“The water rose so fast”: Victims of Louisiana’s 1,000-year flood tell Salon their stories

Amid Louisiana's disaster and devastation, communities have united and neighbors have helped one another

Published August 22, 2016 9:06PM (EDT)

Debris piled up from flooded home on Hodgeson Road in Prairieville, Louisiana  on Sunday (Lisa O'Neill)
Debris piled up from flooded home on Hodgeson Road in Prairieville, Louisiana on Sunday (Lisa O'Neill)

Talk to anyone affected by what has been called a "1,000-year-flood" in Louisiana, and they'll tell you how fast the water rose. Their lawns, their front steps and their homes were bone dry, and then suddenly the water rushed in. Three feet in 20 minutes, they say. Six feet in less than an hour. In a hurricane, at least you can plan. But no one planned for a stalled rainstorm hovering for two days over areas not considered floodplains.

Twenty Louisiana parishes have been declared major disaster areas by the federal government. As of Monday, over a week after the first rainfall, 30,000 people and 1,400 pets had been rescued and an estimated 60,000 homes impacted statewide, according to Grace Weber of the Louisiana Department of Children and Family Services. So far, 13 people have been confirmed dead.

Gary Banks' first priority was evacuating his 98-year-old uncle. Denham Springs and parts of Baton Rouge had already flooded. So even though they didn’t have water yet on their Prairieville street, Banks, 49, didn’t want to take a chance; he and his cousin put his uncle in a truck headed to a family member’s house. Banks decided to wait it out: He walked back inside, put his box spring and mattress up on cinder blocks, and went to sleep.

“When I woke up the next morning, the water was up to here,” Banks said, pointing to his chest. The home his uncle built by hand had filled with four-and-a-half feet of water. He had to be evacuated by boat.

At the peak, 11,054 people, including Banks, were staying in emergency shelters. That number was down to 3,075 by Saturday, as people returned to their neighborhoods and found places to stay with neighbors and loved ones throughout the state.

The Red Cross set up one emergency shelter at the Lamar Dixon Expo — a multi-purpose center owned by Ascension Parish and used for events like shows, 4-H competitions, and rodeos. On Saturday, service tents outside the building teemed with volunteers and sidewalks were stacked with pallets of bottled water. People waited in lines outside to pick up supplies, while inside a gym building, hundreds of cots strewn with blankets, pillowcases and garbage bags lined the building. Men and women in military fatigues stood at stations around the room, while adults sat on beds or in wheelchairs and children played. A command center with a dry-erase board listed phone numbers, needed supplies and the current headcount: 452.

One shelter resident, Eujohn Moses, 38, of Gramercy, Louisiana, was living in the Desire Housing Projects in the Ninth Ward of New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina. He evacuated to Lake Charles before having to leave again — this time to Atlanta — when Hurricane Rita threatened the area just two weeks after Katrina. “I lost everything,” he said. “Right now, I don’t know what I lost.”

At lunchtime, Red Cross volunteers came around with food: First, jambalaya and bread in Styrofoam containers and then hot dogs wrapped in foil.

James Guillory, 50, hunched over on a metal folding chair, his head in his hands. He had been living with friends in a camper on an island in Port Vincent when it began to rain. The area was vulnerable to the Amite River, which crested at more than 17.5 feet.  When the water was chest deep, Guillory and his friends filled a party barge with possessions and tied it to a tree, hoping it would stay put through the storm. He walked three miles to Ralph’s Supermarket, where he was picked up and brought to the shelter. Before the flood, he worked in the kitchen at Popeye’s; he hopes to get back there soon and hopes someone will be there to give him his check.

His sister also lived in Port Vincent. “I don’t know where she is,” he says, breaking down. “I don’t know what to do.”

Down a few chairs from him, Sharon Buratt, 46, hasn’t heard from one of her daughters, who has a nine-month-old baby, since the night before their area flooded. She tears up and fellow evacuee Karen Clement tries to comfort her. “I didn’t know that,” Clement says. “I’m sure she’s all right.” The day Buratt arrived at the shelter after narrowly escaping her flooding trailer, she collapsed from a panic attack. Her 11-year-old daughter, who suffers from autism, ADHD, and schizophrenia, is struggling in the chaotic shelter. “Everybody’s having a rough time of it,” says her husband, Ronald Berceguay.

Despite the obstacles or because of them, Buratt, Berceguay and Clement say evacuees have become an impromptu family, looking out for one another and providing support.

Clement’s house, rebuilt in 2010 after a fire, was raised 18 feet off the ground and flooded an inch or more. She points to a young teenager in latex gloves and red baseball cap moving a garbage can.

“You see that young man? That’s Shawn,” she says. “He’s 16 years old and here by himself. When his mom left, he stayed to help volunteer and he’ll be walking up and down the aisles at four in the morning to make sure everybody is safe, to see if anybody needs something.”

Shawn Roger came here after he and his mom had to be evacuated by boat from their trailer home. He says he just likes helping people.

When he and his mom left, there was no time to get his puppy, but when Roger returned, “he was still there,” he says. “He had found higher ground.” Now his puppy is staying just down the road at the animal shelter.  

Inside the barn building where rodeos are held, dog barks echo off the walls. Volunteers sort leashes and toys into laundry baskets and bins alongside the three-foot-high stacks of dog food. 

“This is only a third of the donations,” says Dr. Renee Poirrier, a  veterinarian who volunteers with Louisiana State Animal Response Team. “Others have been stored to release into the community.”

Outside, it has begun to rain again. Poirrier looks at her phone and says, “Oh, that’s great”: another flash flood warning.

She and other volunteers first arrived in Lafayette when the water was high there, moved to East Baton Rouge, and are now in Gonzales where they are housing 1,300 animals, including 350 cats and dogs along with horses, cows, goats, pigs and exotic animals. In a co-located shelter like this one, owners and animals are both occupying the same grounds.

Initially, pet owners had to walk from the shelter to get here. Now they have shuttles running throughout the day for owners to come visit their animals and participate in taking care of them. “Before the shuttle even,” Poirrier says, “one woman in a wheelchair was coming down twice a day to see her animal.”

In a small room, volunteer vets sort through thousands of medications on long folding tables. Dr. Adrianna Smith of the LASPCA said that many of the dogs were treated for heat stress and colitis or diarrhea as a result of stress or change of environment and food. A small black and white dog lying down in one of many crates has a heart condition, and one of the vets noticed her breathing heavy this morning. She was taken out of the general population and put here, in this air-conditioned room. They’ve since been in touch with her owner to find out more about her condition and make sure she’s on the right medications.

On the grass beyond, Kirt Soileau, of St. Amant, and Sarah Rodriguez, of Galvez, walked their horses, Pistol and Two-side, on the grass. They had begun the process of evacuating at near midnight Sunday and by daybreak, the pasture had flooded; they barely got the horses to safety.

Along Highway 933 in Prairieville, signs of the storm are everywhere: An abandoned green boat lies along the side of the road; stop signs bend perpendicular to the road; insulation, couches, wooden furniture, mattresses, sheetrock and appliances pile up as high as house gutters. Homes along streets and subdivisions are turned inside out, the matter of people’s lives wrecked and stacked on the curb.

On Hodgeson Road, one pile has a neon orange sign that reads: “Don’t pick up. Waiting on FEMA.”

Many people in affected areas didn’t have flood insurance. FEMA representative Maria Padron said $5,000 for building and content damage can be made immediately available to flood victims prior to inspection with a signed advance, but only to those who had flood insurance. Applicants for federal assistance can receive a maximum of $35,000, including rental assistance, depending on assessment of damages. Business owners, nonprofits, renters and homeowners can also apply for low-interest disaster loans from the SBA for up to $200,000, and FEMA is collaborating with state and federal partners to provide housing for residents displaced by the storm.

Since a federal disaster was declared on Aug. 14, more than 110,500 Louisiana residents have registered for assistance and more than $55 million has been approved.

“People have been told by geologists and hydrologists that they aren’t likely to flood, to save their money,” says Valerie DeLaune, 56, a Denham Springs resident whose insured home flooded with five feet of water. DeLaune has lived in her home for 34 years and the last time there was any flooding was in 1983, just a year after she moved in. That flood was measured in inches, not feet.

When DeLaune couldn’t drive to work at LSU Office of Disability Services on Friday because of the rain, she wasn’t worried. Not even when her husband, who cares for his elderly mother in Baton Rouge, asked her to join him. Their house was at the highest point in their area in Denham Springs. “We don’t fear water here,” she said. She did promise him she would set her alarm to check every hour. All through the night up to her 6 a.m. check, everything looked normal. When her daughter called at 7:30 a.m., she asked if her mother wanted to be rescued. “What are you talking about?” DeLaune said. “Mom, go look outside,” her daughter said. Opening her front door, she found the water was at her doorstep.

She grabbed the suitcases with changes of clothes that she’d packed just in case and as she walked toward the front door, she could feel the water under her feet. Outside, a stranger in a lifted truck came by and said, “Don’t argue, get in,” quickly helping her into the bed of his truck.

Later, she waded in waist-deep water across four lanes of highway to get to her family’s truck. At one point, she tripped over a curb underwater that she could not see and lost a shoe.  “If there had been a big current, I would have been in bad trouble,” she said. “I can’t swim.”

DeLaune, who made it to her mother-in-laws in Baton Rouge, says, “I’m in such a good and blessed position: I have a roof over my head, food in my belly. There are so many people who need so much more help.” An estimated 90 percent of the structures in Denham Springs were destroyed in the flood.

She was amazed by the rescue efforts conducted largely through social media and has been encouraged by the outpouring of support she’s seen from community members. People she hasn’t heard from in 20 years have reached out to see if she and her family are OK. A friend from Atlanta is driving a box truck down with shoes, gift cards, cash donations and other items.

At the store, DeLaune has witnessed countless acts of generosity between strangers. “People need multiples of everything to take care of their house, but they are offering to others.” When DeLaune went to get gloves to clean her home, there were only two pairs left. Yyet a stranger held the package out to her, saying, “Here, you take one.” “People are paying for each other’s groceries. Saying, ‘Hey, take this $20,’” she said. Before they are done with their own homes, people are helping those in their neighborhood and community.

“We are now on a mission to move on,” she says. But that process can be hard on the mind, soul and body. Mildew and mold can develop within 24 to 48 hours of water exposure so many Louisianians flooded have been racing the clock to gut their homes.

When Valerie DeLaune and her husband Dennis were gutting their home, her husband began to have cramp-like pains in his chest and was hospitalized with what they thought was a heart attack. It turned out to be severe dehydration, brought on by working too long in the heat

At the Unitarian Church of Baton Rouge on Sunday morning, lyrics projected onto the wall as parishioners sang “I can see clearly now the rain is gone.” The Rev. Nathan Ryan said that when he goes to LSU football games, it doesn’t feel real until he comes home and watches the highlights on TV. “Even though I experience it directly, it doesn’t feel real until someone else notices. That’s what we’ve been seeing on social media this morning, people begging to be noticed.”

He encouraged church members to continue to show up for one another and their community, expressing his worry that this flood would in some ways detract attention from existing community issues, like police violence and divisions of the community along racial lines.

Nearby in North Baton Rouge at Immaculate Conception Parish, a Catholic church with a largely black congregation, an organ played while the voices of the choir and hundreds of congregants raised in song. The Rev. Thomas Clark began Mass by saying: “There’s a saying that goes ‘When you’re down to nothing, God is up to something,’” to notes of affirmation from the crowd. He thanked the community for supporting 80 to 85 parishioners severely affected by the storm. “If you had flooding, our hearts go out to you,” he said. “And for those of us who were spared, let us have the courage and strength to do all we can for our brothers and sisters.”

After Mass, in the activities center, parishioners affected came to collect supplies. In the main hall, long folding tables were lined with rows of cleaning products: paper towels, sanitizers, brooms, buckets and pallets of water and other drinks. Two smaller rooms were sorted into clothing for adults and children. Parishioner Andrea Toles said volunteers and staff had called all 700 registered parishioners and were focusing on those hit the hardest.  

Addressing his congregation, Father Clark spoke of visiting parishioners sitting within the wreck of their homes, having lost everything, who told him, “I’m blessed.” “I’ve realized this week,” he said. “That hope is a choice.”

“I’ve realized this week,” he said. “That hope is a choice.”

By Lisa M. O'Neill

Lisa M. O'Neill is a writer based in Tucson, Arizona whose work explores pop culture, politics, gender, class, race, and mass incarceration. You can find her at lisamoneill.com or at @thislisaoneill on Twitter

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