"I'm really sorry, my house is a mess. Do you want something to drink? Some water?"
On this day, the otherwise unremarkable greeting feels like a twisted joke. Le guides me from the sidewalk, where a six foot tall pile of his moldy belongings line the curb, into his home, which until Sunday night was filled with four feet of water. Now the house is almost completely gutted, and box fans blast cool air through the open space. Drywall and insulation have been ripped from the bottom half of the interior, but framed photos, flowers and small decorative altars on the top half rest completely untouched.
With the help of his daughter and her friends, Le's family cleared their house quickly before the worst mold had time to grow. But many of his neighbors are—as I write—still trudging through their houses, racing the mold. There isn't time to spare. Outside, the front yards and sidewalks of every lot in the neighborhood are lined with tall heaps of couches, mattresses and tables, toys and children's books, crumbling drywall and insulation and refrigerators full of rotten food. It smells like dead animals. People are running out of places to put things. And in some areas, people are still waiting for the water to subside in order to begin this process.
I'm traveling around the Baton Rouge area six days after historic rainfall and flooding brought a torrent of water into an unprecedented number of homes and businesses across southern Louisiana, in what is being referred to as the Louisiana Flood of 2016. Along the way, I'm talking with people on the front lines about their experiences and their needs moving forward. I believe the locals know best. And so, in the style of my photo storytelling project, NOLAbeings, I pass the mic to them.
Author's note: for resources on how to donate or volunteer to support recovery in Louisiana, visit www.volunteerlouisiana.gov
Le, in Baton Rouge, Lousiana
"Saturday morning it just was raining and raining. At 10:30 I took my car and went to the shop and get my wife some donuts and coffee. Nothing was going on. And then two hours later I saw the water coming. The water came into my house about 4 feet. […] I put all my personal items in the trash can and got out by window. I was lucky that when I got to the gate, I saw one of my friends pick up his sister's little boat. He said 'I'm looking for you. Are you okay?' I said 'Oh my god, thank God!' So my wife and my little boy got on the boat and we walked from here to Old Hammond [highway].
"I don't have flood insurance because when I bought the house and I talked to my agent, he said 'You're not on the flood zone so you don't have to buy flood insurance.' But I bought this home in 1998 and we've never seen like this. We see water and raining, but just a little bit on the street. Not like this.
"We tried to apply on FEMA and then I called yesterday and even right now, but it's very very busy, I understand that. But right now nothing's going on. My 3 cars are gone. The water went over the cars. My daughters friends came over and helped us gut the house. It took 4 days.
"I worked in a convenience store for 19 years, but I sold my business because my dad got really sick. He just passed away. This year is not my year at all. I lost my dad, I lost my grandma, I lost my brother and now I lost my house. And I sold my business. It's horrible. It's okay though, we have two hands. We work. We start over, but we gotta work. We gotta earn. We're not going to sit here and wait for people. I've been in this city since 1991. My dad came in 1975. I have worked 7 days a week, 14 hours a day, every single day."
Connie, in Baton Rouge, Louisiana
"The water was five feet. I've never seen anything like this in my life. It was over my head. I have a boat. I started rescuing other people. Oh my god, honey, I don't know how many people I picked up. Old people, people in a wheelchair, couldn't walk. I come back for [my friend] and we keep seeing old people. So I take them out and come back. I take all the people there. All the people [that live around my house] are old people. My boat can fit five people only. And all the animal, cats, dogs, oy yah! I slept on the boat Saturday night. And the rain come. Oh you don't know honey. I can't get out, I can't get in. I didn't leave until Sunday evening. Sunday evening somebody come rescue me! The people who rescue me came here today. Came and visited us, make sure we're okay. I worked through all Saturday and Sunday. Not eat, no water. Nothing. Can you believe that? I'm lucky I made it."
Donna, in Prairieville, Louisiana
"We rent lots for people who are coming here [temporarily] to work on jobs, but we do have 10 or 12 of us that are permanent. I've been here 11 years. I think by Friday night the only ones left in the park was the immediate group that kind of stays permanent. Believe it or not we all stuck together. We have a gentleman that owns a construction company that lives next door that has come in every night and brought food and drinks and whatever we needed. He saw that we did not go without.
"The little guy that lives behind me—he'd actually bought a kayak. So we've been holed up here since last Thursday, and until Wednesday night, and the only way we could get around to go either get things from our trailers or to get from here to the cars to get to the store to buy food, water, whatever our people needed, we had to get in the kayak! Hah! Honey, I took that kayak and pulled it up to the front door of my porch, that's how high the water was.
"Everybody has just pulled together, shared what they had, done what we could for each other. Money would be the thing [we need most] because most of us are on social security. Of course, it's taken us extra money just to get by because we haven't been anywhere for free food or water or to ask for money. So what moneys we did have, everybody shared, is pretty well spent. We're all just hoping we can hang out 'til the third of the month when we get our next check. I wouldn't even know where to go to get any kind of surplus cash.
"At least we are in a trailer. Yes, it got damaged. It stinks like the garbage dumps, but it's air conditioned, we have TV, we have a [fridge]. We have electricity where we're able to cook one-pot meals and stuff for everybody. So I can't say we suffered personally, physically. Most of it has just been financial loss and our homes. I've been in my trailer 11 years and it kills me because I bought it brand new after my husband died. I've been here 11 years and now I can't go back."
Jade and Millane, in Prairieville, Louisiana
"It's by God's grace that we did not get affected. We've been here [volunteering] since Monday. Me and my husband were actually here on Monday and now he's working to recover some of the businesses through the [general contracting] company he works for. So me and our five kids have been here every day. I think it's helping them to learn to be grateful for what they have.
"We've gone through so much strife in our community the last three, four, five weeks. It took something this catastrophic to bring us back together. To remember who we are. It's happening in incredibly tangible ways. Really, our whole state was divided […] by race, by status, by just who you are as an employee, a police person type of deal. And I feel like this broke that. It broke it in a way that can't be broken by words. Only something that happened to everyone would unify us. I hate that it happened in this way, but it's beautiful to see people from everywhere cry on each other's shoulder and hold each other up."
Sergio and Angelle, in St. Amant, Louisiana
"Since '64 when it was built, my house has never been touched by water. It was full to the roof with water. No house in that area has been touched with water since '64, even before that, it never flooded there at all. This is the only place where we can keep these [race] horses, The Lady in Charge and The Hell Chick. I've been working on horses my entire life, since I was little. At the same time as I take care of my horses, if I see someone struggling with a horse or something I'll jump in there and try to help them out. We're out here all day. Go pick up your meal, come back and just keep going. Everybody's looking at the horses, trying to help out. They've got swarms of volunteers coming in to walk dogs."
"I think it's comforting that people are getting together and doing something for their community. I'm sure being around a lot of cute animals comforts them too."
Cooper, in Baton Rouge, Louisiana
"School starts [back up after the storms] on Wednesday and I don't know anybody who has school supplies and uniforms right now. The book sacks are gone and it's unfortunate because school just started last week. That's when you go, you got new shoes, new uniforms, all your notebooks are new and so everybody's kind of got to start over. So it's odd because when people think about what's your most urgent need, they don't think of that. But I need that long before I need bed sheets. Everybody's staying at a guest house or a hotel right now so they have bed sheets. We don't have anything to send our kids to school with. Nobody has a lunch box. It's strange!
"But I do think the schools should open because the truth is that school is often a resource. That's a hot meal for students. And it's daycare for students. It's good that they can get back on track and they don't lose those days. But I'm trying to figure out – I'm so wondering what the teachers are going to do when the kids show up and there's no pencils.
"Transportation for everyone is a problem. I saw on the news they were saying that they're trying to figure out what to do, because even though [the school buses are] running their regular routes, the students aren't there! You know, they're displaced. It's those kinds of things that nobody knows what to do about."
Kornell, in Baton Rouge, Louisiana
"Unfortunately, some of us have to resort to a shelter because of the home situation, the flood, the smelling and the wildlife that's floating into houses. So it's a process of rebuilding. We can't complain about it, you know? We just gotta stay prayed up, believe in God and things are going to change in a better way. I was hospitalized because the dirty water got in my system from treading water and trying to hold things and move things. I stayed in the hospital a day and then I discharged and came to the River Center [shelter]. I've been staying here since they all started.
"The food's nasty, but you can't complain because you don't have nothing else to eat. But they have a lot of assistance. They're doing a great job, DCFS (Department of Child and Family Services). They're wonderful ladies. They come in. People just coming up to you, friendly, strong hospitality, you know what I'm saying? They care. That means a lot to a person that went through a lot. When a person cares, a small thing can be a big blessing. Also, this reunited a lot of people that haven't seen each other since childhood. Everybody's hugging it out. It's just bringing the races closer. The Whites, the Blacks, like it should be. We all bleed the same. We are coming together for a reason. Not a purpose. A reason. And the reason is to do better and prosper together."
Lisa Trahan, in Baton Rouge, Louisiana
"The community came in droves to try to see, 'can we help you set this place up?' They helped put cots out, they put barricades out, they moved donations. People began driving up in cars and trucks and just donating anything and everything they could. We had so many donations that we could no longer take it on the inside, and had to find another room somewhere within this facility. We continued to get so many donations that we had to divert some of it because we could not even handle it.
"One of the most remarkable has been our medical community, because this shelter here is not set up as a medical facility. But as they begin to see so many people being out of their homes, they took it upon themselves to come to the shelter, assess the situation, and since then they've been volunteering and getting donations. So we have a little clinic in our facility that helps and treats all of our residents here. Because some of them came in and they were dehydrated. They left home, had no meds, their meds were home. We've refilled all that. That undertaking has been phenomenal.
"Then another one has been groups to come and entertain and work with the children. We have numerous groups that are certified to work with children and we have at least four or five of them to count upon every day, working with the children, thinking of the immediate needs of the children, and what might help bring them back to normalcy and help with this trauma time in their life."
Elizabeth, in Baton Rouge, Louisiana
"We watched the water begin in the street, like 'Maybe it won't be bad.' And then we watched it come in the yard… 'Maybe it won't be too bad.' In '83 when the Amite flooded it got up to the front porch and that's as bad as it got. We hoped it would be that high. And then it started coming in from all four sides. We had my 10 year old niece and my 8 year old nephew from Texas here. And we were telling them at one o'clock 'We have to get in the attic and this is why.' And they didn't understand. 'Why? What will we eat? Who will come for us? What will we do? Where will we go?' When the water started coming in, we knew it was too late. So we started grabbing whatever we could. I'm still wearing the same pants I've worn since it happened. Thank God for the neighbor who sent a boat for us. And we had to go by boat up to O'Neil and wade through the water with gasoline and fire ants and all sorts of other stuff, to where the National Guard would pick us up. They took us to a shelter that had flooded. And then they took us to another shelter that wasn't set up yet. And I called a friend of mine who lives downtown. She said 'I have no room for you, but I'll come and give you a hug.' I was like 'I'll take it!' Then I got in touch with another friend who lives across the river in the only parish not part of this emergency – West Baton Rouge – and she graciously let us stay at her house for a couple days.
"Once we were able to come back and just look – I can't describe. This is the house I grew up in. And all my memories here, I see all this stuff coming out, and I can't process it yet. My parents were married for 53 years, so 53 years of their life together is going in this trash pile. It's the little things – like my grandmother's desk that mom restored after Grandma died. She probably can't do anything with it now. I don't know. I just thank God I have wonderful friends willing to lend their bodies and their muscles. They're exhausted from gutting other houses, giving their time just to do this. This is hard work."
Shannon, Chris, and Todd, in Prairieville, Louisiana
"We have 18-wheelers – one came today with ten thousand dollars of food supplies. It's unreal. We have a grocery store that we work with and they let us use their freezer space because it was boxes of meats and stuff. We are going to feed and give and feed and give until we have nothing left. We want to make sure people know to come and get it. We are giving everything away!
"Our people have been amazing but the rest of the community has joined in with us. It started off just being the hands and feet of our church, but now it's really so many in the community. People come and say 'I want to help. I want to serve.' And we let 'em. The one thing that I love about what we do, is that nobody walks in here without somebody by their side. When you fill in your paperwork, you stop and wait for a volunteer, and we walk with you to help you and love on your and pray for you and really try to get down to what their real needs are and how we can meet 'em the best that we can with the resources that we have.
"We're trusted, on some level. But it's really not that distinct at this point. The Red Cross has been leaning into us for stuff and vice versa. They call and they say 'We need this' – we bring it. They're meeting the needs of people there, who need a place to stay. We're meeting the needs of people who – they have places to stay with family – but they don't have anything. So we're working together.
"We post immediate needs [on Facebook] and within the hour, people are coming over with those things that we need."
Kimothy, in Gonzales, Louisiana
"We've dealt with water so many times. But this particular time I actually saw the water flooding in and rising. Once it got to our door it was just pouring in like someone was pouring water out of a cup, man. That's how bad it was. I would say 85 to 95 percent of my stuff got ruined.
"We're just taking it one day at a time right now. Seeing what's tomorrow going to be. Another day, another turning point as far as what we gotta do to get back on our feet. It's just a cleaning process, a waiting process. So far everything has been going great though. Everybody's doing a good job. The Red Cross – anybody else that's donating or putting in their help is definitely doing a damn good job.
"I wish sometimes that people could do the things that they're doing now to come together when disasters like this don't happen. I wish it could be like that. But now that it has happened, the community is pulling together in one accord. Communities all over the place are coming here and playing their part."