A few weeks ago, I happily washed brand-new uniforms for my kids and labeled school supplies, looking forward to the start of a new school year. As a freelance writer, it’s been tough to juggle the kids and my workload this summer, but we’d finally made it — I thought.
Two days after school started, our state was hit with “historic, unprecedented flooding.” I put that in quotation marks because that’s what the Governor of Louisiana said.
“What does that mean, Mommy?” asked my oldest, age 7. All three of my children waited quietly for my answer. I don’t recall what I told them; my mind was racing.
It means that so much rain fell in such a short period of time that a lot of houses are actually underwater.
It means that areas that have literally never flooded in the past are now so far underwater that boats are running between houses to save humans and animals.
It means people got trapped. Some people died. And most people lost everything they owned.
It means that our city will never, ever be the same.
My husband and I have lived through several natural disasters, but never with children. Adding kids to the mix certainly changes things; the rational part of my brain knew this and tried to prepare for it, but the emotional part was quick to remind me that some things simply cannot be prepared for.
Standing on the front porch of our home, I watched the water steadily rise so quickly that my breath caught in my throat. It was an experience I wouldn’t wish on anyone. There was no warning, and our area has never flooded before. The entire city, except for a few areas, was going underwater, and people were running out of places to flee to. If my mother’s home flooded, where would we go then? Everyone else’s homes were already filling with water.
It was terrifying.
Suddenly, we were one of the thousands of families with small children who had to make lightning-fast decisions: What was important enough to bring with us? We had 10 minutes to decide. I’d already stored our important documents in a tote with a handle. I grabbed that, some clothes, and phone chargers. I put on the few valuable pieces of jewelry I own, thinking that if things went terribly wrong, looters might rummage through our home before we were able to return.
We loaded up the children, put on their rain boots, handed each one their favorite stuffed animal and blanket, and prayed we hadn’t waited until it was too late. If the water was too high, we would be trapped at home.
We were lucky to have escaped by car. Many, many people had to swim, wade, or be rescued by boat. Amazingly, the water that ruined the houses across the street from us did not enter ours. After several days, we were one of the very few families who were able to return to a dry home.
But the thing about a disaster of this magnitude is that it changes you, even if your home is spared. We watched, wide-eyed, as people kayaked to safety. Others walked past us with bare feet, carrying nothing. Friends posted on social media that their homes were gone, homes they had worked hard to pay for. People we grew up with were staying in shelters because their friends and family didn’t have a home for them to go to.
It is, in a word, heartbreaking.
My children have been with me 24/7 since the flooding began, staring out the window as the water that swallowed up homes recedes. They see the devastation with their own eyes. It’s everywhere — debris piled as high as 8 feet along every road: sheetrock, stuffed animals, furniture, mattresses.
It’s sobering, but I want my kids to take it all in. There is so much value in understanding what it means to be fortunate, and we have been blessed with a responsibility to help our neighbors get back on their feet. It is our duty, I told my oldest son, to look after others. People need our hugs and our encouragement and our food and most of all, our help. It gives us purpose in a very dark time.
I have often said that I don’t want my kids to be entitled assholes. We’ve always made them do chores and help carry bags of groceries, and they complain and whine and act like we are the WORST PARENTS EVER. My children had never seen a home that had been gutted after a flood, never smelled the smell of river water after it’s been sitting for days, never lost all of their toys in a horrible disaster.
This experience, as horrible as it is, has a silver lining: my children are developing empathy. And for as long as it takes for our community to get back on its feet, we will practice it, every damn day.
If you would like to help those affected by the Louisiana flood, consider looking into one of the local foundations below:
• Baton Rouge Area Foundation — Louisiana Flood Relief Fund
• Amazon Wishlist for Woodlawn Elementary School, Baton Rouge, Louisiana
• Amazon Wishlist for Sherwood Academic Magnet Middle School, Baton Rouge, Louisiana
• Flood Recovery Fund for Schools in Baton Rouge
• Junior League of Baton Rouge Diaper Bank