Photography by: Kevin Lajoie
“Are you a refugee from the flooding too?” I heard the man sitting next to me at the Waffle House on Sherwood in Baton Rouge early in the morning. “No,” I replied. “I’m out here doing work, cleaning up and stuff I guess. I’m not really sure what to expect. This is the first day I’ve been out here. I’m from New Orleans.” He smiled, nodded his head and sipped his coffee. The whole restaurant was packed with people of all sorts and in the corner of the room sat a group of police officers who were having an important talk of some sort, assumably a rescue team getting ready for the day. I looked around the room at all the people. Some looked sad and others smiled, however, it was quite clear that most of these people had just lost everything they owned. “So it was pretty bad out here, huh?” I asked the man sitting next to me. He looked up at me and chuckled and said “Well, yeah. You haven’t heard much about any of it I’m guessing?” “I had thought I did,” I said. “But I guess I’d only seen half of the mess.” Just then the waitress approached and dropped my ticket on the bar in front of me. “Thank you sir, and God bless you,” she told me. ‘$10.95’, my ticket said my meal cost. I thought for a second and then reached for my wallet and pulled out a twenty and set it on the bar on top of the ticket and then exited.
I was in an empty warehouse organizing food, water, clothing, and various cleaning supplies for an insurance company who were having a drive the next day; they would be putting together care packages for refugees who had lost everything. Every time I finished unloading a truck full of bottled water cases and bulk food, another would pull up, packed with more cases and boxes to unload. Of all the people working in the warehouse with me, I was the only one who spoke English, but there was still a mutual understanding that we were all here for the same reason.
After the day was over and I’d arrived at my aunt’s house where I’d be staying the next four nights, I got settled on the back porch with a few beers and watched the news until they started replaying the day’s footage. It was predicted to rain the next week in the area again, but the flood waters were not expected to rise anymore. Over 100,000 homes were estimated to be destroyed. 11 (now 13) dead. More rain expected. Though I sat there in Baton Rouge, watching the news, seeing and hearing it firsthand, I still felt as if I couldn’t really tell exactly what was going on.
I was working at a chain of apartments on Burbank close to the LSU campus. I was not too sure why I was working there; that part of town was fine and the waters hadn’t even reached or damaged anything around the apartments. I had assumed that the apartments were for flood victims to live in and that was why they needed to be worked on. That day, I was stationed on the fifth floor working with a guy named Louis, who spoke primarily Spanish, but knew just enough English to communicate. Louis had been with the company for six years, so he held the reins on all of our work duties in the building. I was familiar with manual labor enough to know that it would be a pain in the ass: that I would have to be careful not to hurt myself and that I was out there to do the real dirty work. The day included a bunch of painting and sawing, a blood blister on my hand from using a nail gun for hours on end, a Subway sandwich for lunch, and a Red Bull to drag me through the last two hours of work.
I met Kevin at the office around 7:15 the next morning. He drove up in a Prius, which was perfect for us, as it meant that we would be able to drive for much longer without having to worry about finding a close gas station that was open (those were pretty scarce in some areas of town). It looked funny being parked there in the lot, surrounded by pickup trucks and cargo vans almost double the size of its poor, little blue thing. Our boss assigned everyone to their groups and sent us out to the workstations. We were lucky to have been put into the same group, doing demolition on a house in Denham Springs. The house was in a subdivision called Southpoint Subdivision. Up and down the whole block, in front of every house, stood a veritable mountain range of trash. Entire homes—years of collections—were laid out on the street as if they had been run through a paper shredder.
We met with our boss, who pulled up in his pickup truck just as we arrived. The family who lived there was going in and out of the house, arms filled with ruined possessions, adding to the steadily growing pile on their lawn. They greeted us with a big smile. “How’s it goin’, y’all?” I greeted the father and the oldest son of the family as I passed by them standing in the driveway, planning out how they would get the car out of the garage and into the driveway. “All right, all right,” he replied, welcoming. “Just tryin’ to keep smiling.”
On the inside of the front door hung a pair of blinds with the words “ALL GOOD” spraypainted on them. The house was already mostly emptied out, but the carpets were soaked with water, small puddles forming with each footstep. There were still some pictures hanging from the walls and a few pieces of furniture left to clear out. The water line sat about three and a half feet up the walls. Our boss walked around the house, going in and out of each room and pulling out a tape measure, holding it up to the water line, then instructing us to knock out everything up to four feet. He left promptly and we began punching holes in the walls and tearing them out with gloved hands. It felt strange, especially in the rooms where there were still things hanging on the walls.
Walking back and forth, up and down the main hallway and throughout the house, we met everyone in the family: father, mother, daughter, and two sons. I passed by each of them, wondering if they saw me as the bad guy, that maybe they didn’t like watching us tear their house apart. But each time I passed by one of them, they would always smile. It still felt like vandalism somehow.
Further into our day, Kevin and I went out to the front porch where I had a cigarette and he started taking pictures of the house and of the belongings scattered across the front yard. “Hey check this out,” I said to Kevin as I pulled a long, right-angled, twisted-looking walking stick from the pile of debris. “It’s a Gandalf stick!”
“A Gandalf stick?” Kevin replied, not understanding.
No, that’s not the Gandalf stick!” I heard over my shoulder. It was the younger son, already smiling when he approached. He began digging through the pile, moving a big suitcase and pulling out from underneath it a long, thicker wooden stick with a big knot at the top. “This is the Gandalf stick,” he said, holding it in our direction.
The mother of the family appeared next to Kevin, watching him take pictures and she overheard us and laughed. “Oh yeah,” she said with her hands on her hips. “He’s always collected sticks. They’re all around here. He had plenty of them. I always told him not to keep them in the house.”
“This one is mom’s stick,” the boy said, pulling out a fierce, two-foot-long wooden stick that looked like a really short baseball bat.
“Oh yeah, that is my stick, isn’t it? I keep that in my car, normally. Just in case I ever need to, you know...” She waved it in her hands. We all laughed and the boy tossed his stick back into the pile. The daughter of the family called the mother out to the street. We went back inside to continue working.
Passing through the open door to the garage, we watched the two sons taking books off of a lengthy bookshelf to bring to their pile. They hauled out dozens and dozens of encyclopedias, reference books, and fairy tales. From where we were working, we could hear them laughing and making jokes, the father joining in when he wasn’t barking orders from another room. We worked steadily, adding drywall and insulation to the pile. The father caught us in the doorway, standing before his family’s discarded belongings with his hands on his hips, proudly displaying his “U.S.A.” t-shirt. “Yep,” he said as he stood there, regarding the pile and looking into the house at the ripped open walls. “The water line came up pretty high in here… And now look at this. Once you take it all out, you can really see your footprint.”
We worked for a while longer before deciding to take our lunch break. We drove about five miles up the road to find food. On the way back to the house, we drove around the block a few times to see how everyone else was hit before heading back. Everyone we passed smiled and waved at us. Flood victim or construction worker, everybody was working for the same cause, together. When we got back to the house and set back to working, we found that the family had finished emptying out the garage. The heap on the front lawn was steadily growing higher. The family soon got in their van to take off and we said goodbye.
We continued working into the evening until we were on the verge of falling over and passing out. I’d thought before that I had pretty tough hands, but they were hurting and my body felt achy and sore already. We left and passed by a few church parking lots with big tents set up. People were giving out food and cases of water along the highway back towards Baton Rouge. We contemplated stopping and getting some food, but decided we could wait. It took us about thirty minutes to get back to my aunt’s house from Denham Springs. My aunt and uncle were already getting started on dinner. Kevin seemed more worn out than I was, so I let him shower first while I had a few whiskeys on the back porch with my uncle. Eventually, we were both showered and had eaten dinner with my aunt, uncle, and two cousins. We were all on the back porch drinking, talking, looking back and forth at the news. The reporter made a remark about Baton Rouge’s ailments and how it really hadn’t been a good year in the news. My aunt spoke up: “After all the tension between the police and the citizens here... you know, it’s amazing watching how people are responding now. It doesn’t matter right now. It really doesn’t matter. We all got hit, and we all know exactly what we need to do. Nobody outside of the state may know, but at least we do. We all gotta get out there and help our neighbors out, ‘cause that’s all that we got: our family, our friends, and our neighbors.” She rocked her baby boy, my new cousin, in her arms. “I guess sometimes it takes a tragedy to alleviate a tragedy.”
Another early start. I had strange dreams the night before that I couldn’t quite remember in the morning, but they kept me in a peculiar mood until I was finally awake and we were on our way back to the house. While we were in the car, I pulled my sandwich out of my backpack to show Kevin how well I made it and then got hungry just by looking at it and decided to eat it then and there. I regretted the decision once it was time for lunch and I had nothing. We spent the day finishing up the sheetrock removal and towards the end of the day got to breaking apart the cabinets and sinks connected to the walls in the kitchen and bathrooms. Neither Kevin nor I had done anything like this before. It was a simple job and a caveman could have done it better, but we at least knew what “demolish” meant: hit, punch, pull, grab, tear, pick up, throw out. At first, it felt wrong and like we were vandalizing the place, but after we’d gotten used to it we could almost enjoy the work if we thought about it in the right way. You found zen after a while and could free your mind.
We called it early that day, leaving the house around 4 p.m. On the drive out of the subdivision, weaving through garbage in the streets and parked cars, we passed a pickup truck, its bed filled with children and adults all wearing the same t-shirt, a bible verse on the back. We stopped to roll down our window when they waved us down. They weren’t hesitant to hand Kevin two plates of jambalaya and tell us “God bless y’all” before they drove off to hand out more plates of food.
Our last day in the area before we were set to head back to New Orleans. In the morning I woke up before my alarm went off and went to the living room to find that Kevin was already awake too. When we pulled up to the house, the van that the family had left in was parked in front of the driveway, the younger son and daughter of the family both waiting nearby. “Good morning,” I said to them as I walked up.
“Hey guys,” the daughter said, smiling and waving at us.
“Y’all did a good job in there,” the boy said. “It didn’t take very long for you guys to do that at all. Just two days ago we were unloading my closet and now there aren’t even walls.”
“Yeah, I guess we did,” Kevin said, looking at the house.
“Our mom is inside the house now. We’re about to leave. We’re just waiting on her to get back out.” I wondered what she’d think, if she’d find anything wrong with what we did or if we had broken something in the house we were supposed to leave in.
She came out of the front door shortly after, walking slowly, and upon seeing us, said “Oh, hey, y’all. I was just looking.”
“Good morning!” Kevin shouted to her across the trash heap that had grown exponentially in her front yard. The pile that had originally contained much of their worldly possessions now also included the doors, hardware, and foundation of the place they once called home. The mother paled in comparison to its size. She was smiling and looked happy to be seeing us again. It was beautiful to see that she was still good-spirited about everything. There was complete and utter beauty in laughing, smiling, and making jokes in front of the rubble of your entire existence...what once was called home.
“We’re leaving now, though, so I’ll get out of y'alls hair and let y’all get to work,” the mom said. “I was just looking around the yard and found a box. It had some of my jewelry that I thought I lost the other day,” she said as her voice began to shake.
Kevin and I stood stricken as her daughter then pulled her mother in close and hugged her, saying, “God, Mom, stop. Please. She’s fine, guys. Really, she’s okay.”
“No,” the mother stated. “I don’t know why, but I’m glad I found this! And I don’t know why, but thank you.”
The daughter noticed her mother’s stick on the front porch at that moment. “Here, Mom, you can’t forget this either.”
“Oh thank goodness!” she exclaimed. “I’ll be needing this, I’m sure of it!” She even laughed when I told her how I had used the same stick to knock out a small part of a wall the day before.
The son began to open up the door to the van as the daughter pulled at her mother’s arm, saying “Come on, mama. We’ve gotta go now.”
“Y’all take care now, boys, and have a good day and be safe. God bless y’all,” the mother said as she hopped in the front seat.
“Y’all have a good day, guys, and thanks.” the boy said before he closed the door to the van. All I could think to do was to smile and wave at them as they drove off. Kevin and I looked at each other and then began walking up the driveway. “Jesus Christ,” Kevin said. “That was real.”
The last of the planks of wood from the cabinets and the insulation from the walls of the master bathroom were taken out of the house and thrown on to the pile with the rest of it. We spent most of the day tearing out all the carpets in the house and wheeling them out in a wheelbarrow. We were both soaked in what felt like stinky swamp goo by the end of it, and smelled the worst we had smelled in our entire lives. (We made sure to wear masks.) The house was completely empty by 4pm and I called our boss to let him know. We took our time loading up the car with all the tools, getting one last look around at the house. It sat barren and empty, our work here finally coming to an end. All we had to show for it was the carcassed innards of the now vacant house scattered about the front yard and positioned into a big mound. I was happy that our hard labor was finally over and that we were free to go home, but I still felt a certain connection with the house and almost felt sad to be leaving, like the strange sensation one has upon finishing a novel. Passing by that pile in the front yard, I spotted a torn out picture of Walt Whitman that I hadn’t seen before. It had a few water marks on it. I took the picture with me when we left.
We were finished at the office by 5:30 and it was raining again. Kevin and I shook hands and parted ways as he took off in his Prius back to New Orleans. I stopped for gas just after leaving the office and followed close behind him. As I was headed towards the onramp for Interstate 10, I drove through another subdivision along a main road. “Desolation Row” by Bob Dylan crept out of my speakers as I got one last look at the wreckage, reaching over to turn up the song.
Everybody's shouting, "Which side are you on?!"
And Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot fighting in the captain's tower
While calypso singers laugh at them and fishermen hold flowers
Between the windows of the sea where lovely mermaids flow
And nobody has to think too much about Desolation Row
I wondered what people in other states were hearing about the flooding in Louisiana. And if they did hear about it, were they seeing everything we had seen? At this point it didn’t really matter if anyone knew about it or not. People would be people, fingers would still be pointed in all the wrong directions, candidates and politicians would still put their agendas first in the worst of times, and mother nature would still continue to wash over us. No matter who knew about the flooding, who didn’t, who lost what, two inches or ten feet of water, or whatever kind of sick, twisted test the universe was giving by sending the storm, folks out here are clearly on the right track to fixing things.