Neighbor helping neighbor in Baton Rouge
Volunteers arriving to gut flooded homes find an unbroken spirit of community
BATON ROUGE, La.—More than two weeks after the flood that ruined nearly a third of homes in Baton Rouge, La., everyone has a story to tell.
“You either know somebody, friends or family, or you was flooded,” Dawn Lott, a member of Greenwell Springs Baptist Church, which sits near the heart of the flood’s epicenter, told me.
Despite what seems almost total devastation, stories of grace abound.
Lott was pulling up floor boards in her flooded business in Springfield, La., when she prayed to God for help: “Right then, three people from church showed up. What would have taken me three hours to do, we knocked out in 30 minutes.”
Compared to previous disasters, relief workers told me they have seen a greater sense of community in Baton Rouge, with neighbors helping neighbors instead of relying on relief organizations.
Before the water receded, residents with flat-bottomed boats, designed to cruise through shallow bayou waters, meshed into a volunteer structure known to locals as the “Cajun Navy.”
They rescued stranded people and their pets from roofs and flooded living rooms.
Now that black mold threatens to creep over every object the waters touched, neighbors continue to help each other by tearing out carpet and soaked drywall.
“They rip out each other’s homes. They finish their home and they move on to their neighbor’s home,” Michelle Forest, a volunteer with Southern Baptist Disaster Relief, told me.
Every story I heard Saturday held an element of surprise because Baton Rouge was not “supposed” to flood.
“Never in a million years would I have dreamed of this happening,” David Dayton of Zachary, La., said.
Dayton and his wife, Tamara, live above the FEMA-drawn flood plain, but 400 yards from the Comite River, which snakes a thin trail east of Baton Rouge. When they moved to their home in 2001, they had to carry flood insurance. But after Hurricane Katrina, FEMA re-drew the flood maps, and sent letters to everyone in their area saying they no longer needed coverage.
The Daytons’ neighbors all dropped their flood insurance policies, joining the majority of Louisianans without flood insurance.
“But we knew where that river was, and it just seemed like it was in our best interest to hold on to it and to keep paying that premium,” Tamara Dayton said. “It goes back to God’s provision. All those years ago, He prompted us to not drop it, keep it. And we didn’t know why, and now we do.”
On Aug. 12, heavy rain lifted the Comite River into their yard. The Daytons’ two sons, ages 4 and 10, stomped around in the water and posed, grinning, for pictures.
“We are not worried,” Tamara posted on Facebook. “The water would have to rise significantly to get into our house.”
Like many others, the Dayton family went to bed Friday night. But about an hour later, a family member called to tell them to check the river level. By then, the water was a dozen feet from the house. The family grabbed the two dogs, piled into their cars, and headed down the road in front of their house at about 2:30 a.m. Saturday.
There, they were stranded. Flooded in both directions away from their home, the road offered no escape route. They sat in their vehicles for hours, watching the Cajun Navy ferry people out of the subdivisions across from their house to their short stretch of dry ground.
“They’d either come with their suitcases or garbage bags, and their children, and they’d just be walking down Plank Road,” Tamara Dayton said.
After about seven hours, a fire truck passed them. With two children and no food, Tamara had had enough.
“I told my husband, ‘Get behind that fire truck. While he parts that water, we’re going,’” she recalled.
They made it out and are staying with family while workers finish gutting their ruined house.
Although the flooding was new for the Daytons, many Baton Rouge residents are hurricane veterans, having lived through Hurricane Katrina or other similar storms.
Sisters Sara Eldridge and Joyce Russo grew up in Buras, on the very tip of eastern Louisiana. They lost their home to Hurricane Betsy in 1965 and again to Hurricane Camille in 1969. Their current homes are side by side near Baton Rouge, where friends and relatives said it would never flood. Both homes took on about 18 inches of water two weeks ago.
“We never, ever dreamed that we would go through this a third time in this location,” Eldridge told me.
Volunteers with Samaritan’s Purse tracked in and out of the two homes on Saturday, pulling out moldy appliances, shelves, and mattresses.
“Oh, there goes my bike,” Russo said as two high school students with the Navy JROTC from Carriere, Miss., hauled away a white exercise bicycle to join the growing pile of rubble on the curb. Russo let her hands fall against her sides and looked down at her soggy yard.
Despite the lack of wind and dramatic structural chaos that accompanies hurricanes, the flooding wreaked its own brand of havoc.
Piles of wet rubble sit outside every business and home hit by the flooding. Hot Louisiana sunshine mixes with more rain, and a musty smell hangs in the air.
Samaritan’s Purse volunteers tackling Carole Lipscomb’s house on Saturday shocked her by insisting so much needed to come out.
“They are taking cabinets out, I thought, surely they can stay,” Lipscomb told me. “And they pull them out and they are full of mold.”
The rims of her eyes began to match her bright pink tank top as she talked about the flood’s impact.
“My beautiful home is torn all to pieces, but all things can be made new,” she said.
Through her tears, Lipscomb was quick to say she has been “lacking in nothing,” and quoted James 1:2-3, which instructs, “Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance.”
Twenty members of the U.S. Army from Fort Polk, volunteering through Samaritan’s Purse, tore apart Lipscomb’s flooded house. She said getting their aid was like winning the lottery.
“It was the first house I pulled up to where the homeowner was jumping up and down,” volunteer Paul Brock told me.
As evening fell, the orange-clad group circled on her lawn for prayer. Lipscomb threw her head back, looked at the sky, and shouted, “Thank y’all.”
If you enjoyed this article and would like to support WORLD's brand of Biblically sound journalism, click here.