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What You Lose, What You Gain

My son Lucas and I spent the afternoon and early evening working at the Red Cross shelter set up on soundstages at Celtic Studios in Baton Rouge [1]. They’ve filmed Hollywood movies there (Ender’s Game, for example), but now they’re sheltering thousands of refugees from the catastrophic floods in the Baton Rouge area. There is nothing like being among desperate, bedraggled people who have lost everything to give you perspective on your life and the world.

Two nights ago, I was so shocked and despairing over having possibly lost a chapter of my book in a hard drive crash that I took to the bed. I would like to formally apologize to God and the universe for that.

Lucas and I headed over to the shelter with coolers full of chicken, sausage, and jambalaya fixings. You know who was there waving us in outside the soundstage? The manager of the local Apple store, the guy in the galoshes who told me on Saturday morning that there would be no Genius Bar that day, because the store wasn’t opening, because employees couldn’t get to the store. He was a red-shirt volunteer.

“Hey, you came in the other day!” he said, recognizing me in the car. We had a good laugh at that. Who knew we would see each other again in such a place, under such circumstances?

After finding out where we could take the food, we headed back to the car to unload them, and saw a military chopper coming in for a landing in the open green space in front of the soundstages. They were coming in fast with people saved from roofs out in Livingston Parish and beyond. I stopped to take a photo, then Lucas and I realized they needed help getting evacuees out. We ran over and helped folks climb out of the chopper, and carry their bags toward the shelter. I turned around to take a photo of the chopper we unloaded people from, and saw a second one coming in right behind it. This went on all afternoon, and into the early evening.

We took the coolers to the chef, then went into Soundstage 6, where people were settling in for the night. “What can we do?” I asked someone.

“Right now, nobody’s coordinating it,” the person said. “Just find a place here where people need help, and start.”

That was it. That’s how it worked. All the other Red Cross shelters in town were overflowing, so this Celtic Studios thing came together at the last minute. Lucas and I went to the center of the vast building, where folks were serving food, and got busy. I served jambalaya, red beans and rice, hot tamales, and whatever else people brought. We ended up having far more food than we knew what to do with. Folks all over Baton Rouge — churches, individuals, all kinds of people — kept showing up with coolers full of jambalaya, big trays of sandwiches, hot dogs, lasagna, spaghetti, cookies, cakes, cold drinks, ice. Man, I tell you what, in times like this, you see the real goodness in the hearts of so many people. And all day long, people would walk up to me behind the jambalaya station and say, “I’m here to help. What can I do?” I told them what I myself was told: go find a place here that looks busy, and jump right in.

I watched Lucas at the other end of the food station unloading things, taking out the trash, going to get more supplies, and so forth. Adults working the food station would come up to me and say, “Is that your son? He’s working his butt off. Never seen a kid work so hard.” And he was. That makes a father proud. Watching the police officers and National Guardsmen coming in and out, Lucas said, “When I grow up, I want to help people for a living. That’s what I’m about.” Well, okay, brother, if you say so. Good on ya.

Look at this image below that I took from my station. It’s a one-armed man, an evacuee, trying to help a volunteer replace the trash bag in a big barrel:

IMG_6829 [2]

 

 

It was not a job one person could do on their own, and this guy, despite having only one arm, and despite having had to be rescued from his flooded house by boat, wanted to do something for others. He told me later that he had surgery on Friday, and then all this happened, but he was grateful to have gotten out alive.

The stories people told, my God. I recognized one burly man who came for jambalaya as the head of a family Lucas and I had helped off the chopper. “Where’d you come in from?” I said.

“Denham Springs,” he said. “We lost everything. Our house. Four cars.”

We lost everything. Over and over I heard this. My friend Kim from St. Francisville was working next to me. She served one man who was shaky and teary. “It doesn’t feel so good to lose everything,” he said.

Lucas served one old man a plate of jambalaya. He said to the guy, “Sir, can I make you another plate for somebody?”

“I don’t have nobody to take it to,” the old man said. “I lost my wife in the water.”

Think about that.

The people who came to my station were a picture of humanity. There were Vietnamese and Latino immigrants who barely spoke English. Black people. White people. Children. Lots of elderly. And you know, they were almost all unfailingly grateful. These were folks who had nothing left but the clothes on their backs, and what they were able to get onto the roof before the boat or the helicopter rescued them, but there they were thanking us volunteers for serving them food.

What do you even do with that?

There was a man from Livingston Parish who waited on his roof for a couple of days to be rescued, and when nobody came, he blew up an inflatable raft he had with him, and used that to get out of the flood and to dry land, or at least to a passing boat. He was using his raft as his mattress there in the shelter.

There was this one elderly lady who came to the line for jambalaya carrying a folding chair. That was odd, I thought, then I realized that she was using it as a walker to steady herself. I offered to carry her food back to her spot against the wall in the soundstage. It took forever to get there, because she was having so much trouble walking. But it gave us a chance to talk.

Her name is Juanita Rougeot, and she and her two cats were saved by men in a boat. Like so many of the people I spoke to today, she lives in a neighborhood that had never, ever seen water.

“Do you have flood insurance, Miss Juanita?” I asked.

“No,” she said. “Why would I?”

Her spot was a blanket and a pillow on the hard floor, up against a wall of the soundstage. Her cats were with her in a carrier. She unfolded her chair and sat down. I handed her the food, and told her I would send Lucas back with some ice water.

“Do you have anybody to come pick you up?” I asked.

“No,” she said. “I don’t have anybody. I live by myself.”

So, I tell you readers in the Baton Rouge area: there is a sweet and exhausted elderly lady named Juanita Rougeot who is all alone in the world. She is sleeping on the concrete floor in the Celtic Studios shelter, just her and her kitties. She has nothing left in the world, and nobody to take care of her. If you can help her, if you have a place for her to stay, please do. That shelter is full of Miss Juanitas, but I met one, and I’m worried about her. No one at her age should have to spend the night on the floor of a shelter, facing the rest of her life with nothing, and no one. Just her and her cats. If you can go help her, please do. Can your church give her a decent place to sleep, to rest? For the long term?

It just about killed me to think about her the rest of the afternoon. All the hotels are full around here. What could I do for her? Nothing, except ask you readers for help, if you are in a position to give it. As I said, there so many Miss Juanitas at that shelter. You’d hear a woman’s voice come over the loudspeaker all afternoon, calling the names of people, adding, “You have someone here to pick you up.” Nobody’s going to call Juanita Rougeot’s name, unless it’s you.

A young woman came by the jambalaya station for food. “Where’d you come in from?” I asked.

“Sherwood Forest,” she said, mentioning a neighborhood on the eastern side of Baton Rouge. “Our house is underwater.”

“Sherwood Forest?!” I said. “Whoever heard of it flooding in Sherwood Forest?”

“I know, right?” she said. “It never floods there. Now my husband and I have lost everything.”

Towards the end of the day, I served a plate of jambalaya to a Baton Rouge police officer who was there early this morning when I first went over there. “You’ve been here a while,” I said.

“All day,” he told me. “I’m beat, I tell you what.”

“Didn’t  I hear that other officer say this morning that half the BRPD was taken out by the water?”

“Yeah. A whole lot of our guys live in the flooded areas. Their houses are underwater. They lost everything.”

They. Lost. Everything.

“This is way worse than Katrina for us in Baton Rouge,” the plainly exhausted officer said. “We had a bunch of people from New Orleans in the Pete Maravich Center and the LSU Fieldhouse, but we were all fine here. It’s different this time. This is our Katrina. And it’s gonna be worse tomorrow. The rivers are cresting, and there’s gonna be all this back flow coming at people. A lot of places that are dry today are gonna be underwater tomorrow, and people aren’t even expecting it.”

Around 7 pm, my back couldn’t take anymore, and there were plenty of people eager to serve, so Lucas and I called it a day. We had no idea how long we had been there, because there was no natural light in the soundstage. Two of the last men I served were Louisiana National Guardsmen.

“Y’all must be hungry,” I said, scooping softball-size servings of jambalaya into Styrofoam containers for them.

“Oh man, yeah,” one said. “We been diving all day.”

“Diving?”

“In the water rescuing people.”

Diving. And they were headed back out to the field after supper.

Exhausted and muddy from trudging through the muck, Lucas and I made our way back to our car. And still people were coming in, carrying all their worldly possessions they had left. Driving out, I joked to the Apple store manager, “Hey, you think I can keep my Genius Bar appointment tomorrow?” He smiled and said, “I don’t know, man. We’ll see if we can open.”

 

When we got home, Julie and Nora were gone. Matthew said they had gathered board games and toys and headed for Celtic Studios. That was smart. There are lots of little kids there with nothing to do, and parents who have a lot more to worry about than keeping them entertained. Lucas headed for the shower, and I sat down to check e-mail. None of us on AT&T have had mobile phone service today. A switching station in Livingston Parish flooded. Julie and Nora came in half an hour later.

We told her about all we had seen and heard, and how it tore our hearts out, but also how good it felt to be doing something for people, and to see so many other people doing something for the flood victims. And when Julie told me that it would be hard to hear this, but we have almost certainly lost half of our worldly possessions, including all our wedding photos, baby photos, and all kinds of irreplaceable heirlooms that we had stored in a climate-controlled facility for safekeeping while we spend a year in a small apartment — a facility that is now probably underwater, it being in Sherwood Forest — I was remarkably chill about it. We’re lucky. We didn’t lose a house. We have insurance. That puts us ahead of 99 percent of the people Lucas and I helped feed today.

Tonight I am sitting at home drinking Stoli and getting in touch with my inner Ronnie Morgan, our Starhill friend (remember him from Little Way?) whose camp by Thompson Creek had water up to the roof line. Everything in it is gone. “I ain’t worried,” he told my mom yesterday. “I’m gonna go back to my kitchen and can some more peppers.”

That’s the spirit of Louisiana, right there. And so is this, from Thomas Achord, a teacher at Sequitur Classical Academy, where my wife teaches and our kids go to school. He had to evacuate his parents. He wrote on Facebook:

Louisiana is most beautiful when it is a great disaster. The entire society spontaneously comes together as if joined by familial ties. No one watches his neighbor suffer but all selflessly and voluntarily go about seeking whom they can help. And they do so with their own personal means – trucks, boats, rafts, chainsaws, shovels, food, and often at risk of their lives. We work hard and we eat grand, we are filthy but laughing, we lose our homes yet are welcomed into others. I have seen finer lands but not people. Keep the world and give me Louisiana, even in disaster.

Yeah, you right. We all need some Mr. Ronnie in our hearts right now.

Ronnie Morgan, more chill than you [3]

Ronnie Morgan, more chill than you

UPDATE: A friend and reader of this blog went to the Baton Rouge River Center, the downtown arena that was opened as a shelter yesterday, to volunteer this morning. Was not allowed in the building, but sent to a building eight blocks away (in this heat) and told to register with the state. Says that the River Center is being run by state employees, but if you register, they will send you where you are needed. Texts friend, “Never met an emergency that couldn’t use a layer of bureaucracy.”

In other flood news this morning:

34 Comments (Open | Close)

34 Comments To "What You Lose, What You Gain"

#1 Comment By Anonne On August 14, 2016 @ 11:42 pm

God bless you, Rod, and all the people suffering there.

#2 Comment By Caroline walker On August 15, 2016 @ 12:09 am

Beautiful. Thank you for writing about it.

#3 Comment By Brian On August 15, 2016 @ 12:09 am

Thanks for what you are doing, God be with you all.

#4 Comment By Darth Thulhu On August 15, 2016 @ 12:39 am

Since Lucas was so moved by the positive aspects of service today, I do have a piece of advice if he wants to be involved in that kind of thing more often in the long-term: pursue some level(s) of medical certification.

Red Cross deployments always, always, always need people thoroughly-trained in medicine but short of the doctor-of-medicine level. Being a certified EMT willing to volunteer-deploy with the organization means days of being moved directly to the front lines. Being a registered nurse willing to volunteer-deploy means weeks of directly aiding people who overflow the hospitals but still urgently need less-than-surgical care.

The three-week-deployment volunteer aspect, of course, makes this quite difficult with private-sector careers, but all food and shelter and transportation and internet and supplies are covered by the organization, which can notably reduce annual lifetime expenses if one is doing multiple deployments per year.

#5 Comment By naturalmom On August 15, 2016 @ 1:02 am

Thank you for the stories and the perspective they bring. I will be saying a prayer for the people at the shelter tonight.

#6 Comment By Giuseppe Scalas On August 15, 2016 @ 2:38 am

Rod,

I’m really sorry to hear what’s happening. Since yesterday our prayers are with you and the good people oc Louisiana.
Lucas is great and such things worth a thousand schooldays.
May God bless you all and bring peace on your beautiful State.
Please let us know if there’s a way to help from far away.

#7 Comment By Pat On August 15, 2016 @ 6:20 am

These are great stories – thanks for posting them. It’s contradictory that while we would never wish such catastrophes on anyone, we are at our best when faced with them.

#8 Comment By JonF On August 15, 2016 @ 6:42 am

I am very touched by all this, and feeling a bit guilty that I have hiding indoors griping our miserable heat and humidity as if that were the worst that weather could do.

#9 Comment By BlairBurton On August 15, 2016 @ 6:52 am

My hometown, Rainelle, West Virginia, was one of the hardest hit in the flooding back in June. Since then, one hears about the best and the worst (con artists, looters) of humanity but it is the best of humanity and its response to the disaster that will be remembered. Here’s an article showing something of my town’s spirit. God bless my home town, and God bless Louisiana.

[7]

#10 Comment By Stubbs On August 15, 2016 @ 8:08 am

Thanks for sharing this, when you must have been exhausted. God bless you and your son and all the people in Louisiana.

What’s the best way we who live far away can help? Donations to the Red Cross? Other relief organizations?

[NFR: My guess is the American Red Cross, earmarked for Louisiana floods. Unless somebody more knowledgeable has a better suggestion. Thank you! — RD]

#11 Comment By Anand On August 15, 2016 @ 9:18 am

God bless you all. Lucas may also want to look into the Appalachian Service Project trips that some churches run.

I’d point out that your story also illustrates a truth that both sides of the political spectrum needs to hear. Society works when government and individuals work together. Without the coordination of the state police, National Guard, etc. (guided by decades of work from folks at the USGS and NOAA putting in place a system to monitor what was going on and warn the folks downstream), most of the folks at that shelter wouldn’t have gotten rescued. If it were up to a lot of folks on the right (not you!) drowning in floods would be just another way of punishing the poor- private met services would serve those who could afford it.

But at the same time, government can’t replace what your family did today at that shelter. Not just practically but in terms of the larger aspect of building community. Bless you all.

#12 Comment By CharleyCarp On August 15, 2016 @ 9:21 am

Good work, man.

#13 Comment By Venice On August 15, 2016 @ 10:04 am

I can’t believe how little this has been reported in the press. If it weren’t for you, Rod, I would have no idea that this was happening.
The entire state will be in my prayers.

#14 Comment By Mrs Friday On August 15, 2016 @ 10:12 am

prayers for all affected. can you recommend some local entities for financial contributions? I know the Red Cross is doing good work down there, but I’d rather send a donation that I know will be used in that community.

[NFR: There must be a good answer to that question, but I don’t know it. Any Baton Rouge area readers who do have one, please post it. — RD]

#15 Comment By Fran On August 15, 2016 @ 10:30 am

I read this with tears in my eyes. My family is having a hard summer, probably our most difficult, and reading this post I have to imagine what it would be like to be going through what we’re going through and then on top of it losing our home. Unbearable. Blessings on you and your neighbors and the police and the medics and the guy from the Apple store for showing up and helping out. This is true Christian witness.

Also: reading this piece made me realize how much I take your writing and reporting for granted. I’ve been reading your work since your Crunchy Con days and always enjoyed it, but suddenly today I thought, ‘Wow, he’s really, really good at this.’ Thanks for all the good work you do, Rod. It’s appreciated.

#16 Comment By Michelle On August 15, 2016 @ 10:31 am

Thanks for these stories Rod and the reminder not to take what we have for granted. May G-d bless you and the people of Louisiana now and during the long clean up ahead.

#17 Comment By Displaced Californian On August 15, 2016 @ 11:17 am

If it weren’t for reading this blog, I would know nothing of the LA flooding. CNN’s site has had nothing on it. I scrolled down to the bottom and there was a video of a woman being rescued from her car, but the headline for that didn’t even mention her location. This particular post was so moving I had tears in my eyes. What suffering must be going on right now! I am sorry for your loss and for everyone’s losses.

#18 Comment By JonF On August 15, 2016 @ 12:15 pm

For the top level view, current news stories state that 20,000 have been rescued and evacuated, with 10,000 still in public shelters. The confirmed fatalities stand at six (with unconfirmed reports of a seventh). Southern LA has been declared a disaster area– and even the Governor’s Mansion has experienced some flooding. Those who are having trouble finding news stories about the situation try googling “Louisiana Flood 2016”. Weather.com has good info too.

#19 Comment By Jeremy Hickerson On August 15, 2016 @ 1:09 pm

great, great post, Rod.

#20 Comment By Gerrit On August 15, 2016 @ 1:32 pm

Rod, thank you for your reports on the LA flooding. We keep you and yours and all the folks afflicted in our prayers. I appreciate reading your factual reports, especially the photos, as well as your commentary.

How we think matters in the ordinary flow of events and they matter a great deal in emergencies. It is good to see that yours are of how to help others, your love of your people, your righteous anger, your support of emergency workers and volunteers, your pride in your family, and your gratitude for the goodness in people.

May God keep all LA citizens, emergency workers, and volunteers safe during this emergency.

#21 Comment By Ethan C. On August 15, 2016 @ 1:57 pm

Dear Lord Jesus, bless all those poor folks.

Up here in Missouri, I had no idea that any of this was happening down there until I read this blog today. It doesn’t seem to be anywhere on the news. Just politics and the Olympics. Well, maybe that’s just as well. Keep up the good work, y’all, and don’t pay any mind to what the princes of this world think about it.

#22 Comment By LouB On August 15, 2016 @ 2:28 pm

I am never surprised at the innate goodness of people. It is comforting to know that our neighbors are not so paralyzed with reliance on the actions of others that they can take action of their own accord. If this was happening under another administration however, it would certainly be the subject of endless accusation and recriminations conveniently recalled during every election season.

#23 Comment By Caroline Nina in DC On August 15, 2016 @ 2:35 pm

I think the next book is here, RD.

Beautiful post. We’re still praying, too.

#24 Comment By grumpy realist On August 15, 2016 @ 2:56 pm

Rod–I posted on one of the other threads–NOLA.com has a list of charities and organizations accepting volunteers and donations. The larger organizations prefer you earmark (Louisiana flooding) for specific targeting.

I just donated $100 to Cajun Paws, which was one of the pet shelters listed. Also a lot of the animal shelter places are looking for people who can act as foster places for misplaced (and rescued) pets, hopefully just until reunited with their owners. (I do have to say that most of the cats I’ve known would probably not care and simply stay with whoever provided the most chicken.)

P.S. Didn’t New Orleans have a tradition of burying people above ground in caskets that could float simply because of the huge number of floods?

#25 Comment By grumpy realist On August 15, 2016 @ 3:36 pm

An explanation as to why the floods are so bad this year:

[8]

#26 Comment By Bugg On August 15, 2016 @ 6:39 pm

While it’s good to hear the Red Cross has found it’s way in this disaster, during Sandy they were found to solicit and take in the most donations but ultimately gave the least to people affected by the disaster. Having seen them firsthand I would not give them a dime. Search out other local church groups and charities who have less overhead and give more to flood victims.

#27 Comment By Bradley Hague On August 15, 2016 @ 8:07 pm

I was based out of Baton Rouge in Katrina. I worked with the Red Cross at the time. I’ve been watching the floods with sadness, but also hope. Even during Katrina, during trips to Waveland and PLaquemines and Slidell, you could see the goodness, the desire to help. The desire to take care of each other. It’s good to hear that virtue is still there. Good on you for helping and good luck helping as many as you can. Wish I was able to join you.

#28 Comment By Gregory On August 15, 2016 @ 9:03 pm

Good piece, Mr. Dreher. I’m sorry to witness all of the devastation to your community.

And all day long, people would walk up to me behind the jambalaya station and say, “I’m here to help. What can I do?” I told them what I myself was told: go find a place here that looks busy, and jump right in.

Incidentally, I just finished reading A Paradise Made in Hell which is about this very phenomenon. Apparently, sociologists who study disasters state that this overwhelming motivation to help appears in disaster after disaster in the United States. The stories about lootings, shootings, etc., etc. distort the reality that, when social rules and arrangements are temporarily suspended due to a disaster, the vast majority of people really do unite for the common good. In fact, the author argues, the bureaucrats are often the ones that make disasters even more unbearable (similar to your friend’s encounter with the state) by mucking up the rescue operations and regarding the populace as criminal. While the author’s case has some oversimplifications, I must say that it made me reconsider my assumptions about people.

#29 Comment By dominic1955 On August 15, 2016 @ 11:10 pm

“P.S. Didn’t New Orleans have a tradition of burying people above ground in caskets that could float simply because of the huge number of floods?”

No, it’s an old tradition ala the charnel house. The casket is placed in the above ground tomb and allowed to decompose. Later when it’s needed for another body, what is left is removed from what is left of the casket and is pushed to the back or under the tomb and the new body is placed.

A wooden casket typically breaks under the weight of the dirt but even if it’s in a vault, it won’t float because it can’t seal. It will just fill with water.

The reason you see caskets float sometimes when it floods is because they are metal sealers. These sort are made of metal (typically steel or stainless steel, but they also are made of copper and bronze as well) and have a rubber gasket between the main “box” and the lid. They also have a turning locking mechanism which pulls the two parts together tight and is itself hidden under a gasketed plug.

This makes it air and water tight (well, at least until they rust/corrode through)-which means it will also be bouyant with considerable force. Think of trying to hold a pop bottle sealed and full of air under the water-it will quickly shoot to the surface if it gets loose from you. It also doesn’t help if the casket is full of gases from the putrefying body if conditions allowed that.

We can’t say that the seal actually does anything to preserve the body anyway. I wish they’d just drop the gaskets already.

#30 Comment By Kellie On August 16, 2016 @ 12:29 am

What happened to the lady and her cats? Does anyone know?

#31 Comment By Brent Mangum On August 16, 2016 @ 12:45 am

Rod, the Genius Bar will be open tomorrow. Come by so we can fix your computer and get that book finished.
-Brent (in galoshes)

[NFR: YOU ROCK! I’ll see you there. Hey readers, Brent Mangum spent the whole day on Sunday volunteering at the Celtic Media Center shelter. He was already there when I showed up for the first time in the morning with a food delivery, and was still there working when Lucas and I left after 7pm that day. And yes, I will be replacing my old MacBook Air with another MacBook Air. That store is run by a good man. — RD]

#32 Comment By Debra Horst On August 16, 2016 @ 3:25 pm

Mr. Morgan,

Thank you for your story, it was beautiful and heart wrenching, just like Louisiana. I will include your Miss Juanita, and all of the Miss Juanita’s in my prayers. God bless you and Lucas, along with all the other volunteers.

#33 Comment By Joyce Peery On August 16, 2016 @ 3:26 pm

I, too, have so much concern for Ms Juanita and her cats. I have nothing to donate and live up here in Tennessee…I too live alone with my little dog. I have not suffered anything as devastating as these people although I have lost everything thru divorce, and having made several moves since 2004. I have my most prized posessions….my photo albums….and of course my little 10 yr old pup. I live on fixed income and after rent, utilities, and medicine I have nothing left each month. I would give anything to be able to give to these people….all I have to donate are my tears and prayers and I am praying so very hard for Ms Juanita….hoping to hear news of her soon….

#34 Comment By Mark Lambert On August 17, 2016 @ 9:15 am

To readers who would like to contribute online, please consider donating to the Greater Baton Rouge Food Bank, a four-star Charity Navigator charity that provides food to the hungry in the Baton Rouge area. Their 170,000 square-foot facility took on four feet of water, ruining about a half-million pounds of food and ruining hundreds of thousands of dollars in equipment and vehicles. Through all of this, they are trying to fulfill their mission of feeding the hungry. Please go to [9]. I am a volunteer, unpaid board member for this wonderful organization. Thank you.