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Louisiana Flood Victims Work Together to Survive


Debris is piled up along the street as victims of flood damage work to dig out in St. Amant, Louisiana, Aug. 21, 2016.

Debris is piled up along the street as victims of flood damage work to dig out in St. Amant, Louisiana, Aug. 21, 2016.

"The smell is horrendous," says Kevin White, who has been working on flood relief for the past week in St. Amant, Louisiana. "Rotting roadkill. It's worse than that. It's incredible."

White, a Baton Rouge-area cinematographer, is housing a flooded-out family. His home was unharmed by last week's floods, when as much as 75 centimeters of rain fell over the course of 48 hours.

While the water soon drained from city streets, it flowed south and has now settled in St. Amant and surrounding areas. More than 100,000 homes have been damaged. The total of their worth is estimated at $21 billion.

"The problem is that we're in a bowl," says White, noting that the area is much like New Orleans, where floods devastated the city after Hurricane Katrina in 2005. "The water comes here, and it just sits, and it's got nowhere to go."

This flood is actually worse than Katrina. WeatherBell Analytics calculated the amount of rainfall at 7.1 trillion gallons of water over the entire state of Louisiana, compared to 2.3 trillion gallons during Hurricane Katrina. Meteorologist Ryan Maue told the Washington Post that the amount is enough to fill Lake Ponchartrain — a 1,600-square-kilometer estuary near New Orleans — four times.

Yet, residents say, while the flooding has been on the national news daily, the severity of the situation has gone unrecognized.

Not to mention the amount of work that needs to be done. Louisianans affected by this flood pride themselves on taking care of their own, but they say they could really use some outside help.

Sewage and stench

White is housing a family of four who were flooded out of their own home. They have spent the past few days at their soggy house, tearing out walls and throwing out anything inside the house that has been damaged by water — which is nearly everything.

"You have to vent the house," White says. "They've thrown the furniture out, the floor is rotten, they're going to have to replace all their appliances."

That's a scene that is being repeated all over the low-lying areas south of Baton Rouge, where floodwaters are expected to take a week or more to drain. And conditions for those still surrounded by water and sandbag barriers are worse.

FILE - A member of the St. George Fire Department assists residents as they wade through floodwaters from heavy rains in the Chateau Wein Apartments in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, Aug. 12, 2016.

FILE - A member of the St. George Fire Department assists residents as they wade through floodwaters from heavy rains in the Chateau Wein Apartments in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, Aug. 12, 2016.

The water is not safe.

"The people [who are sand] bagging, they're walking knee-deep in sewage," White says.

He says fire ants — insects that both sting and bite, and can kill small animals — float on top of the water, whole mounds at a time. Full of sewage, stagnant for days, the water carries bacteria, making it essential for people to decontaminate themselves before they re-enter their homes after a day of flood work.

Houses still waterlogged by the rotting muck cannot be cleaned out yet, which puts them at risk of developing mold and mildew that can never be fully eliminated.

Graham Kinchen, one of the residents who has been forced to keep watch night and day over sandbag barriers in his back yard, has managed to keep his sense of humor.

"When I bought this place, I didn't realize I was buying lakefront property," he jokes. "It's for sale, cheap." (Also a joke.)

Kinchen says his house, as well as many others in his neighborhood, is surrounded by water measuring anywhere from knee-deep to waist-deep. A photograph looking out his front door shows floodwaters coming right up to his front porch. He and his wife, Denise, use a boat to get from their door to the road, where they can pick up sandbags provided by the local government and food that other community members drop off.

Flood angels

The Kinchens had a scare late Sunday, when one of their sandbag walls started to erode. Word went out on Facebook and via telephone, and within five minutes, Denise Kinchen says, several friends had gathered to help fortify the sandbag levee. The barrier was restored and, for the night, the house was saved.

Graham Kinchen of St. Amant, Louisiana, takes time off to give his daughter a boat ride — in their front yard. (D. Kinchen/VOA)

Graham Kinchen of St. Amant, Louisiana, takes time off to give his daughter a boat ride — in their front yard. (D. Kinchen/VOA)

Some flood victims are referring to their helpers as angels: people ready and willing to pitch in on the sudden emergencies that arise during the uneasy days and nights while the floodwaters still threaten.

In addition to water pressure pushing on the sandbag barriers, residents whose houses have been spared so far still have to worry about more rain, which is typical for the area in August. Kinchen says another significant rainfall would be "catastrophic. If that happens, we'll lose everything."

However dire the situation, residents are taking courage in helping each other. Dustin Clouatre is a member of the self-titled "Cajun Navy," a group of civilians who used Facebook to organize a fleet of privately-owned boats to help rescue people and ferry aid where it is needed.

"Everybody has a boat here," Clouatre says. "If you say, 'Let's go out in the boat,' you have to say, 'Which boat?'"

Clouatre says he spent four days in his boat last week picking up people and taking them to higher ground, even just putting them into trucks and other vehicles that sat high off the ground to get them out of reach of the water.

Debris in the water was a constant distraction.

FILE - In this aerial photo, a boat motors between flooded homes after heavy rains inundated Hammond, Louisiana, Aug. 13, 2016.

FILE - In this aerial photo, a boat motors between flooded homes after heavy rains inundated Hammond, Louisiana, Aug. 13, 2016.

But there were moments of grace.

"Me and my uncle had just gotten a family out of a house and something got caught in the motor," Clouatre says. It was a sign that said "Love is All You Need." A photograph of the sign, posted online, has gone viral.

Those doing the heavy work out in the floodwaters have not gone hungry. White says people have been showing their appreciation by bringing comfort food to the workers, Louisiana-style — spaghetti with venison and the local specialty, jambalaya.

At least one crew of volunteers has been traveling around St. Amant on a trailer with coolers full of food and a working grill, delivering fresh meals.

At least one crew of volunteers has been traveling around St. Amant on a trailer with coolers full of food and a working grill, delivering fresh meals.

​At least one crew of volunteers has been traveling around St. Amant on a trailer with coolers full of food and a working grill, delivering fresh meals.

Chad Bourgeois took a photo of the grill team and posted it on Facebook with the caption:

"Only in Louisiana could you be gutting out a house in a flooded out neighborhood when kind people drive up grilling on a trailer and delivering free food :) love where I live," he said.

Many agree that this crisis has brought out the best in their community, as neighbors help neighbors. But the recovery period will be long — and this week's forecast includes more rain.

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