I want to start my story from the moment I learned that a hybrid tropical mutant cyclone would be dropping more than 17 inches of rain over two days in Crowley, the southern Louisiana town where I’ve lived for the past six years.
I’d like to tell you that my community spent the 24 hours prior to the weather event preparing for the destruction that would follow but this storm caught us all off guard as it was never expected to explode with rainfall like it did.
It’s not unusual to wake up to rain here. The state averages 62 inches of rain each year so Thursday was just another wet day in the bayou state as my husband left for work and my grandchildren and I began our homeschool day.
Information about the severity of the flooding caused by the heavy rain began to circulate on social media long before local news stations had a chance to catch up. I started hearing about the devastation through posted pictures and videos from around the state on Facebook. It was difficult to watch the flood unfold, knowing that there were people being scooped up by boats after being trapped by the rising waters.
By noon it was obvious to even my grandchildren that this rainstorm was not a typical summer shower. The kids and I started to get worried when alarms kept going off on my cell phone for the continuing flood warnings and water began to cover our street.
We were fortunate though. When the rain stopped on Thursday evening, we were still sitting high and dry though our drainage ditches were overflowing with rainwater. I chalked it up to good karma and the fact that I recently paid my yearly flood insurance premium.
Friday morning we woke early to more heavy rain that persisted into the afternoon. When it finally stopped my street was covered with enough water to float a boat. Again we were fortunate. Our house didn’t flood.
Still, many residents had water in their homes and were unable to evacuate through the flooded streets.
Our state’s infrastructure for emergency services became totally overwhelmed with the speed and severity of the rising waters.
It was clear by Friday afternoon that rescue help wasn’t coming for flood victims when calls to 911 started to go unanswered and there was little information or guidance from our public officials. People gave up on the authorities to lead the rescue effort and began asking for help by posting their location to social media.
Regular citizens that came from all over the state to help in the effort to save people and pets performed most of the heroic rescues. Groups of citizens used social media to organize boat captains and send them to the areas where they were needed most.
Damien Callais, a resident of Baton Rouge and a driving force behind the Cajun Navy, took to social media to help organize the rescue effort in areas around Livingston Parish, the hardest hit area of the state. He also used social media again when police gave volunteers a difficult time in their efforts to save people from the rising water.
By Saturday morning the water here in Crowley had drained significantly.
In Louisiana rainwater drains away through a system of canals, bayous and rivers that eventually flow into the Gulf of Mexico. As the water drained off from the higher areas in the parish these waterways began to overflow, causing the “back flooding” which led us into the second phase of this disaster.
Boat rescues continued through the weekend and into the following week. Thankfully people didn’t wait to be told they needed to get out. Most communities organized the evacuations of their own neighborhoods.
There were still no shelters open here until Monday evening and people were displaced and spread around the parish, sleeping on the couches and floors of friends and family. Thankfully, Cajuns are a very welcoming group of people.
As the rescues wrapped up and the water levels began to drop many locals focused their frustration on the national media, who had been mostly silent about the unfolding weather event. That frustration was also aimed at the President for not taking time off of his vacation to visit the area.
Lessons from Katrina?
The last 12 days brought back memories of hurricanes Katrina and Rita and the aftermath and tragedy that followed.
In the months and years after the 2005 hurricanes, politicians promised to better prepare the state for natural disasters, including floods, by solving the many problems we experienced through the hurricanes and in their aftermath. Our political leaders promised to address the issues of evacuating the poor, disabled and elderly. They promised to address the issues vulnerable citizens had in seeking medical treatment, filling prescriptions, and having a safe place to live.
What was created instead of a workable evacuation plan was a series of new regulations for home builders, astronomical increases in our homeowner and flood insurance premiums and new taxes and fees to pay for all of the hurricane damage to the state’s infrastructure. A new flood zone map was also created to ensure that those of us living in a flood zone would have flood insurance.
The new regulations and the higher cost of living that came with them did little to save anyone from the flooding that occurred last week. Many of the homes that were impacted were not included in the flood zones on our newly drawn maps. There were no effective plans in place for evacuating the elderly, the disabled or the poor and the national media was focused on the Olympics in Rio and not the tragedy unfolding here.
But this time, unlike 2005, social media helped Louisiana save itself. Thanks to Facebook and many other social media platforms we were able to send and receive information in real time. We were able to coordinate rescue efforts without help from government officials. We were able to find shelter, food and water. We did it without the help of the national media, the federal government, or our local political mouthpieces.
I hope our Cajun perseverance will inspire you to take a second look at the things you think you can depend on from your government infrastructure in times of natural disasters. I hope the disasters in Louisiana will remind you that the only thing you can really count on is yourself and your own preparation.
I also hope our determination will inspire people to help Louisiana residents help themselves because need here is so great. Don’t forget about us, even if you don’t see our historical flood on the evening news. We are still here picking ourselves up and drying ourselves off and ready to rebuild with or without help from the national media or the government.