined houses for myself, and I heard people’s stories firsthand:
At the shelter, a young Hispanic couple with limited English and a three-month-old child are flooded out of a house they believe is a rent-to-own. Their employers flooded, too, so they can’t make house payments. A volunteer lawyer finds suspicious clauses in the mortgage papers. The couple are undocumented, afraid to seek legal rights. They continue to labor every day to salvage the house.
An artist friend of mine is flooded, house and studio. Highly educated, white, well-off. No flood insurance; it had not been required or even recommended. Her husband is significantly older than she is, but robust and clear-headed. A vacationing neighbor lends them a dry house. When I visit, I find the husband has become overnight a very old man, repeating himself, slumping in a chair for hours. In two weeks, they must move to a different house, and he, for the first time ever, cannot climb stairs.
My husband guts a house with a small group of young people and the homeowner, a Haitian woman in her forties. He reports heavy, dispiriting work, heat and high humidity, a FEMA-issued mask tight over nose and mouth. He hauls ruined clothes from bedroom to street, and at the back of a closet he comes upon a plastic zip-up bag protecting a long white dress. Mildew is already climbing the satin sleeves. Surely her wedding dress. He holds it out to her—formally, he says—and prepares for her tears. She laughs, “Oh, drag it on out, we’re divorced anyway.”
The pre-school teacher living with us has lost both house and car. Mid-fifties, underpaid, African American, separated from her husband. She borrows a car to visit her house and surprises her husband and his sister parked in the driveway. The FEMA appraiser arrives. The sister apparently had planned to impersonate our guest and make off with the assistance money. From a large collection of family photographs, our guest can save only three. Two sons and her younger self look out at me from a shelf in her room in our house. They smile.
Yes, my husband and I are generous, but that’s not unusual for those whose houses are dry. The destruction is right before our eyes. Good humans will always run to an injured child close enough to see. Some even dive, without thought, into dangerous water when a stranger’s car swerves off the highway. Good humans make soup, tend babies and children, donate money, offer sheets and blankets, bandages, showers and kitchens, arrange for rides, organize rooms as distribution centers for donated clothes and supplies.
And other good folk travel to help. Folks from New Orleans who stayed in someone’s home after Katrina are here to help gut the house that once took them in. Trained response teams have come: Nechama Jewish Response to Disaster, the Mormon Helping Hands—there are 6,000 of them—in their yellow shirts, Islamic Relief USA, many more. Other teams arrive, it seems, from everywhere. Yet they are far outnumbered by locals helping strangers and neighbors alike.
Survivors jam into shelters and homes of friends and strangers, politicians scramble for aid, scientists presented graphs and records to communicate their amazement.
I write these words nine weeks after the water crested. Sadly, I sense a weariness creeping into me and across the city. All that hard labor, and only a dent in what’s needed. Near-mania that ignited to meet a shared emergency begins to wane, and loss and grief to settle in. Survivors slowly realize that despite their working as hard as they possibly could, recovery is nowhere near. I hear of spats, some rather childish. Rebuilding will take years. Buying simple necessities like a stove, wallboard, clothes for even one season will take more money than many will ever have again. Some who worked for years to own a house will never own another one. Although the flood struck rich and poor alike, the old gap aches and silently reasserts itself, now wider than ever, separating those who can afford to rebound and those who cannot. For a few shining weeks racial, religious, economic, political differences didn’t matter. In hindsight, it will seem a holy time.
With the weariness, resentments return from events mere weeks before the flood, the deaths and violence, broken trust, demands for vengeance on all sides. The floodwaters, we find, were tinged with blood. Our city is faced with a graver, more difficult work than overcoming destruction by flood. How did we rush to help anyone who needed it? How do we rouse that commitment to the common good? Our united generosity? The Old Testament dream that justice will roll down like waters? Why is it we no longer see the wronged and the wounded who are right before our eyes?