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. 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:
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.”
“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.
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:
— Anna Johnson (@annieschex) August 14, 2016