Baton Rouge, Louisiana
The crew of NOSHA volunteers who made the trip to Denham Springs to assist in the cleanup from the flooding that swamped nearly 90 percent of the homes there traveled in separate cars with the exception of Dave and Joyce Thomas, who shared their ride. Joining in on the project were the Thomases, Eve Ortiz, Kathleen Branley, Jennifer Porter, Glenn Pearl, MartyBankson, and Cecelia (a young woman referred by previously committed Adam Kay). Most used smartphone GPS to guide them into the subdivision and onto the street where the project was, but most all had to park and locate a mailbox somewhere on the street to find the house number, or call a contact already on the job if they didn’t recognize anyone working outside. The mailboxes were lost at the curb’s edge in the heaps of soggy mattresses, broken dining furniture, stacks of wadded clothes, rolls of ragged-edged carpeting, teevees, fridges, and picture frames with water-stained photos of family memories . A small hill of ruined doors, millwork, cabinetry and sinks would continue filling the front yard from the street back toward the house as the day passed.
The Thomas’ acquaintance Paul was coordinating the work. Paul calls Connie Donovan “Aunt Connie”–though their actual relationship may have been less direct. Connie is a 63-year old widow, living alone, and is still working. She was one of the fortunate few who had flood insurance, if “fortunate” is indeed even fit in the description of a 500-year flood. Many of the modest houses in this neighborhood were built on piers and were elevated about three feet above the ground, but the neighborhood got 6-7 feet of floodwater from the overflowing Amite River just to the west of it. The maths and elevations didn’t work out. Every house in the subdivision and many more subdivisions like it went under, along with most of the business along the main thoroughfares.
Paul got the crew quick-schooled and started at the basics of house gutting: taking the door and baseboard trim off with hammers and pry bars, removing the electrical switch and receptacle plates, then pulling the soggy sheetrock from the wall studs at the seam four feet above the floor. Then the crumbling and saturated mess had to be shoveled and wheelbarrowed out of the house down the front porch steps, adding more to the misery of the front yard. Bathroom vanity cabinets, toilets, kitchen cabinets, pots, pans, dishes and foodstuffs in the pantry all had to go. Two mice were forced to relocate when their space inside a wall was uncovered.
The feeling of overwhelming loss never seems to be strong enough to keep the victims from finding something–anything–left in the wreckage that was salvageable, something to cling to; and those things become special and dear. Aunt Connie had set up a makeshift table in the front yard near the driveway, where she placed and cleaned and dried those things she found. A pop-up summer shower was about to do what the floodwaters didn’t, but we managed to get some scraps of plastic sheeting and a tarp over them before the hardest rain fell.
About midday someone delivered some go-boxes of jambalaya; those that didn’t pack a lunch didn’t go hungry. And there was plenty of water for hydrating, though Cecelia had an overheating episode but seemed recovered enough to be able to get to her car and drive back to New Orleans. The heat and humidity was reminiscent of the hot tropical conditions that plagued New Orleans after Katrina. Joyce and Dave’s experience in that disaster was evident as they chipped away through the day’s work, like, “¡No problema!”.
This volunteer effort was the most labor-intensive the Social Aid and Pleasure Club has experienced; a true test of physical stamina and heat tolerance. But it will be remembered as most edifying when thinking of Aunt Connie’s words of appreciation and thanks to each of us as, one by one, we headed home. And when reflecting on her little makeshift table, and the keepsakes that took on a new and special meaning for her– and for us.