“It may actually get into our house this time.”
“Our house” is a place I have visited since childhood, home of a beloved cousin just far enough ahead in age to marry while I was a young girl, and to have never failed to provide adventures when we’ve gotten together.
Memories flowed in, from the small shed she and her husband lived in on the land they’d saved up to buy while they worked along on their house. I spent a week with them in what seems like about a 6′ X 8′ space in my mind, just as happy as could be. I could almost trace every inch of the original floor plan in the 1800 square foot cozy home. Over the years it seemed nearly every time we’d visit something had been added or updated or developed a little further. Not sure how many square feet it had come to. They didn’t brag, and I didn’t ask. Every change had a plan, a reason to be included: a space for family get-together’s, plenty of room for the grandchildren, little touches that together created an atmosphere many family members grew to consider a second home, even those of us several hours away. There are roots that have gone down there over the years.
Multitudes of memories. . .
“Well, keep me posted.”
I hadn’t even called about flooding. I had no idea any was expected. I was calling to let her know results on my daughter’s medical test. She was concerned about that. I was calling to see if she and her husband wanted to drive two hours to celebrate her aunt’s (my mother’s) 80th birthday over lunch the next weekend. They would do that sort of thing in a heartbeat: drive a couple of hours to meet us, eat, visit, and then drive back home. They have done it for years, pretty much spoiling all of us with how easy they make it look to sacrifice for their extended family..
Our conversation was interrupted by a somewhat frantic call to her husband from their daughter whose home is next to theirs. She was alone at home while they returned to Denham Springs from New Orleans. I heard snippets of the conversation from his phone.
Roads and streets leading to their home had been abruptly closed, the daughter reported. My cousin had to stop again as someone had come up to their window — as they sat stuck in traffic — telling them the interstate ahead was already closed in spots and some routes were being diverted. This was Friday morning.
When we resumed talking, it was with her assurances they would get to their daughter if they had to get a boat to do it, and that it would all be OK. After all, “God’s got this,” she confidently affirmed.
She rehearsed their plans for moving business-related equipment to her brother-in-law’s house on higher ground so they would be in position to respond to the needs of their gas line customers once the water receded. They would be fine to stay in their homes: she and her husband in the second story they had added a few years back; their daughter in her house built four feet off the ground. These are people who–if anyone does–know how to prepare for just about anything, neither foolish nor over-confident.
After we hung up, I began, as I often do when unusual weather is pending, to scan my weather app for updates in that area. I came across this:
That upgrade from “minor to record severity” in the forecast flooding alarmed me a bit, but they are people who it seemed to me had handled so much already in their life-times, and I had no doubt they would know how to stay safe in this. Still, I was praying and checking, following their updates on Facebook.
The mood was what I would describe in our area when there is a hurricane approaching: check the supply of candles, get some bottled water, buy some Spam if you really must, but otherwise, it will be OK when the wind stops blowing. Over two hours north of the Gulf Coast, that had worked well for us most of the time. But then there was Katrina.
When I went to bed Friday night I was confident they would be able to recover quickly from whatever damage might be done with the water they were told to expect.
I woke the next morning to this picture from their daughter’s front door, the one four feet off the ground:
I sent a text to her mom. They had indeed slept upstairs just to be on the safe side, she replied, but awakened to find the refrigerator floating in the kitchen, water pouring in at the doors, and wooden floors buckling.
“The doors won’t open. I am about to wade to a window and try to get out.”
No more illusions about this being just another water event common in south Louisiana. No more hopes for a few inches of water that would be a pain to clean up.
Clearly it was time for them to not just get out of the house, but to go as far as they could away from there, in my view. But I knew it was not what they would do. I knew that in a few minutes, one more boat would be hitting the water as they went to check on their neighbors, and soon somebody else would be pulled to safety.
I tried to be patient, watching Facebook, knowing there was little time to chat. When I could stand it no longer, I checked back with their daughter.
“Are ya’ll OK?”
“I am turning in circles in my living room. Dad told me I need to get out, but I can’t even think what on earth I should try to take.”
Decisions she had never conceived of having to make now had to be reached in a few minutes’ time.
“What do I do about my great aunt’s chairs she left me? The little special things? Do I take clothes? I absolutely have no idea! This is just crazy!”
I tried to be consoling, but acknowledged I could not imagine what she was going through.
“A dog just jumped out of his owner’s boat in front of my house and there was no way he could go back for him with the current. He is just out there barking and pitiful but I can’t get to him. I can’t do anything! So, no, we are NOT OK!”
When all I could think to say began to sound hollow in my own ears, I was about to let her get back to her crisis, when it occurred to me there was one more thing I could offer.
“Let’s take a minute to pray before we go.”
As we prayed over the phone, Heaven’s touch came down, and I felt some peace at least come into my heart, and believed some dawned in hers as well.
I won’t post the image of her mom wading through water to her armpits to get back into a boat, as she left the only home her children had known growing up, the refuge for any who needed a place to stay, the recovery site for multiple extended family members who had suffered horrific accidents or life-altering illnesses over the years (because they have always been willing to stretch themselves for those they loved and opening their home was only natural). In short, she was leaving the central hub of our family’s memories, and a haven we knew would be there for us, too, if we needed it.
I did not breathe any easier until 1:00 p.m. when the text came that they had been picked up by the brother-in-law, whose house was safely above the flood, the one where the equipment had been moved. At least they could pass the night comfortably before seeing what had become of their homes.
“I’ve got a little baby in here: please just take my wife and kids!”
That was only one of the stories they related when we talked later that afternoon. One of the shocked residents of their neighborhood had called out for rescue by their boat and many others, pleading for just his family to be taken. The sharp “No!” in reply had not been understood to mean that the father would not be left behind. He only heard a refusal to help, and immediately cried, “At least take the baby!” The National Guard had them safely out a few minutes later.
I tried to picture the sheer force of the raging water as she talked of pulled muscles she had sustained just getting through it, and I had no way to imagine less hearty people managing to push through those waters.
There was only a hint of concern in that conversation mid-afternoon that the water was continuing to behave unexpectedly, and a suspicion evolving that it could potentially continue to rise.
“Do you have a boat where you’re staying big enough to hold all six of you if it does?”
“No, there’s only a small boat here.”
Still mostly confident they were safe, I did begin to pray harder that all would go well.
By 7:30 that evening they were trying to find a way out. Facebook began to light up with questions about what roads were open near them, and comments exploded with family and friends in the area who were still unaffected trying to find a route for them to drive out.
There was none.
Was there someone who could reach them by boat? These folks had rescued others all day. Couldn’t someone help them?
I remained confident that would happen shortly. These people are survivors. They have a strong network of family and friends: people who would scale tall buildings or swim deep oceans if necessary to help them. Rescue teams like the one they had been a part of earlier, locals with boats and big hearts, had been out all day plucking people from danger.
Someone would be helping them soon.
Only they couldn’t. Night was falling–a terrible time for water and uncertainty to be rising. Those Good Samaritans’ boats were not equipped with the kind of lighting required to navigate murky waters that rendered streets all but invisible in the daylight, held multiple barely-submerged hazards, and raged with a current almost impossible to fight.
Post after post, share after share, desperate comment after desperate comment from friends and family near and far pleaded on their behalf. It felt absolutely incredible to embrace the idea that these people who would give their lives for any of the people out there were not going to be pulled from this danger.
Officials had to order those who would love to help out of the water until daylight.
When the only remaining option was to access the emergency management system, the next Facebook post was,
Livingston Parish Emergency Operations Center had been relocated when their own offices flooded, but numbers were circulating to directly contact the National Guard, Sheriff’s Office, and Homeland Security, along with the private individuals operating when they could, to request rescue. Over fifteen numbers were on the list.
8:10 p.m. “I have no idea what to do. No one is answering the phone.”
Could a network that large be getting overwhelmed?
8:19 p.m. “I finally got in touch with the Sheriff’s office. They put us on a list to rescue. They said there are hundreds ahead of us.”
Posts of friends and family on dry ground, near and far, intensified trying to find a way themselves, and tagging other individuals to try and help. It still seemed that one of those options must be the one that would save the day. But lead after lead turned into dead ends. Fear began to knot up in my stomach.
Thus began a night none of us will forget. Family who would have given a kidney for them had to just wait and watch the posts about the water rising:
“Sitting on the kitchen table with feet in the chairs, water now two inches over the chairs.”
“Still waiting. Water waist-deep and continuing to rise.”
“Power’s out. You wouldn’t believe the spiders, roaches and other bugs, frogs, and snakes in this water.”
Still, there was that sense of humor:
“…At least we are all OK and making some really funny memories.”
But these were people who weren’t spring chickens for the most part, several of them in their sixties, a couple with heart conditions, one with asthma and a history of pneumonia, all having exhausted themselves during the previous day. The fatigue and pain were real enemies. How long could they stand this?
It was easy to feel frustration that nothing seemingly was being done. Come daylight, we would learn how many thousands of rescues took place that night. It is hard for that to even sink in. Tens of thousands of lives were being saved by local authorities, National Guard, and Coast Guard personnel.
It was a waiting list one could not track as it unfolded and the water continued to rise.
I lay there (in my warm, dry bed) praying. Again. And again. And again. Nothing changed. In the wee morning hours my prayer became “God, You could fix this.”
I have been blessed by some amazing answers over the years. I began to feel the line had gone dead.
“A couple of us have gotten into the little boat. When you think it can’t get any worse, it can.” It had started to rain again.
The tone of posts from family members too far away to do any good became desperate.
“Someone please help them! They don’t deserve this!” Of course, no one deserved it, but that was a testament to the utter incredulity of family having to simply hold our hands and wait.
The conviction grew that we truly stood to lose them while we watched from our perches in Louisiana, Texas, and Mississippi, as helpless as anyone could be.
The families of thirteen people, as of this posting, did experience that ultimate tragedy. My heart goes out to them. I can only imagine their vigil of hoping to receive better news than what eventually, tragically came. I learned this weekend that one was an elderly lady next door to where my family passed the night who, once she made it to safety, lay down on a couch to go to sleep, but never woke up. We continue to pray for all affected.
I expected a number astronomically higher than what it has been. (But for the nature of the people in the area, their sense of connection to each other before this began, and the abundant waterways that meant many owned boats they were more than happy to put into service, the nation would be reeling at the death toll.) I struggled to not picture my loved ones among that number.
Day broke. The flotilla of locals returned to the water. By 8:00 a.m., that phase of the weekend that changed so much forever was over.
They have been back to survey the damage.
The place I have known as a peaceful refuge since childhood, that had seen water to the steps during the last record flood but not a drop inside in the forty-five years they had been there, received a full eight feet of water.
The house will very possibly have to come down. The weight of the upper floor may be buckling the compromised lower walls. Even if that doesn’t happen, the memories of early morning quiet times in the little breakfast nook, or of the quiet strolls through a spacious garden built up over the years for themselves and their guests to enjoy, the couch where we sat to have the last heart-to-heart will have to suffice. There are specific memories for virtually every room: rooms that are now themselves only memories. We were going there for Thanksgiving again this year.
We never could have imagined our next trip would be to join the help quickly pouring in that is, just as quickly, being swallowed up in a sea of need. People who would gladly help anyone are struggling to find someone who can spare a few hours to give them assistance, as family after family after family salvages what they can and tries to prevent deeper damage from mold setting in.
It is funny how the outsides of homes so often look the same. You know which have been flooded only by the piles of treasures mingled with torn-out Sheetrock, insulation, and flooring by the road. I learned today there are some simply living in the mud, sleeping on wet mattresses, as the mold grows. Elderly and single moms have few options.
We spent a day and a half building onto our loved ones’ pile, shaking our heads, and adding sweaty hugs to whatever words of consolation we could find.
They are deciding what to do. When all is wiped away, recreating just what had been–at this point in life–isn’t the most practical scenario. There will be plenty of time for talking about what we have learned from this, or why we feel it could have happened, or what God is doing in it. If there is an immediate takeaway, it would be to live every moment with those you love as though it is not only your last one with them, but your last one with the life you have known with them.
And trust God with your family, when you see Him moving as you would like Him to, and when you don’t see.