Dressed in long pants, boots and an orange t-shirt, I suddenly realized I was drenched. As I breathed behind an N95 dust mask, my glasses kept fogging up, distorting the world around me. My hair hung soggily in my face, and I kept trying to push it back without using my gloved hands. I imagined I must look a bit like a drowned rat as the sweltering heat and humidity took its toll. Everything was wet — and then it started to rain.
Rain. Merciless rain. It had fallen in record numbers, causing rivers to overspill their banks, filling up cities like bathtubs, forcing people to flee by boat. They’ve said it was a 1,000-year flood. It had left nearly every building in the region soaked through and through.
The house I was standing in had taken on nearly 8 feet of water. Imagine it filled with a toxic stew of water and sewage, and once drained, left to bake in the heat of the Louisiana sun. Soggy, putrid and now molding, every possession had to be carried out and discarded. A lifetime of memories now sat unceremoniously dumped by the driveway.
The owner of the house was an elderly man. He had spent his years here collecting comic books, John Wayne memorabilia and family photos. His wife’s clothes still hung dripping wet in the closets and folded neatly in drawers. He had left to visit her in the nursing home while we worked. She wasn’t expected to live much longer, and so he didn’t tell her about the flood. He wanted her to remember the home they had built, filled with love and laughter and children now grown. He would shoulder the burden of picking up the pieces alone, except for the strangers who had shown up to help gut the house.
Driving through the surrounding neighborhoods, it was obvious his was just one story among thousands. The streets were lined, house after house, with the possessions of each family. There was the piano that would never be played again, the wedding dress never to be handed down, and the priceless heirlooms that were now worthless.
In August, I watched the stories of these families unfolding in Baton Rouge’s historic flood. While the national media was largely silent, social media had become a lifeline for so many. They turned to Facebook to tell their tales of rescue, as well as search for hope and help. I had joined dozens of groups, trying to provide information to people who were desperately searching for missing loved ones or lost pets. Often it was like searching for a needle in a haystack. The scope of the disaster was beyond imagination. It quickly became apparent that social media wasn’t enough.
It’s become increasingly easy in our society to be present on Facebook, but absent in person. When tragedy strikes we are quick to post a quick note of sympathy or prayer. Even in the most heinous of events, we turn to memes to “Pray for Paris” or Orlando or Baton Rouge. Meanwhile, we have no real impact in the lives of those who need us the most.
Flying south to volunteer in Baton Rouge, what I learned was that in times like this what people need most is not our sympathy, money or thoughts — though all of those are appreciated. What they really need is us. They need us to step up to the plate. They need us to be present. They need us to be boots on the ground.
These are the stories that you will hear told time and time again from those who are living in the mist of the flood zone. The stories of people showing up become like shining rays of hope in the midst of life’s darkest moments. They are the Cajun Navy who showed up with their own boats to rescue people off of rooftops surrounded by water. It’s the woman who donated fresh vegetables so that the elderly could have nutritious food again. It’s the ice cream truck driver who showed up with free, frozen treats to help bring relief to those working in the sweltering heat. It’s the people who drove from states away with supplies, and those who spent weekends and vacations to help gut homes. Its people caring for the displaced animals, so their owners have time to find them. Its people providing books so that libraries can open again or uniforms so football season can begin.
The need in Baton Rouge is far from over. With more than 140,000 homes impacted, the cleanup and rebuilding process is going to be a long one. This is a moment when we can provide hope just by showing up, and there are many who will welcome you with a place to sleep and meals to eat in return. Consider how you might be able to make a difference. The work can be long and tiring, but it is more than rewarding. I’m confident that you will leave, as I did, loving the people of Baton Rouge.
For more information on how you can volunteer, consider contacting one of the following organizations that have been actively involved in relief work:
Christ’s Community Church Denham Springs — https://www.facebook.com/Christs-Community-Church-of-Denham-Springs-354684367968753 or call 225-572-2180
Together Baton Rouge — http://togetherbr.nationbuilder.com/volunteer
The Cajun Army — http://thecajunarmy.com/