A season of tragedy, summer 2016 was punctuated by an historic flood.
The rain fell for seven days, with the bulk coming between August 12-14, when nonstop downpours dumped more than two feet of water on parts of East Baton Rouge, Livingston, and St. Helena parishes. The Lower Mississippi River Forecast Center called the record two-year rainfall a “1,000-year rain,” since it had a 0.1 percent chance of occurring in any year.
A lack of national media attention may have caused non-Louisianans to underestimate the extent of the disaster. In fact, the anomalous, unnamed rain event and subsequent flooding were historically devastatingly.
More than 7 trillion tons of water – three times what fell during Hurricane Katrina – fell on southeast Louisiana. That’s enough to fill 10.4 million Olympic-size swimming pools. At least 11 river gauges saw record crests, some by large margins. More than 60,000 homes were damaged, more than 30,000 people had to be rescued, and 13 were killed. More than 110,000 people or households have applied for FEMA assistance and more than 25,000 National Flood Insurance Program claims have been filed after what the American Red Cross called “the worst natural disaster to strike the United States since Superstorm Sandy.”
More than sixty families of BRYC Fellows, College Fellows, and Alumni lost everything or close to it. Some of our young people have been kind and brave enough to share their reflections on the flood with us.
Jeanne, Junior Fellow: “We were going through this a second time. I knew it was going to put a tremendous stress on my parents. Katrina hit when I was five. Going through this flood made me realize how terrible Katrina was and how little time we had to prepare for this sort of thing. It’s just kind of a surreal feeling. When I saw all my stuff on the side of the road, I thought it couldn’t be real. But, you know, life happens, and you just have to keep telling yourself that everything happens for a reason. I don’t know what it is, but maybe we will find out. It’s affecting my parents more than me.”
Nyah, Junior Fellow: “It’s surreal. You never think it’s going to be you. It’s something you hear about. When I heard about Katrina, I was upset but never thought it would happen to me. We had five feet of water. We have to gut our house to the roof. It’s serious and it’s scary because it was just rain. It’s incredible what water is capable of doing and how it can ruin lives. It’s mind-boggling.”
Armani, Senior Fellow: “The biggest thing for me was that my mom put a lot of work into our house. To know that all of that hard work is gone, the hardest thing for me was seeing her pain. I have been living in the house since I was 7. My family is split up right now.”
John, Alum, Morehouse College 2015: “It was an unexpected occurrence. I don’t think anyone knew what was going to happen. There was no warning, unlike a big hurricane. No one was really ready for it. People have been in our community for decades and have never seen anything like this occur. My mom woke up in the morning because the water in the house was already too high for her to leave in a vehicle. She was on a waiting list to be rescued by the National Guard. Thankfully, I was able to get in touch with a friend and have her rescued in a canoe. I had to do all of this from Atlanta until I came back to Baton Rouge to help her. What hit home for me was driving through the neighborhoods. Everyone’s entire life was sitting at their curbs. We lost everything in the flood, even all of my baby pictures. The sentimental value is something you will never be able to get back.”
Imani, Junior Fellow: “It was just a numb feeling. At the time we didn’t know what was going to happen. Once we finally got to the shelter, I realized we most likely lost our home. At the time, my dad was still in the house, and I was worried I might lose him. My parents worked hard to get everything that we had, and to see it being washed away and destroyed was heartbreaking.”
Javian, Senior Fellow: “At first it was very overwhelming to see your home being turned upside down. But I was overtaken by gratitude once neighbors started to help us. We are currently staying with our grandparents, but eventually we will be able to return home.”
Jose, Junior Fellow: “My dad is very upset because he invested a lot of money in it and he had paid it off. It was only one foot of water, but it was enough to cause major damage. We have seen some good things with people coming together. For me, it actually brought me and my parents closer to the people in our neighborhood.”
Allyssa, Sophomore Fellow: “Everybody says we are coming together as a community. Really, I feel like people are sticking to their own. They are just helping the people they know, but not necessarily just doing good in the whole community. There has also been some theft. I did not believe the water was going to get so high. But we got about four feet. It was very difficult to deal with losing years worth of stuff.
Taylor, Alum, University of Wisconsin-Madison 2015: “It has been devastating in all regards – psychologically, physically. It has been devastation on all levels. I saw the cadavers on the side of the road in Central that had been unearthed. The things we thought wouldn’t come back up came back up. We were confronted by the past and by the future. I think this does speak to climate change and our ability to not have control over it.”
Since the flood, the BRYC staff has done everything in its power to support affected families by sharing key information, directing them to resources, and building a supply center of our own. We have raised funds and collected in-kind contributions in order to build a stock of non-perishable food, water, laundry detergent, clothing, bedding, and cleaning and school supplies that Fellows and families are free to utilize as they have needs.
While school was out for more than four weeks, many Fellows, including those whose homes were flooded, volunteered in the community. They organized supplies at distribution centers, assisted at shelters, made deliveries, and even supported a local animal shelter that was impacted. In a time of great physical and emotional hardship, they put Baton Rouge above themselves.
The immediate response from our community was heartening. But, the reality is that the road to recovery will be long for those who have to start from zero. As the waterlogged contents of their homes were hauled to the curb, people watched their possessions and irreplaceable family treasures become mounds of soggy debris. Indeed, it has been a summer of loss, and much healing will be required.