- Nick Lawton
The Louisiana Flood of 2016
For as long as I live, I will never forget when I first set foot in the incomprehensible floodwaters of Baton Rouge, Louisiana on August 13th, 2016.
Before I drove down there following my photographer, Bubba, I had heard of the flood waters and heard that they were bad but nothing could have prepared me for what I saw in the coming days.
It was a dark, rainy night the entire drive down I-49 from Shreveport to the state's capital. It looked like a million tiny pellets of water combining in a wash across my windshield. By the time I reached the Springhill Suites in Baton Rouge, it was well past midnight and the rain was still falling hard and fast. I was thankful that our sister station in the city, WAFB Channel 9, provided these rooms for us.
We were some of the lucky ones.
WAFB issued the call for help to all of the Raycom-owned stations and we responded.
Bubba was kind enough to wake up and let me in when I arrived, wet and exhausted from just the drive down. I grabbed a few hours of sleep in preparation for the monumental task in front of us.
That was a Friday night.
Saturday started at 7 a.m. inside the WAFB studio. Their assistant news director, Chris Slaughter, was issuing the assignments for the day. I also ran into two faces I knew! I knew WAFB reporter Kevin Frey from our days at the Louisiana capitol covering the legislature's special sessions. I also knew reporter Liz Koh, who told me she was on her second day at WAFB when these terrible floods rose. She had the tenacity to roll with the punches.
Slaughter had our assignment ready. Bubba and I were to be sent out to Zachary, Louisiana, on reports of people stranded near Plank Road, on top of their cars and waiting to be rescues. Zachary was a little more than a 20-minute drive outside the city.
Bubba and I were loaded up in the same car together and dressed in our sturdiest waders.
Still, the rains poured down everywhere.
We would be driving down any given road and the waters would be at street level, eliminating any depth of ditch from view.
Therein lies the danger.
As it turns out, Bubba and I would never reach our first destination. In fact, we were stopped two streets away by rushing floodwaters. You could have mistaken Lower Zachary Road for the Mississippi River with the way the waters cascaded over the now hidden asphalt. One misstep and a fall could spell doom, as you would find yourself tossed straight into the rapids leasing God-only-knew where.
I thank God that he had blessed Bubba and I with awareness of that. I watched two men attempt to reach a white car stranded in the waters. They only made it a few steps in before turning around for the sanctuary of dry road.
Still, this was the scene and this was the story. If we couldn't get to the story we were originally sent to find, we would focus on the story that was right here.
With orange and jet-black helicopters flying overhead, we jumped out of the car and fired up the live signal from "Pork Chop," our affectionately names LiveU backpack. From this moment on, we were reporting not only for KSLA but for WAFB and the entire Raycom News Network.
I felt no small amount of weight on my shoulders in that moment. My heart hammered. I felt like I could speak a million words a minute.
I went live right in front of those rapids. I told the cautionary tale of those two men and issued a call to stay out of these dreadful waters. "Turn Around, Don't Drown." I carried the silent hope in the back of my mind that we were reaching someone, anyone, with this message.
Then, in what felt like a blur, our first live shot was over.
I remember looking down and seeing a live crawfish crawling across Lower Zachary Road under the flowing waters. The flowing waters now made it his domain too.
Bubba and I then tried crossing the shallower depths over to the nearest home on this road. There was one in a line of three neighbors that was not inundated but still surrounded. The home belonged to George and Debra White. I wish I had more airtime that day to give to them. They were inspirational. The waters had their home completely surrounded. A small soft-shell turtle was swimming behind their barbecue pit. Mr. White's collection of antique cars that he'd restored were now small metal islands sticking out of the waters.
Still, he was smiling.
He said those things could be replaced in time but lives could not.
It was an unnamed bayou that flooded and turned their backyard into a lake. We did another live report from the the home of the Whites. Afterward, their family pulled up on what dry road there was left. Their daughter clutched the family dog tightly to her chest, thankful to be reunited again.
From the home of the Whites, Bubba and I traveled back around to try to get to a church we'd heard was giving out supplies from the Red Cross but was now flooded itself.
We never made it there, either.
A line of Zachary Police units blocked off a main road through town and the officers informed us the church had indeed been flooded. One officer also told us evacuations were underway at a mobile home park just down the street. That officer graciously let us pass through to the park.
What we found was a flooded Town and Country Mobile Home Village.
I'll never forget what I first saw there: A woman carrying an oxygen tank with a tube in her nose, held upright by a neighbor and a firefighter while trudging out of the murky depths. I remember wondering if this would only be the first of many troubling moments that I would encounter.
But my fears were quickly softened when I began talking to one of the park's residents standing off to the side. He would only talk about how amazing the response had been, how thankful he was that everyone was safe. It was so encouraging to witness all worldly selfishness and competition being purged once the threat was touching everyone.
Everyone's lives became equal and valued.
I am also honored to report that I would see even more examples of selflessness among the floods.
We were called out to find a source who was ferrying people out of flooded neighborhoods in his pickup truck.
He wasn't the easiest person to get to. Firefighters had stationed themselves at the head of a long main street closer into the city just outside a dance club. I remember thinking how much of a dichotomy that was. In this moment of crisis, the colorful club seemed like an empty monument to the past with no one in the mood for dancing.
I also remember being intimidated by Todd Terrel at first.
We couldn't even get to him without the firefighters giving us a ride halfway down that submerged road. When we thanked them and opened the doors, it was to jump into nearly knee-high waters.
That was where we found Todd, standing in the middle of the flooded street. He was yelling at passing 18-wheeler trucks. It took me a moment to discern what he was screaming. He was mad at how fast they were driving through the depths. Their high speeds were leaving large waves in their wake, smashing into the doors of nearby homes and businesses and undoubtedly bringing even more water inside.
Todd was shouting at the truck drivers to slow down for the sake of these residents. Some of the truckers responded in kind. Some of them just honked at him and flipped him the bird.
So it goes.
Todd was ferrying a group of six Baton Rouge firefighters through flooded neighborhoods. They all sat huddled in the bed of his pickup, their radios chirping with more and more calls about people trapped in their homes. They also tugged a rowboat behind the pickup because their fire engines could not make it through the high waters,
I remember feeling guilty that I was riding shotgun with Todd. I was sheltered from the rain while Bubba and the firefighters were exposed to the whipping rains. While I rode inside, though, I was giving constant live updates over the phone to WAFB morning anchors Lauren Westbrook and Matt Williams, telling any viewers who still had reception which neighborhoods we were going through and how many homes still had people in them.
No streets were even distinguishable anymore. There was water all around us, even up to the truck's doors. I knew that once I opened the door, water would flow inside.
Every time we found families frantically waving their arms, trapped on their own front steps, the firefighters would leap into the water without hesitation. That's no small feat, either. When I hopped into the water, it proved to be higher than my waders. I felt freezing water pouring in around my feet but had no time to react.
I remember one family of six calling for help from their front patio, now an island. One of the firefighters carried the oldest woman on his back with her arms hooked around his neck. I'm not certain if she was the grandmother of the family. The firefighter carried her through the waters all the way from the house to the truck, never once letting her touch the water.
When, at last, every single member of this family was brought safely into the pickup bed, one of the women raised her palms to the sky and began to pray out loud. She thanked God for their deliverance from the waters and asked for protection for the firefighters..
"Sometimes, the Lord sends you angels," she told Bubba.
It was true that this family was safe. It was also true that there were more who were not. Viewers who still had a signal were asking about the status of other areas that were still submerged. Others were wanting help for a long dog chained to a porch that we passed.
When we brought the family back to dry land at the dance club command center, I turned to Todd and asked if we were going back out there.
"Of course we're going back out there," he replied without skipping a beat.
In that moment, I witnessed the Louisiana spirit personified.
Soon, I began to see it everywhere.
The Cajun Navy, an aptly named fleet of volunteers who their own boats out into the waters, were launching from a major Baton Rouge Highway that had now become a dock. The air was pierced by their shouting voices, barking commands and coordinating cues.
Neither the need nor the destination mattered.
I talked to two young men pushing their fishing boat off-shore. They told me they'd heard a report that an elderly woman was trapped in her attic somewhere. Those few details were all they needed to risk their lives on the waters.
That was the Cajun Navy for you.
Further down the highway/dock, I encountered yet another unforgettable moment, one that would come to be one of my favorites throughout this entire assignment.
A woman with her dark hair tied back, wearing a black fleece, stopped us and asked if we'd heard anything about Denham Springs. I told her the only information I knew, that Denham Springs was somewhere out in the waters swallowing the highway we stood on. She told me her parents were still out there, that her husband had gone out in a boat to try to get them but she hadn't heard from him yet. AT&T cell service was indeed down for nearly everyone who had it.
I tried to assure her, telling her I was sure someone had gotten to her mother and father. I fear my words rang hollow in her ears.
She looked down and pressed her lips together, giving me a series of small, quick nods. It was the kind of reaction you give when you want to politely acknowledge the support of a stranger but, deep in your heart, you're not sure if they're right.
We parted ways after that. I went from boat to boat, deputy unit to fire engine, trying to capture every moment I could and speaking to everyone I could find. Almost an hour passed before I found myself standing on the edge where pavement met pungent waters.
I gazed out over the seemingly endless expanse of water, thinking the thoughts that you have when you're overwhelmed and wondering if you're more of a burden than a benefit.
That's when I heard a familiar woman's voice behind me.
I turned around and there she was again. She was with a friend this time, shouting and looking to her right.
Perhaps it was journalistic intuition that compelled me to immediately hit "Record" on my phone. Perhaps it was that almost ethereal tingle we all get in the back of our heads when we know what we are about to witness.
Regardless, I was rolling as she called out to her husband while he was getting off a boat. He gave her a thumbs-up from across that highway.
She turned to me with tears in her eyes.
"They're OK," she said. "They're OK."
In this period of great division for us as Americans, I suppose you could call it a "strange compulsion" that came over us when the waters were rising. This "strange compulsion" is something we often forget yet it is always there.
It goes by many names.
I call it Hope.
It's what compels a man to drive into the depths again and again, just knowing there's someone else out there.
It's what pushes people into their attics and onto their roofs, believing no matter what they will escape the waters.
It's what sees through race, religion and creed, uniting all against nature itself.
It's what sails a navy of volunteers to risk themselves for strangers.
It's what unlatches a retired fire chief's truck bed as he gives out homemade red beans and rice to everyone he sees.
It's what spurs the steps of one woman on a flooded highway, never giving up on her family.
It's the soft voice telling one journalist to tell their stories.
I pray we never truly forget Hope.