Faces of the flood
Stories of the Baton Rouge flood survivors
Beginning August 11, 2016, close to 7 trillion gallons of water engulfed Louisiana — the rough equivalent of 700 times the amount of water pumped out of New Orleans after Katrina hit the southern state.
The floods are affecting at least 20 parishes, and causing over 122,000 individuals to register for Federal Emergency Management Agency assistance, according to a White House report on the disaster.
“I come here first and foremost to say that the prayers of the entire nation are with everybody who lost loved ones,” President Obama said during his time in Baton Rouge. “What I want the people of Louisiana to know is that you are not alone on this. Even after the TV cameras leave, the whole country is going to continue to support you and help you until we get folks back in their homes and lives are rebuilt.”
According to a White House report, FEMA has approved over $205 million to be allocated towards aid in affected areas, including:
$155 million in aid for temporary rental assistance, essential home repairs and disaster related needs
$55 million in advanced payments to flood insurance holders who have filed a claim
CNN reported over 30,000 residents were rescued by the US Coast Guard, National Guard, first responders and neighbors, along with 1,400 pets. At least 13 people have died.
Relief groups like the Red Cross, Samaritan’s Purse and FEMA are dispersed throughout the flooded state. Volunteers from all over the country are heading in and out of Louisiana, including volunteers from North Texas involved with relief groups Team Rubicon, NRG and Information Technology Disaster Resource Center. Just outside Baton Rouge’s worst hit areas, these relief groups have a “forward operating base” to expedite aid into affected areas.
Masked volunteers and survivors sift through the remnants of dour, sullen homes day after day, wiping away tears and sweat they have collected from hours of breaking apart drywall and gutting floors. Their tired eyes have seen better days.
These are the ‘Faces of the Flood.’
Diane Andrews, East Baton Rouge
It’s hard to gauge how high six feet of water is. Though her house was on stilts, the dilapidated trailer Diane Andrews called home was no match for the massive inflow of water that fell on Baton Rouge last week. As of August 23, Andrews and her six dogs had been waiting for FEMA to get to her house for 10 days.
“All gone, just all gone,” Andrews said. “You lose a lot in life. My dogs are alright though. That’s what matters.”
Andrews bought her trailer home in November 1977 and moved it into her lot in January the following year. She and her family have lived on the same five acres, now in four separate homes, in East Baton Rouge since she was a year old. Over six feet of flood water has now left their homes as ravished shells of what they used to be.
“You work all your life for nothing,” Andrews said through tears. “Unless they help me, I’ll be pitching a tent out here.”
Since the flood she lost one of her dogs and gave another away. Clothes caked in mud lay on the floor, her refrigerator was upturned by the water, debris was left strewn around the home, and a gaping hole sits exposing the bottom of her home to the mud and critters beneath it.
Andrews, with no flood insurance and no immediate plans to rebuild her home, said she will likely be moved to a shelter with her dogs. The flood has forced her to leave behind decades of family history.
“We’ve been here all of our lives,” she said. “This is how we were raised.”
The day before the flood, Dallas resident David Sedlin called his parents in Baton Rouge, worried for their safety. His father told him not to fret, that the rain was draining and his neighborhood was safe. Early in the morning Sunday August 14, his dad woke to ankle-deep water.
“Sunday I got a call from a phone I didn’t recognize, but it was a 225 number, and he was in a shelter,” Sedlin said. “AT&T was down so he was using his neighbor’s phone and he said, ‘I woke up this morning and there was water up to my ankles. I rushed out, got your momma and got the dog, and by the time we got out, there was four feet of water.’”
The Sedlins 39-year-old childhood home is no stranger to tragedy. On two separate occasions a car rammed into the house in the same spot just next to the sunken living room. Once a station wagon ripped through the house taking out the wall and windows, making it deep inside the house. On a separate occasion a driver lost sight of the road after texting and driving and barreled directly through the same windows.
The wood was visibly newer than the rest of the house, as its skeleton was revealed after the Sedlin siblings and a handful of volunteers gutted the house for over a week. The mold began growing almost immediately, with many of the surfaces covered in it after just two days.
“I don’t think I ever would’ve known the amount of people that are needed,” Buie said. “It’s surreal. I get to the end of every day not knowing what’s going to happen tomorrow.”
For the Sedlins the prospect of rebuilding is unlikely since their house was paid off 15 years ago and they have no flood insurance. Buie, solemn and thoughtful, said her mother would take it the hardest; 40 years living in a house she built makes it difficult to walk away.
Buie’s brother sees the same fate for the house and said even though it was his childhood home, the final decision on what to do with the house would be left to his parents’. Right now all they’re worried about is getting the bottom floor contractor-ready. Without the volunteers, Sedlin said he doesn’t know where they’d be. He said his parents’ king-size bed was so soaked it had to be cut apart to get it out of the house.
“They can’t come back here. My dad’s 83 and my mom’s 79, I think they’d be crazy to invest the money it would take to rebuild,” Sedlin said. “But it’s their home. It’s their neighborhood, their friends.”
Buie found remnants of old letters and pictures she’d drawn as a child. Among the papers was a photograph of her grandmother, destroyed save for her face. She left out old letters and photographs to dry in an attempt to salvage memories that would otherwise be left to rot away on the sidewalk.
“So the whole picture is gone except that little-bitty part, and that’s good enough,” Buie said, smiling as she referenced the marred photograph of her grandmother she managed to rescue. “At least you can remember what it was, so I’m not going to trash it.”
So much trash and debris was, and still is, being hauled to the curb by flood survivors throughout Louisiana. Buie didn’t want the memory of her grandmother to be cast away with the rest of the rubble.
Though there was much to be done to their childhood home, the Sedlin siblings found help. Volunteers showed up. Neighbors helped out. David’s fraternity brother, Katrina survivor Dr. Billy Fowler, drove from New Orleans to help. A
fter being displaced by the storm Fowler temporarily moved to Frisco, Texas. Even still, the Sedlin siblings believe Louisiana needs more bodies in the state.
“The people who have come all seem to be people who have gone through this already,” Buie said. “There have been people that we’ve heard about that were impacted by Katrina and they said that, ‘We’re here to pay back.’ I don’t think I ever would have known just how big the need is for hands. If you have two hours, you can go help.”
Chauncey G.’s eyes lacked emotion. His brother gave up on their house. His neighbors’ three-foot-tall piles of carpeting and drywall were a constant reminder of just how far behind they were. For personal reasons he decided not to give his full name.
Chauncey lives with his brother in his aunt and uncle’s house, and so far no real help has come from volunteer groups to help them gut their house. He and his brother both live with their aunt and uncle in the house. Every day his aunt and uncle, both over 60, take a few hours and help clean out the house. He said the smell inside the house was unbearable and with so much to do his brother started making excuses not to go to the house.
“I never thought this would happen in Baton Rouge,” Chauncey said. “It’s definitely a shock. I mean, I’ve learned that Baton Rouge’s draining system sucks. How the hell did this happen?”
Two weeks ago Nicholas Gros could walk out his front door to his driveway, get in his car and leave just like a normal day. Now Gros must wade chest-deep through flood waters to get to his truck, while keeping an eye out for leeches, crawfish, water moccasins and alligators. Being located next to a basin was not promising as rains kept building up water right behind his house.
Just north of Dutchtown, Louisiana sits Jim Bayou just next to Bluff road, one of the worst affected areas in Baton Rouge. The houses there, still submerged, won’t see the water recede for another estimated two months, even with the 130,000 gallon-an-hour pumps continuously pumping water out of the area.
Gros’ house was saved by help of more than 40 volunteers and two dump-truck-loads of sandbags placed around three homes. It took four hours for Gros, his neighbors and the volunteers to finish the work, and it made all the difference.
“Man, it looked like ants working out here,” Gros said. “We had an assembly line set up. People were coming up and helping us from the street. I didn’t believe in sand bags, I was like ‘that stuff’s not gonna work’ but it did.”
Gros said his house would likely be under 6 inches of water were it not for the help of the volunteers and his neighbors, Blake and Glenda Mora.
“It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life, just being nervous the whole time,” Gros said. “Last night was the best sleep I’ve had [since the flood]. It’s unbelievable the support, I think people are tired of me thanking them.”
The Moras also left the flood unscathed, save for the fear of the critters roaming in the murky waters they used to call their lawn.
“This is the worst it’s been since I moved here in 2007,” Blake said. “The problem right now is fending off the gators, the snakes. When we go outside at night to do our perimeter checks I kind of feel uncomfortable.”
David Ducote, standing pensive just across the street from the Moras, said he helped his neighbors as much as he could launching canoes from his unaffected property to help people escape. He said his neighbors are now using his house as a place of storage. Unlike the Gros’ and the Moras, his friends across the street were not as fortunate.
“They come here every afternoon and sit on my driveway and just look at it, him and his wife,” David Ducote said of his neighbors. “They just wait for it to go down.”
For Ducote the floods brought him perspective. To him it will serve as a learning experience for the people of Baton Rouge. He blames the lack of attention given to the drainage system, and that the places people decide to live are not properly surveyed and protected. He said it’s like building the roof before the rest of the house.
“This is not nature, this is our fault,” Ducote said. “We need our public officials to look at this and come up with solutions. If five years from now everything’s the same, shame on us.
Adam Johnson and his family bought their home in Baton Rouge in 2005, a week before Hurricane Katrina. The 46-year-old house has seen the likes of what a hurricane can do, but emerged unscathed each time. He said his neighborhood has never experienced such intense and prolonged flooding. Now with his house gutted and stripped down to its frame, he must tackle the rebuild.
“It was 12:30 -- I remember the exact time. We had water gushing out and I said we needed to keep an eye on it, but it wasn’t bad,” Johnson said before he and his family laid down to rest for a nap.
Before the flood turned vicious, they planned to rest for a couple of hours and check the water level again after.
“I might have laid down for about forty minutes and then someone opened the door. That’s when I saw the water gushing in,” Johnson said.
Johnson has lived in Baton Rouge for over 30 years and has never seen anything like this before. He said it took three days to get all the contents out of the house and pile it on the sidewalk, like the rest of his neighbors. It’s still a shock for Johnson to drive through his neighborhood and see it so destroyed.
Johnson said from this point forward, he wants people to be prepared. He plans on keeping his flood insurance, will advocate that his neighbors do the same, and wants realtors to be honest with prospective homeowners. He added even though homes may not be in a verified flood zone, people need to understand that there is still possibility of flooding throughout the southern state.
“We’ve had rains harder than this, and this never happened,” Johnson said. “Most of all, it’s a shock because of what’s happened to this neighborhood. We’ve been through the worst and it’s stood the test of time, even with the canal running through here.”
Johnson’s friend, Derrick Gant, said he knows first hand the destruction flood waters bring. A resident of LaPlace, Gant experienced the surprise floods that ravaged through his neighborhood after Hurricane Isaac in 2012.
“I’ve been through it,” Gant said “I’m just trying to give back the help that was given to me. I mean, it’s like a war zone here. I’m going to stay and make sure everything’s done.”
Gant drove up from his home in LaPlace to help out with gutting Johnson’s house. He and Johnson’s nephew, Terrell Thompson sat outside on the porch eating in silence. For Thompson, the flooding has deeper connotations.
“It’s washing our sins away; God’s punishing us,” Thompson said. “He’s saying we need to stick together instead of all the violence. All these people dying recently… Everybody needs to band together.”
Thompson is calling for unity throughout Louisiana in the face of disaster. Johnson believes he already sees it. While he and his wife stay with his church’s pastor, Johnson sees that his community remains undivided.
“I believe everything happens for a reason,” Johnson said. “Certain things change and you see people’s hearts and they’re coming together and helping one another. You’re seeing black [people] and white[people] and nobody’s seeing color. You’re just seeing a hurting heart and a passion for one another.”
Eight months ago almost to the day Lanny Bergeron, Louisiana State Police lieutenant, moved into his new home in Baton Rouge. A Donaldsonville native, he had a childhood attachment to a decrepit, spooky house built in 1880. As a teen, he and his friends believed the house was haunted and would often visit it, mainly to creep each other out.
When he was hired by the Louisiana State Police, his new position allowed him to return to Donaldsonville where he bought the old house from his teenage years for $10,000. He cut it in three parts and moved it to a spot on a hill overlooking Bayou Manchac in south Baton Rouge.
“I built it a foot and a half above the FEMA flood stage,” Bergeron said. “All the floors were original and everything was original, the doors, everything. I lost everything as far as contents; it is what it is I guess.”
Bergeron, looking callous and sobered, said he treated the house like his child, putting work into it over two years. He compared it to restoring a car, the feeling of finishing bringing him much pride. He said the damages will likely run about $300,000 overall. 3,000 square feet of original wood flooring, all his furniture, and the new fixtures in the kitchen and bathrooms were all piled up outside his home. He said it’ll take at least $75,000 to get the bottom floor livable again.
Despite the damage in his own home, the work doesn’t stop for state police. While on duty, he got to meet and shake hands with President Obama while on his visit to Baton Rouge. Bergeron worked all day with flood survivors, frequenting the most affected areas. After work he would return to his more than 100-year-old home and continue the work so many of his neighbors are also doing: gutting and stripping.
“I’ve been working on this every day,” Bergeron said. “This is all very hard, I can rebuild but the people that can’t — I mean how many people are just gonna walk away from their house?”