A Baton Rouge reader of this blog, a friend of mine, texted me yesterday from Livingston Parish, where the water has receded, and where he went to help colleagues clean their flood-damaged houses. He was pretty torn up by the devastation. Livingston, you may recall, is a place where the sheriff said 90 percent of homes went underwater. That means more than 100,000 people homeless in that one parish alone. Twenty parishes have been declared disaster areas, though I think none are as bad off as Livingston.
I asked my friend to write what he saw for this blog. He did, late last night. I publish it here honoring his request to be anonymous. What he says here could be the words of thousands, even tens of thousands, of south Louisiana people today:
As Rod mentioned in an earlier post, as part of my job I visited five different homes in the Baton Rouge area today with my boss. We wanted to check on the people we work with and make sure that they have what they need to get their houses cleaned up. The first three homes we visited were in Denham Springs, a thriving suburb a few miles east of Baton Rouge.
If you weren’t paying attention, you might not have realized that the entire city was underwater 48 hours ago. There was no more water and it was a bright, sunny day. And the weird thing about floods is that they tend to leave the exterior of a building looking the same, while utterly destroying the inside. Often the only telltale mark on the exterior is a line where the water stopped rising. Those exterior appearances are incredibly deceiving.
As we came into town from the interstate exit, the first thing we noticed was the businesses. They were all being torn apart from the inside out. There was a dentist’s office on the right of the road where all of the dental chairs and machines were now sitting in the parking lot, waiting to be trashed. A funeral home was clearing out its pews and furniture. A Baptist church had a heap of trash out front – all of their electronics in a pile, carpet sitting out of the main entrance. The Home Depot, which must have had 8-10 feet of water, had all of their stuff pulled out into a parking lot. Some of the big chains, like Burger King, were back in business, but we often forget how many small businesses there are and on the road in they were all in deep trouble.
That was just a preamble for what we saw when we got to the neighborhoods.
After a flood a homeowner is in a race against time. Mold and mildew can set in within 48-72 hours and will grow on most anything that is wet. If you want to save your house so that it will be livable after it is repaired, you have to remove anything porous that was under the water. If you don’t, you’ll have a newly renovated house with a mildew problem. Carpet, drywall, and insulation are your enemy. The first thing you have to do is pull any wet furniture out of the house, as almost none of it is salvageable. Mattresses, couches, and futons, heavy and laden with water, have to go. So the first part of your life that ends up in the street are all the things that made you comfortable, a preview of the discomfort to come.
Next to go is the carpet, linoleum, and other flooring (only ceramic tile seems exempt). I took out some carpet from a house yesterday that had been under 2.5 feet of water. Except it wasn’t just river water, but also raw sewage. That wasn’t mud I was looking at and I still don’t have the smell out of my nose. Pulling that carpet up and dragging it out to the street was some of the nastiest work I’ve ever done. But it joins the furniture on the front lawn. It has to.
Finally, you have to demolish the drywall at least a foot above the water line and then pull out the insulation, which may have wicked water above the flood line. All of that goes out to the street too. Eventually you’ll have to spray some kind of mildewcide on all of the wall surfaces. Because the power is likely to be out, you’ll be doing this without air conditioning on a hot, humid Louisiana day. Around here this whole process is called “mucking”.
Optimally, you want to muck your house within just a few days of the water receding. It is difficult, hot, exhausting work and it overwhelms people.
So by the time we arrived at our first location, the mucking process was well under way. Almost every house had a lawn full of trash that had been removed from the house. Every house had the telltale water mark about three feet up the wall. House, after house, after house. Thank goodness for Google maps, because the mailbox had been knocked over by the water, but we finally found our location. The house was on the right, and a line of furniture, carpet, and drywall about five feet tall leaned over to our left, like a levee in reverse, proof that water always wins.
The couple we visited have lived there for twenty-five years. They were living there with their daughter and one-year-old grandson. By the time we arrived, they were so far along with the mucking that all that remained was about four feet of drywall from the top of the ceiling to the middle of the wall. They had pulled out all of their kitchen cabinets and countertops. All of the appliances were out by the street too. Their daughter’s car had been completely submerged. Twenty-five years of life in one house and pretty much the only stuff they could salvage could fit on the floor of the carport, where it was drying out. Everything else was across the street.
It is easy for us to say, “it is only stuff,” but it is often the memories and sentiments that we attach to stuff that makes it valuable. At the house I helped at yesterday, the teenage son brought out his first Bible. He had another Bible in his locker at school and probably hadn’t looked at this old Bible for years, but yet he couldn’t let it go. We might be able to replace the book, but we can’t really replace the memories that are attached to it. But out to the lawn it goes, as water has no mercy when it comes to paper.
By the time someone is done mucking, virtually the whole life of their family is festering in the heat on their lawn (and who knows how long it will be there, as it will take forever for it to get picked up). Often you can salvage clothing, your dishes, and anything that was up high. But you have to disinfect all of it too.
We traveled to our second house, again passing house after house that had been turned inside out. Her house only had a few inches of water, but still the baseboards, carpet, and drywall were on their way out, along with her furniture. A single woman, she had two friends helping her and two of our co-workers. When she saw my boss she broke down in tears and hugged her for a long time. One of the things I saw today and yesterday was how overwhelmed people were by the task ahead of them. Most of them were barely holding it together and were desperate for help. Some were so overwhelmed by the enormity of the work that they just froze and didn’t do anything or weren’t doing the most important things. People respond in completely unpredictable ways.
The owner of the third place in Denham Springs was not home, so we moved back to Baton Rouge. The first place we visited was in the far east of Baton Rouge, off of O’Neal Lane. This time what I noticed was the foliage. All of the trees had a film of mud about 6-8 feet up, so I realized that the car we were driving in would have been underwater a few days ago. We were now about five miles west of our previous locations, but this part of the city had also been decimated. Again, as we entered the neighborhood, the signs of mucking were everywhere. No house had been untouched by the floods. Whereas the first homeowner was ahead of schedule in his race against time, this one is behind, with the floors still intact in many places and none of the walls removed; I worry that the mildew will win.
Finally we made it to Sherwood Forest, which I had already described to Rod as “a middle-class Ninth Ward.” As Rod pointed out, almost 15,000 people live in this neighborhood, which had never been flooded. It’s a solid middle class neighborhood, but not a place of real wealth. Lots of two-parent families, but two parents who work. Compared to my first visit yesterday the mucking was in full bloom, with little levees of trash divided only by driveways. This family is in about the middle of the pack in their race against time, with most of the flooring out, but all of the drywall intact. They hope to have some more family arrive to help tomorrow.
One of the great questions of philosophy is, “What is a good life?” I often tell people that move here that Louisiana, especially southern Louisiana, is a state that tends to answer that question differently than the rest of our country. Our dysfunctions are well documented, but the answer to that question in Louisiana revolves around family, food, and helping each other out, not always about being wealthy, cultured, or isolated from your family. As I have joked more than once, in Dallas the current status symbol is owning a Tesla, in Louisiana it is owning a Yeti cooler. As a student I knew once explained Louisiana masculinity to me, “In Louisiana you aren’t really a man unless you can feed fifty people at once.”
Which is why the other thing I saw today were rows of trucks along the streets, where family and friends were arriving to help with the mucking. Almost every house had one or two vehicles out front that belonged to family or friends. You could usually see several people shuttling trash out of the houses. I saw one older couple sitting out on a bench while their children and grandchildren were pulling stuff out. In fact, as I’ve tried to find volunteers to help with mucking, the near universal response has been, “I have to go help my family,” or “I have to go help one of my friends.” It’s the same spirit that gave rise to the Cajun Navy when the waters were rising. One of the reasons that more people aren’t in shelters is because they have family or friends living with them, though that adds a level of difficulty to the mucking process, as you have to travel from one place to another to get to your house.
So for the next few days thousands of people will be in a race for time. More than even money, what people need between now and Monday is help. With the right tools (a carpet knife, a pry bar, and a sledgehammer), a group of six can muck a good sized house in about a day and a half, working from early to late. But the destruction is so widespread that it is hard to concentrate your efforts on one house.
A final note. Rod asked me if I had taken pictures and I told him that I had not. People are so raw and vulnerable, with their whole lives on their front lawns, that I did not feel right taking pictures of it. There is a kind of material nakedness that comes from exposing so much of your life on the street, so I’m afraid I have only words, which cannot do justice to what I’ve seen. And I’ve told the stories only because I want people to know how achingly bad it is here, how people are suffering, overwhelmed, and in need of help, and yet also hopeful and helpful.
I want to quote here a passage from the actor Wendell Pierce’s 2015 memoir The Wind In The Reeds, which it was my great privilege to collaborate with him on. Believe me, this is not another celebrity memoir. It is an amazing book, for reasons that have nothing to do with me, and everything to do with the extraordinary man Wendell is, and the extraordinary family from which he comes. It is a tale of faith, family, art, culture, and resilience in the face of immense obstacles. At its center is the response — his and his family’s — to Katrina, which destroyed his childhood home in New Orleans. Wendell relocated his elderly parents, Tee and Amos, to Baton Rouge after the storm. This passage concerns their first trip back to New Orleans’s Pontchartrain Park neighborhood to see the little brick house they had lived in since the 1950s. I include this here to give you an idea of what kind of emotional bombs are going off all over south Louisiana today, in the wake of last week’s flooding.
The only image I can compare post-apocalyptic Pontchartrain Park to is Hiroshima after the atomic bomb. The devastation was so complete, so definitive. We stopped at a Red Cross station on the perimeter before going in and got food, drink, and supplies, including hazmat suits, because the water that flooded the area had been so toxic. Making our way over to our beloved Debore Drive was like homecoming in Chernobyl. Everything—everything—was gray from caked-on mud left behind by six weeks of stagnant water. There was so much debris in the streets that we had to drive on sidewalks. The silence was absolute; not a soul was around. All the trees were destroyed; those left standing had been stripped of their leaves. This is what I imagine nuclear winter is like.
Months later, when I began rehearsing my role as Vladimir in the Classical Theater of Harlem’s production of Godot (which, in 2007, we would reprise in New Orleans), I didn’t have to work to place myself in the desolation imagined by Beckett. I had been there with my family. I had seen it, smelled it, felt its wrath, and absorbed its numbing lessons amid a silence that seemed eternal.
At last, we pulled up to our house. The grass was gone and mud was caked above the doors. But it was still standing. There were no cars. There were no people. If there was movement, even two blocks away, you could hear it. The stench of mold, chemicals, mud, sewage, stagnant water, and decay was overwhelming.
As silly as it sounds, we tried to open the front door with a key, which didn’t work. So Ron [Pierce, Wendell’s brother] and I broke down the door.
The inside was worse than our direst imaginings. Much worse. The interior looked as if a bomb made of mud and ink had gone off inside. All the furniture had been overturned and thrown into piles by the water. The refrigerator was on its side, and when we opened its door, the smell of rotten meat nearly knocked us down. Katrina had not merely sacked the house; she had defiled it.
My father started to cry. “This is where we raised our family, Black [Amos’s nickname for his wife, Tee]. And it’s all gone.”
My mother stood by silently and cried, too. We all did. Everything we had associated with that house, every object, was gone, either washed away by the flood, disintegrated by the toxic brew in which it had been steeping for weeks, or so fouled that it likely could never be recovered.
Standing on that filth-gilded street that had once, in my family’s imagination, had been paved with gold, I knew without the least doubt that I had lost everything that told me who I was. The spirit had gone out of house that had been the embodiment of our family’s life, leaving it a corpse putrefying under the relentless south Louisiana sun. It felt that the only thing any of us standing there had left was our lives, our memories, and each other. And then the sense came over me that if we didn’t regain at least some of what was stolen from us, we would lose our lives too. Given how old Daddy and Tee were, this was not an abstract threat. In that moment, with the old man’s sobbing the only sound in the sepulchral silence, I felt as if I was standing at my mother and father’s open grave. There was nothing keeping them from stepping forward into the void and letting the desecrated earth swallow them whole.
Standing in the driveway, a few feet from the filthy front door, Daddy broke down. “I don’t want to go back,” he declared. “It’s too much.”
But we had to go back. There was no way forward except to go back. The road to the Pierce family’s future, if we were to have a future, ran through Pontchartrain Park. If we didn’t take it, if we didn’t push on through the debris and the despair, we might as well die.
I thought of Aristile [Wendell’s slave ancestor], and what he had come through. I thought of Mamo and Papo [Wendell’s farmer grandparents], and what they achieved against odds that must have seemed impossible. I thought of Daddy and Tee, and all the older folk who raised me in Pontchartrain Park, and how the tenacity of their hope drove them forward. I thought about the experience of all Africans in the American Diaspora, how they—how we—had everything taken from us. We lost our ancestral homeland, we lost our gods, we lost our freedom, and often we even lost our families. We were poor and abused, beaten and lynched, told we were nothing, humiliated every day of our lives.
And yet we came through all these things. Not only did we survive them; we conquered them. Every Negro spiritual, every blues lament, every jazz composition is a song of victory. Every true poem, every real drama, and every authentic novel written by an African American is a proclamation of triumph. Every performance by an African-American actor, dancer, or musician that faithfully expresses our people’s journey and forges a bond of recognition and understanding among all peoples about humanity’s collective pilgrimage—each one is to defy death, to deflect its sting, and to deny it the last word.
That desolated house, which had cradled my brothers and me, was now a tomb. The neighborhood founded in one of the deepest valleys in the city of New Orleans, and that Tee and Daddy and their generation cultivated into a lush and fertile garden, was now a desert. The water had long since receded, but it had left behind nothing but dry bones.
Everything within me screamed: These bones must live!
And then a light appeared in the darkness. Staggering around the ruins in our hazmat suits and masks, like explorers on an alien world, Daddy found his wallet, which he had left behind in the rush to flee the storm. He opened it and found that everything in it had been destroyed—except for a single item. It was a photograph of my late brother Stacey. The borders had been eaten away by the poisoned water, but Stacey’s face looked upon us with perfect clarity. And he was smiling.
“Oh, my God!” said Daddy. “I’ve still got Stacey! I’ve still got my son!”
That was the sign we needed. Finding the image of his dead boy, the firstborn son whose memory he and my mother mourned every day, caused a new birth of hope in Daddy’s heart. If Stacey could come through the flood, so could he. So could we all.
We doubted our strength to go on, but we made our minds up to do it anyway, one step at a time. Daddy, Tee, Ron, and I decided to come back every single day and clean as much as we could manage, for as long as we could manage.
And so we did. It was an excruciating experience, like waking up every morning to go to your own wake. My father said we should just throw everything away, but Tee and I said no, we couldn’t afford to do that. We were going to bring every single relic we found inside the house outside, lay it in front of him and my mother, and let them decide what to hold on to and what to let go. If everything really is lost, I told him, you might lose any hope that you have a future.
I don’t get any money from sales of The Wind In The Reeds, so please understand that it is not self-serving for me to say that I wish everybody would read Wendell’s book, if only to understand what it’s like for an entire city full of folks to lose everything they have, especially their heirlooms, to a flood. More important, I wish every family in south Louisiana who is today mucking out their house had a copy of that book to read when they found time to rest. There is so much hope in Wendell’s story.
A final note: the house in Baton Rouge that Wendell moved Amos and Tee into took on water during the flood. Wendell is going to have to muck it out himself. Floods are no respecter of celebrity, or of anything, really.
UPDATE: Gutted houses, disemboweled lives:
People’s lives and memories out on the curb on Teah in Central. Neighbor tells me no one here has flood insurance. pic.twitter.com/CqhfcmjMzm
— Hilary Scheinuk (@hscheinukphoto) August 18, 2016
UPDATE.2: My people. South Louisiana people:
— Foxy (@kaylayable) August 18, 2016