DENHAM SPRINGS—The creek behind our house flooded the subdivision’s two access roads on Friday, August 12.
Weather radar showed no cause for panic, unless you looked to the north, where a colossal amount of rain was draining into the largely uninhabited upper reaches of the Amite and Comite Rivers. A 1,000-year flood event was aimed at Denham Springs.
My daughter, Lisa, and I watch the creek behind our house rise, first over the little bridge, and then into our back yard. By sunset Friday a swift current flows across our yard, but officials aren’t advocating evacuation. We consider the possibility that water might get into our house for the first time ever. But we don’t consider it seriously enough to start moving valuables upstairs. Denial is not just a river in Egypt, as they say. We still expect to ride it out, as we had ridden out so many high water events in the past.
Saturday morning the creek edges up the street and up our driveway. We watch a man walking his dog in shallow water. Hours pass and the water gets deeper.
Lisa moves her car to higher ground and takes our laptop computers upstairs. We are both reporters for the Livingston Parish News, and we can work up there. We weren’t thinking about birth certificates, home insurance information, or old family photos. Even if the house took water, it surely wouldn’t rise more than a foot. We’d never flooded before, after all. But just in case, we put litter pans, boxes of litter, cat food, and bowls up stairs. We have seven cats.
Lisa does all the hard work because I have difficulty walking, and climbing stairs is particularly difficult. She insists that I stop puttering around, helps me upstairs, and then rounds up the cats.
I watch the scene unfold from the upstairs window overlooking the driveway, and the bridge over the creek. Families wade through waist-deep water, pushing their possessions through the swift current on rafts, air mattresses, on anything that floats. Rowboats appear.
We will invite people up into our haven on the second floor if the water keeps rising. To be on the safe side, we put medications, cell phones, and other necessities in a black garbage bag. The water keeps rising, into the living room below, up the coffee table legs and onto chairs. Nobody is going to seek shelter at our house.
Denial finally breaks down.
Two men in a motorboat knock on the front door, asking if we needed help. What an understatement. Dark brown water is climbing the stairs, carrying mud that belongs in rivers far to the north.
Getting somebody with my kind of handicap into a boat under those conditions would have been laughable on Friday. On Saturday, it was a matter of life and death. The men lift me up out of the water onto the side of their boat, bring my legs up and over until I’m sitting upright. Lisa would have to wait there while the little motor boat takes me to the Shadow Springs subdivision entrance. Off we go, into the dark and rainy evening, passing homes without yards and trees without trunks, to higher ground on Pete’s Highway. They manage to get me out of the boat as efficiently as they’d loaded me in and then go back for Lisa. A woman guides me through knee-deep water, across Pete’s Highway, to a used car lot.
Once death is no longer staring us in the face, we seem to be on our own. The name of the game is saving lives. In fact, saving lives continues to be the primary concern of these volunteers for days to come.
Lisa helps me walk to the neighborhood Wal-Mart, where we join other displaced persons. Wet strangers try to make a place for me to sit, but before they actually began pulling down big bags of mulch, a high-water truck pulls up to the curb. Strong arms hoist me an impossible height up onto the front passenger seat. Lisa scrambles into the rear and off we go. The driver keeps a cell phone on his ear, talking to other transport volunteers. He needs to move a boat to a new location. But first he drives up Juban Road. We are unloaded at Christ Community Church, a dazzling architectural achievement that resembles a huge tent. It sits on high ground, an island in the middle of rising seas.
Lisa and I give our names to church volunteers in the lobby and sit down in chairs against the wall, not sure what to do next. People arrive in a steady stream, clutching black garbage bags like ours, many with dogs looking every bit as bewildered as their owners. Bare feet, wet hair, crying babies. We finally follow the crowd into an enormous sanctuary. Territory is staked out with padded chairs. Lisa and I wander into an area set aside for the elderly and handicapped, since I fit both categories. We sit there for a few hours, absorbing our new social status.
Mike Dowty, my husband and Lisa’s father, had died in March. How would we manage without him? Would our seven cats, abandoned upstairs, survive? We wonder when we will be able to go home, and what we will find there.
The cool air in the huge church hums with hundreds of voices. Church organizers try to hook up frantic families outside the flood zone with people in the church.
We eat beans for dinner, wondering how these church members can care for all of us. They tell us this isn’t the time to lose hope.
A woman has a seizure and is tended by a medical doctor who was driving his family to Disney World when Interstate 12 closed. Rumor has it that the concrete divider between the eastbound lanes and the westbound lanes is holding back the flood.
We sit near Yvonne and her big Labradoodle, Murphy, from Plantation Estates. She stares silently at nothing, as we do. We don’t talk; there’s nothing to say.
Night falls, more people crowd inside, and the noise increases. Some manage to corral three chairs, and line them up into a makeshift bed. Some even have a blanket. We cover ourselves with used clothes from the church closet. Lisa tries to sleep on the floor. I close my eyes, sitting upright, feet swelling, listening to the volume of voices rise, like the water around us.
Lisa snags the attention of a passing church volunteer and asks if we could spend the night in a truck. Her mother had spinal surgery, she explains, and sitting upright all night might do damage.
Sure, no problem. Truck owner Ben leads us out of the church into the parking lot, now filled with children and dogs. Ben and a helper manage to get me up into the passenger seat where I can recline. The relief is intense. Ben leaves us peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.
Eventually the children go inside and we are plunged into silence. The moon shows itself every now and then, as the rain clouds blow past. We marvel at our strange combination of good fortune and bad, and finally go to sleep.
Ben wakes us up early. He has to go out foraging for food; supplies are exhausted and the rivers continue to rise.
Later that day, we learn that the church must be abandoned. The elderly, infirm, and their caretakers are asked to step outside. People surge forward. A State Trooper, the first official we’ve seen, calms the crowd down while volunteers muscle the weak and bewildered up into trucks. A particularly muscular man thinks he can lift me by putting his arms around me. My rib cage is about to crack. The men find a better way.
Lisa forces her way into the bed of the truck, something that she’s good at by now.
We get our first look at Juban Crossing and Interstate 12, the eastbound lanes still flooded. The Juban Crossing parking lot is a lake, and stores are flooded.
More volunteers from surrounding parishes are coming and going in skiffs, motorboats and even airboats from the swamps. The sky is black. Boats can’t pull up to the road, so we wade out into shallow water, unaware that an ant army is regrouping in the long wet grass. The ants are angry, and they bite.
Lisa and I slosh our way into one of the boats. I am no better at these boat and truck entrances and exits than I was when I left home, but the businesslike volunteers move me as if hefting invalid women is their life’s work.
Our boat speeds down the flooded shoulder of Juban Road, between electric poles and mailboxes, tree branches brushing our arms. We pass a house with a For Sale sign in the front yard.
We finally arrive at another transport hub, with boats unloading, and big pick-up trucks loading. The sky opens up and we are immediately drenched. My glasses are a windshield without wipers. I hope the rain will wash off any remaining ants along with the oily water I waded through on the way to Wal-Mart.
The driver says Lisa will have to wait for the next truck. Lisa ignores this and jumps into the back, crammed against a huge dog carrier, clutching our rumpled black plastic bag. As we drive through blinding rain, I learn we are headed for Life Church on U.S. 190 in Walker.
This proves to be another haven. They not only have food, but also a couch that Lisa and I can sleep on. These church members are as kind as the others.
It turns out that Lisa shared the truck bed with Murphy, Yvonne’s Labradoodle. Yvonne comes out of her shell, and makes newcomers feel at home.
On Tuesday, my brother finds a way to reach us from his home in Metairie. I’m always glad to see Alan and his wife, Marilyn, but I’ve never been this glad to see them.
As we head east on U.S. 190, I discover that the whole parish is not flooded. The Towns of Livingston and Albany look normal. Everything looks normal again, but Lisa and I are changed forever.
Lisa’s friend Randy Osenenko from All Pets Veterinary Clinic will go to our house and rescue five of our seven cats. Lisa goes back to find the other two and sees a ruined shell of a house, full of mud, warped flooring, overturned appliances and sodden chairs. Lisa locates one of the missing cats and is currently searching for six families willing to adopt.
Our subdivision has become an ugly ghost town. People wade through shallow water, dazed at the prospect of recovery.
Lisa and I have no idea what the future will bring. The Livingston Parish News is being gutted in preparation for remodeling. The newspaper is being printed in Mississippi.
What will happen to Denham Springs, with most of the businesses shuttered and the vast majority of homes uninhabitable? Recovery will take years, and we have no idea how to go about it.