The Everyday Heroes of Louisiana’s Greatest Disaster Since Hurricane Katrina
Teachers, stagehands, and countless others are helping the state recover when it almost seems like no one else will.
NEW ORLEANS, Louisiana — Sanders Davis of Baton Rouge saw the Great Flood of 2016 up close and personal last week.
Davis, 25, lives in the Sherwood Forest subdivision, a leafy, standard-issue middle class enclave that lies east of the 27-story Capitol erected by Gov. Huey Long in the Great Depression.
A Dartmouth graduate, Davis teaches English and is assistant football coach at Catholic High and lives with his folks who were away for the weekend. The thrumming rainfall intensified Saturday night. Early Sunday, when he checked his cell phone, the text from a friend nearby said his house had flooded.
Sanders’s house was dry, but he worried about his grandmother, Joyce Davis, who lived six blocks down on Goodwood Blvd, in the house where his dad grew up.
His call woke her. “Oh my God!” she screamed. “There’s water in the house!”
“Pack your bag and medicines. I’m coming,” he told her.
Sanders had a buddy visiting; they hunt ducks in the winter. The water outside was too deep for Sanders to take his truck, so they put on waders meant for duck blinds and pushed into the waist-high water, block by block in a thickening current.
Mrs. Davis was on her porch in water up to her thighs, holding her bag. Sanders handed the bag with her meds and few clothes to his pal and hoisted his grandma on his back, her arms around his neck and legs curled around his waist. They headed into the water.
The walk, five minutes on dry land, took 25 minutes as the guys maneuvered through shifting currents. Sanders was exhausted when they reached his house. The totality of it all is still sinking in.
“My grandmother is an active woman,” he told The Daily Beast. “She’s a retired school teacher who reads a lot, she goes bowling. This neighborhood had never flooded. We got a back-flow from the Amite River. Our house is one of about ten that did not get water, among a couple of hundred homes in Sherwood Forest.”
Davis spoke Thursday as he surveyed the neighborhood where he grew up.
“My grandmother’s life is out on the street. She used to be an English teacher. Yesterday I cleaned out dozens of novels, textbooks, old vinyl records.
“The streets here are lined with debris—clothes, furniture, carpet and rugs. So many people’s houses are ruined. A lot of elderly people live in this neighborhood. Antique furniture is everywhere on the street, ruined. One of the people we helped yesterday was an elderly couple who hadn’t even cut out their drenched carpets. They couldn’t do anything. You look outside—an old lady in a wheelchair in her doorway. You ask her how she’s doing. ‘I can’t do anything,’ she says.
“There are people in this neighborhood who are pretty much helpless.”
Baton Rouge and a constellation of surrounding parishes in southwest Louisiana, including several deep in Cajun country, are digging out or still knee-deep from last week’s rainfall that was called once in a century.
In the state capital, population 229,000, the flooding has added a new layer of trauma to the aftershocks of the violence last month. On July 5, police shot to death Alton Sterling outside a convenience store where he was selling CDs and resisted arrest. Twelve days later, an Iraq war veteran shot and killed three police officers and wounded three others before being killed by police.
The rain began late last week and on Saturday became a crashing deluge that discharged ten inches over last weekend, and in some areas, a staggering 30 inches, according to the National Weather Service.
As rain continued early into the week, swollen rivers spilled into residential neighborhoods across a swath of eight parishes, or civil parishes, in an area of roughly 150 square miles. As of Thursday, 13 people had died in the flood, 40,000 homes were damaged, hotels across the Baton Rouge metro area were at capacity and 8,000 people there were stuck in shelters.
South of Baton Rouge lies Livingston Parish, which “perhaps took it worst of all,” according to the Times-Picayune.
“It’s estimated that three-quarters of the homes for a population of about 138,000 will be a ‘total loss,’” reported Julia O’Donoghue. “Water damaged 90 percent of the houses in Denham Springs, the 10,000-person city in Livingston.”
Video of submerged cars, houses engulfed to the windows, chains of people passing sandbags to thwart rising water in towns farther south, and volunteers hacking out drenched drywall sent out a loop of deja-vu loop across the southern half of the state, where hurricanes and pounding rainstorms have become a recurrent spectacle since Hurricane Katrina’s wrath in 2005.
“This was an equal-opportunity storm,” Baton Rouge Advocate columnist Lanny Keller told The Daily Beast. “It hit white neighborhoods, black areas, poor and rich alike, all across the spectrum.”
That includes the Governor’s Mansion, which took so much water that Gov. John Bel Edwards and his family had to evacuate. Edwards has been prominent in the news coverage, monitoring relief efforts, meeting with people in shelters, communicating with the White House. President Obama issued a disaster area declaration, making people in the flooded areas eligible for federal assistance.
Only about 25 percent of people in the Baton Rouge area had flood insurance, according to media reports. Federally backed flood insurance policies are a requirement for mortgages in post-Katrina New Orleans, where real estate costs and rents are higher than ever.
It’s still not over in Lafayette, the heart of Cajun country.
Todd Mouton was in a temporary office as executive director of Louisiana Folk Roots in Lafayette, the hub city of Cajun country, when he spoke to The Daily Beast on Friday.
“It looks like the water will remain above our floorboards another five or six days,” said Mouton. “The office is about ten feet above sea level. We’ve been recovering files of news articles, records and historical photographs. Several things were digitized but we lost lots of things on hundreds of programs we’ve done, many with musicians no longer living.
“In Lafayette, overall, the damage is staggering. There are numerous pockets where the water came from every direction. In my neighbor-hood, several dozen houses are marinating in four or five feet of water. I’m lucky. My house is on relatively high ground.”
The Vermilion River, which runs south toward the Gulf of Mexico through Lafayette, filled up a swamp on the city’s outskirts, reversed course and began flowing north for several days.
“Early last week the Vermilion was at five feet,” said Mouton. “Ten is flood stage, and the levee next to our office is at sixteen feet. The river crested at more than 17 and a half. It’s stills over 17 today and has to go down to 16 before we can pump the office out.”
Almost as prolific as the rain has been the help.
The most stunning moment of heroism, captured by WAFB TV, quickly went viral: a young man named David Phung at the edge of a skiff, jabs a pole at the back window of a red convertible, trying to get the top sprung as the vehicle tilts three-quarters down in the water. Phung jumps into the water, goes under, surfaces with a gasping woman and goes down again… rescuing her dog.
Local 478 of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, the area film workers’ union, set up New Orleans drop points for supplies to flood-displaced people and scoured social media to locate far-flung shelters in areas beyond news coverage and most relief efforts.
At Killian Baptist Church in a village 50 miles east of Baton Rouge, a van driven by IATSE Local 478 volunteers arrived Wednesday with water, food, diapers, toiletries, clothes, cleaning products, infant care items and feminine hygiene products.
Carpenters, welders and set construction artists from 478 have organized a team of volunteers to gut and clean flood-damaged homes.
“Every student and faculty member at Catholic High not affected by the storm has been volunteering every day,” Sanders said, adding, “Young high schoolers who have never swung a hammer are now in a trial by fire, using saws and knives for people who need it.”
Looting in the flooded areas has been sparse, according to media reports.
“The admirable thing is that people are coming together where people need it,” said Davis. "The community around Baton Rouge has been hot headed with the Alton Sterling protests and police shootings —- a schism in this community. When you see everyone put those issues aside, the race issues dissolve. Yeah, we have a lot of issues to sort out in Baton Rouge, but it’s great to see people of all ethnicities helping others when they need immediate help.”