By Robert Mann
Everywhere I’ve been in Baton Rouge the past two days, I’ve witnessed remarkable compassion, grace and optimism. Much of this city and region remained under water on Monday. Tens of thousands are homeless. At least 11 are dead. Life here won’t be normal for months, maybe a year.
Yet, all I see are people who are thankful, hopeful and determined to rebuild. I see an ocean of generosity and compassion. I see people who know they might have lost so much more and who are profoundly grateful for what remains — their lives and loved ones.
On a day when destruction and devastation envelop them, many people I know are not cursing, but giving thanks.
At our house, my wife’s brother is upbeat as he plans to rebuild his flooded home. He lives near Sherwood Forrest Drive and Old Hammond Highway, a hard-hit area. As of Sunday night, his house and his two cars were under at least four feet of water. I haven’t heard him utter a word of pessimism or woe. Like so many, he is hopeful.
On Sunday night, I searched Facebook for updates from local friends. So many lost everything. Those who didn’t were searching for ways to help:
Drake and Jean made me proud they helped rescue over 200 or more people from Belengrath area yesterday.
Baton Rouge peeps, where/how is the best way to help right now? I want to do my part and I want to get the word out to my network.
Baton Rouge: We are dry and have power and wifi. If anyone needs shelter, or just a place to catch your breath, please message me. Our doors are open.
Everyone is looking to be useful. I have friends who spent most of Sunday volunteering at area shelters or who dropped off bedding, food or clothing at those shelters. Every other Facebook post I read, it seems, is a story of someone helping, praying for and reaching out to friends and, often, complete strangers.
My wife and I watched TV for several hours Sunday morning as two local stations, WBRZ and WAFB, showed a virtual parade of heroes launch their boats from I-12 in search of people stranded in their homes. Most notably, there was the dramatic and unforgettable video of three young men on a boat rescuing a woman and her dog as her car quickly sank. That video literally took my breath. God bless those young men and so many like them who performed countless heroic acts the past few days.
Throughout the weekend, concerned acquaintances, friends and family from around the country called or sent us messages inquiring about our wellbeing. Every phone call and email to a friend or business associate in Louisiana the past few days has begun with some form of, “Are you ok?” No conversation may begin without an inventory of yours and your family’s wellbeing.
On Monday morning, my daughter and I went to the nearby Wal-Mart Market to load up on supplies to deliver to First United Methodist Church for distribution to flood victims. At the store, I saw several friends who were also buying supplies and food to donate to those in need.
When we arrived at the church gym on Monday, people were streaming in with various items — diapers, cleaning supplies, food and water. (The church, where we have been members for 23 years, has at least 50 families who report being flooded out of their homes.)
At the Wal-Mart earlier, I asked the two female employees at the checkout, “How are things at your house?” One said the flooding destroyed her son’s home, but she was thankful he was alive. He would rebuild, she said, betraying no bitterness or woe.
Two hours later, my daughter and I swung by Trader Joe’s for a few items. Before I could inquire about her well-being, the cheerful woman scanning my purchases asked about our home. “We’re high and dry,” I told her. “How are you?”
“I lost everything,” she told me, as if describing missing keys, not a submerged home.
She had been at work on Saturday, she told us, as the rain fell and the rivers rose. By the time she left work, she learned that her neighborhood near I-12 and Millerville Rd. was inundated. She has not been able to return to inspect the damage, but from watching TV footage she says she knows her home is still under water.
In spite of it all, she did not stop smiling as she bagged our purchases. She assured us that she was thankful for her health and her life. As we left the store, my daughter and I marveled at such extraordinary faithfulness and optimism in the face of destruction and loss.
Scanning Facebook late Monday morning, I came across a typically heroic story posted by a good friend, Chris Frink. He’s a former journalist, whose wife, Emily, is a Baton Rouge veterinarian. When I asked Chris if I could share his story, he hesitated, not wanting readers to think he was bragging. I responded, “You are telling a compelling story of love in action.”
Chris’s tale is extraordinary but it is also typical of so many I have heard about and witnessed over the past several days:
While working in an evacuee shelter today, Emily Taylor met a woman and her elderly mother who worried about four dogs left behind when they evacuated early yesterday. She volunteered me to take them.
It turned into a mission from God. We saw God at every important junction in the venture. We found our way to Lisa’s and Leila’s neighborhood behind Redemptorist High School off Plank Road. Water on their street started about two blocks from the house and got deep quick. Firefighters were running boat rescues but the list people needing saving was long. People before pets. We understood.
With no AT&T service finding a boat to help was daunting. Seeking wifi access, Lisa directed me across a jammed Plank Road to a library. It was closed and wifi off. We prayed for a boat. As I pulled back out onto a crowded Plank, we look across the traffic and saw a cluster of boats in the water that lapped up on the intersection.
Thank God for Donny Nezat and his family from Port Barre. They took Lisa and I (we left Leah in the pickup with the A/C running) down the street around the block and up to Lisa’s doorstep. Her three lapdogs and one pit bull were overjoyed to see her. We struggled loading them into the boat with only two minor dog bites.
Lesi and Leila will spend another night in the shelter. Her dogs are at Emily’s clinic. Tomorrow, Lesi and I will see if the water’s down enough to get the cell phone we forgot to pick up today.
The depth of the water and power of the current were amazing. The devastation was stunning. The recovery will be long. Pray and help.
Thank God for folks like the Nezats and all the other people who showed up to help strangers. Louisiana is strong. Our hearts are huge. Our need is great but our capacity is greater.
If you wish to help Baton Rouge-area flood victims, there are many good charities accepting donations. My church, First United Methodist of Baton Rouge, is one of them. Here’s the link if you would like to help.
Note: The first names of the couple described by Chris Frink in his Facebook post, Lisa and Leila, were corrected to reflect changes he subsequently made to his original post.