Water is pretty much omnipresent where I live. Unless we’re in a drought, “Louisiana Summertime” usually means a thunderstorm every day: dark clouds roll in from the Gulf, and once they’ve dumped their load they leave behind the sweet, heavy smell of rain and an oppressive humidity that makes your hair and clothes stick to your skin.
The Gulf itself is maybe four hours from my house. Look at a map of our area and you’ll see countless creeks and streams, draining into this or that river. But as friendly and healthy and welcome as water can be, it can be a fearsome enemy, too.
I was only a few months old when Hurricane Andrew hit. I was 10 when Hurricane Lili went from the perfect nightmare to a simple rainmaker. (“Miraculous,” they called it.) I was 13 when Hurricane Katrina hit. 16 for Hurricane Gustav. I know what it’s like to sit in a power-less house, watching the water fall in sheets while the trees twist and groan. I’ve seen more videos of a flooded New Orleans than I can count. I’ve heard all the Katrina stories. I even have a few of my own from Gustav (like that heart-stopping moment when I heard the sound I only ever heard in my nightmares: the freight-train roar of a tornado).
But as familiar as I am, because of my location, with the force of water and the devastation it can leave behind, it used to be just head-knowledge. I saw it in newspaper photographs, or on TV. Flooding was something that happened to people two hours away in New Orleans.
It didn’t happen to people down the street.
It’s been two weeks today since “The Storm Without a Name” hit. No one could’ve known then how quickly things would change. Even for those of us who didn’t have their homes destroyed, life suddenly went from Status Normal (“eh, it’s just a bad thunderstorm”) to Emergency Mode (“oh my gosh, this isn’t normal, what’s going on here?!”). Familiar houses and streets that never, ever flooded–not even during a hurricane–were full of filthy river water in a matter of hours. Parking lots came to life as the water reached the cars and sent all the horns blaring, lights flashing, and windshield wipers scraping.
My brother says that watching a car drown is a terrible sight. It’s like the car panics, tries desperately to stay alive, and then just gives up. He says the total helplesness of the situation is enough to make you cry.
A dear friend from Slidell came up to help rip flooring out of my grandparents’ church. My grandmother told me one of the first things he said when he arrived was: “Oh…it’s the smell.”
He went through Katrina; he knows what flooded homes smell like. I don’t know if it’s the wet sheetrock, the mildew, the rotten food that floated out of tipped-over refrigerators, or the muddy river water that pools under flooring and fills every single pot and pan and cup and cast-iron skillet left in a cabinet–but whatever causes that smell, you can’t miss it.
And obviously, you don’t ever forget it.
Decades of waterlogged memories sag alongside countless streets. Antique china cabinets, once-comfy sofas, boxes full of photo albums that are too swollen with water to salvage…it’s all sitting out by the road, waiting for the garbage trucks that may take weeks, maybe even months, to finish the job. Look around some neighborhoods, and there’s nothing but sprawling piles of moldy possessions as far as the eye can see.
I’ve heard the gut-wrenching sobs of a woman after she found years of beloved Bible study materials, sticky and slimy and falling apart at the touch. I watched another woman sigh sadly over a streaked photo of herself on her wedding day; her husband was slipping her ring on in the photo, and she looked radiant. The bigger wedding album had gone to the street days ago.
“But it could’ve been worse,” you hear them say over and over again. “At least we’re safe and sound. Most things can be replaced. But we’re alive, and that’s enough.”
When my precious sister-in-law walked into our house after hours of sitting in the sun as an evacuee, her face was red from sunburn and crying. When she wrapped her arms around me and dropped her forehead on my shoulder, I almost started crying too.
The same thing happened when I met my great-aunt in the driveway of her flooded house. She had tears in her eyes, and as she put an arm around me she dropped her head on my shoulder.
The suffering is deep and raw and it’ll take time to heal. But the spirit of compassion and community is just as palpable as the pain of loss and uncertainty. Friends, churches, convention centers, even the movie studios in Baton Rouge have opened their doors to people who never thought they’d ever be homeless. Louisianans know how to eat well even in the worst crisis: last Saturday it seemed like there was a food booth on every corner of Denham Springs, with volunteers handing out fresh lunches to the families who’d come out to gut their own homes. Relatives and friends have come in from other cities and states to help rip out flooring and sheetrock. Nobody’s afraid to get their hands dirty.
Perhaps most poignantly, black families help white families, and white families help black families. Nobody cares about the color of your skin, or where you live, or how you vote. We’re neighbors, and that’s all that matters–and don’t let anyone in politics or the media tell you anything different about us. The unconditional love we’ve witnessed reminds me of something a very wise man once said…something about how, one day, “we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope…we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood.”
Louisiana is hurting, but not defeated…wary of a rather disconcerting tropical forecast, but hopefully not frozen in fear. There’s a lot to do and everyone’s ready to do it, with open hands and open hearts. No doubt we’ll be telling stories about the Great Flood of 2016 to our children and grandchildren…but at least they’ll be stories of incredible perseverance, kindness, and courage.
And in spite of the suffering, those are still the best kinds of stories.
“When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you…for I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior.” (Isaiah 43:2-3)