The Louisiana Flood: Press, Politics, and People

Shock, stress, despair, disbelief, fatigue, exhaustion, more stress, perseverance, work at home, work at a neighbor’s, work at family member’s, work at a friend’s, work at a colleague’s, work at a stranger’s, disbelief again, more fatigue, exhaustion taking roots, and knowing that you will repeat this seemingly perpetual cycle.  That’s present-day life in Livingston Parish, Louisiana, for my family, lifelong friends, people who taught me, those who encouraged me, those I’ve battled, those who drive me up a wall, those for whom I would take a bullet, those I’ve yet to meet, and those who I may never meet.

Sheriff Jason Ard yesterday gave a preliminary estimate of 75 percent of the homes in the Parish impacted with between 2 and 8 feet of water, and with rivers in the southern portion yet to crest the numbers will likely increase.

Approximations are that between 15 and 20 thousand rescues took place although that number is surely higher considering the efforts of citizens using their own boats to bring people to dry ground.

With waters receding in areas, the number of shelters for the displaced dropped from 8,500 to 1,244.

According to the Twitter feed of Dr. Mathew Sitkowski of the Weather Channel, the total rainfall from 12 to 14 August over southern Louisiana was the equivalent to more than 4 trillion gallons of water, enough to easily fill 6 million Olympic size swimming pools.  In Watson which is located in the northeastern section of Livingston Parish and home to the Live Oak Eagles who back in school days was one of our district rivals, 31.39 inches of rain fell during this span of time.  Even more rain followed.

Where, What, How, and Why

The Parish is a bit larger than 700 square miles in area with a population of approximately 138,000 residents.  I describe the location as being at the top of the foot, near the ankle, of the boot shaped state.  The population has tripled since I was a kid running barefoot through the fields and doubled since I graduated from the public school system.

Yep the area has changed, and I’m not talking about an additional weight of what?

(1 US Gallon weighs approximately 8.344 pounds – the history prof asked the physics prof)

– a trillion has 12 zeroes following the 1 so the water weight would be approximately the result of this equation:

  • 4,000,000,000,000 X 8.344  =  33,376,000,000,000,000 pounds  (maybe)

– the physics prof has left, so she can’t grade my head figures, but correct or not that’s a heck of a lot of water.

Returning to my comfort zone and professional history hat,

I recall stories as a child and later conducting formal oral history interviews with folks talking about how much changed when portions of Interstate 12 opened in 1967, ten years after its initial planning.  By 1976, the approximately 86-mile span was completed.  I wonder how many interstate overpasses had cattle guards just before entrances, and those cattle guards stayed well into in adulthood.   It’s only in the past 10 or so years that large gas stations and convenience stores with chain restaurants inside appeared off the Albany/Springfield Exit 32.  In many ways that exit seems more like the Walker exit of old, but today Walker is like Denham Springs and getting off on Range at Denham is just like exits in Baton Rouge.  Did I say the area has changed?

It causes one to ponder how a nondescript area to outsiders stood through well-known forces of nature.  Before my time, Hurricanes Betsy and Camille left their marks but came and went.  For me personally, Hurricane Andrew is memorable because of the power outages for weeks and trees downed.  As I discovered recently up here in Maryland, operating a chainsaw and swinging an axe are really like riding a bicycle.  With Andrew I helped cut pathways through toppled trees on many a road for folks to be able to return to their homes.

There were other storms during my time in the Free State, but I wasn’t there when Hurricane Katrina ravaged the area.  I sat in my office in Georgia watching live feeds on the computer as students and other faculty saw me with that look of disbelief on my face.  Apart from my stress of not being able to contact family and friends for days and being unable to get to the state because of all the damage in surrounding states, my neck of Livingston Parish stood up well to Katrina’s fury.

Hurricane Rita hit the area a bit harder, Hurricane Isaac brought nearly 2 feet of rain as recorded in Hammond, Louisiana, about 8 miles to the east in Tangipahoa Parish, and Hurricane Gustav delivered the most damage to family and friends until…

Until rain.  No named storm, no high winds, no storm surges, not even a tropical system but just continuous pounding rain.

I know that many people think of Louisiana as flood prone.  It is in many areas, but that’s not the case in Livingston Parish.  Yes, the Parish has areas that flood even beyond the official flood zones.  Residents, however, know those areas.  They prepare, they sandbag, and most will evacuate with time to spare.

August 2016, however, was different.  It was historic.  It was unprecedented.  Rivers crested at more than double flood stage.

Areas that never had standing water saw not inches but feet.  My Dad’s house at the edge of my Grandpa’s old berry farm never saw any water from the little river running north and south about a mile to the east for at least 100 years.  This time, however, one could have floated a bateau over land cleared of pine 100 + years ago and farmed by generations.  Unlike the years before my birth, the property had the additional protection afforded by Hwy 43 running north and south at the eastern property line standing as a ley.  It’s really difficult to see photos of that land after this rain and flooding because the possibility never really crossed my mind.  I shudder to envision years past and the state of the property back then if the backflow flood waters did not have to breach about a 5 foot barrier as they did the other day.

Inside the town limits of Albany, the water reached levels that seemed improbable, no impossible, right up until it rose that high.  Homes and businesses that had never taken water inside the structure from every storm past, had floodwaters lapping over the peaks of their rooftops.  Prior to a few days ago, these businesses may have experienced inches of water standing in the parking lots.  Some even sandbagged “just in case” and for an additional barrier from the wake created by trucks on the highway.  With this “no name” storm, wake came from boats as one unfamiliar with the area might not realize that a road existed underneath the equivalent of being out on Lake Maurepas unless their prop struck the hood of a submerged 4-wheel drive truck.

Earlier I typed “little river” because we do call the Lil Natalbany a river even though the official classification would be as a stream.  A stream that is only navigable by boat a few miles downstream.  One can float a canoe or a pirogue under the Highway 190 bridge, but you would need to walk a bit before floating again near the Old Baton Rouge Highway bridge.  Launching something with a small outboard motor requires going further south to Springfield.  From there on the Natalbany one could eventually make their way into Lake Maurepas and then go to Lake Ponchartrain, Lake Borgne, and then into the Gulf of Mexico.  If I would ever want that adventure, I’d drive just a bit further toward Killian and start out on either the Blood or Tickfaw rivers and even then that would be quite a lengthy boat trip.

My point is that nobody is to blame for this natural disaster.

Nobody started a fire intentionally or allowed one to get out of control and spread.

The vast majority of people were neither negligent nor unprepared with their property.

People did not try to wait knowing that doing so would necessitate others risking their own lives to save the foolish or stubborn who failed to heed to evacuation orders or recommendations.

This devastation happened, and I don’t think any technology could have prevented it from happening.  Historically I know that one must twist, bend, and really break comparables to other areas or eras to make them seem applicable.

I think that Governor John Bel Edwards made the initial disaster declaration and the formal request for a federal declaration in a timely fashion.  I think that President Obama signed the authorization much faster than what has been the norm by both he and the living presidents.  I think that FEMA Director W. Craig Fugate has been responsive from the very beginning.

There is, however, little that the federal or state government can do in the early stages at least that are not better handled by local government.

I don’t recall ever meeting the current Parish President, Layton Ricks, but even though I haven’t seen him in years or spoken to him since becoming Sheriff I do know Jason Ard along with many of the elected officials in the local communities.  These individuals, their teams, and so, so, so, many volunteers worked to the point of exhaustion and then an additional 8 or so hours after exhaustion had set in before collapsing in worn out heaps before starting over again the second they caught their breath.  Nobody could have asked or expected more from these locals and the assistance they rendered to friends, neighbors, and strangers.  Volunteers coming from other areas did the same.

Nobody had time for photo-ops, and honestly using resources to provide for officials when so many were and are in need is a genuine waste in my opinion.  At the federal level it makes far more sense to have Director Fugate or Secretary Jeh Johnson of Homeland Security on the scene versus President Barack Obama or any President or Vice-President at this stage in the process.

I know that many people are creating political arguments by trying to compare reactions and press negativity between President George W. Bush after Hurricane Katrina and President Obama today.  I think both men were/are in that proverbial danged if they do and danged if they don’t as they’re caught between a rock and hard place and up “pit creek without a shaddle.” [I try to maintain a family friendly blog].

I’ll suggest another presidential comparison that makes more sense in a moment, but right now I think it’s fair to ask if a visit by President Obama would bring more press coverage to the natural disaster?  Perhaps, but the coverage would be focused more upon the President than the residents affected.

You see this disaster lacks the sensationalism because people acted like human beings with love and kindness to others instead of a selfish manner.

This disaster lacks the political opportunism to capitalize upon talking points.  That’s apparent when the major scandal is the President at Martha’s Vineyard instead of being in photos and distracting those with more pressing concerns than seeing the President or anyone for that matter who is not going to be doing a lot of physical labor.

This disaster as it is now will not sell ads.  The people affected directly are working ripping out floors, sheetrock, drywall, insulation, and shoring up frames and don’t have the time or desire to gussy up for TV or have their words taken out of context.  The entertainment and news limited to paragraph level attention spans can find people to criticize the President or anyone else without the inconvenience of seeing real people doing what they need to do.

In my opinion someone like Mike Huckabee with his Facebook post badmouthing the President is in direct contrast to what the people of Livingston Parish are doing which is pulling together.  As a historian, it’s sad to think that on and within this hodgepodge of disconnected islands surrounded by floodwaters the ideas expressed by Abraham Lincoln are being carried out while someone like Huckabee who stands under that GOP banner today relies upon blaming others.

I think the Advocate, the major daily in Baton Rouge, just printed the most ludicrous editorial in quite some time with “Our Views: Vacation or not, a hurting Louisiana needs you now, President Obama.”

Advocate editors, what can President Obama according to the Constitution of the United States of America do to assist the state any more than he has at this stage in the cleanup, rebuilding, and recovery process?

Do you really want him or anyone from outside to ruin all the work being done by the local officials and residents?

Do you want him to replace Director Fugate with Michael Brown so that there can be another FEMA cluster$#%^ like during Katrina?

If the Advocate wanted real assistance, why not use the power of the pen to encourage Congress to cut short their recess.

Yes I know that the House calendar deems the month of August as “District Work Weeks” of 5 days each, but editors you do understand that additional funding beyond what is already allocated to FEMA and the SBA will require Congressional approval.  The US Senate calendar terms recesses as days not in session, but either Mr. Vitter or Mr. Cassidy could show up and take control of the chamber floor during one of the pro forma sessions which SCOTUS declared were in fact actual work sessions.

In 1965 following Hurricane Betsy, US Senator Russell Long did reach out to President Lyndon Johnson to visit and see the damage for himself.

Senator Long did not want LBJ’s “best people,” but the President himself.  In 1965, however, I believe that more people respected the position regardless of who occupied the Oval Office.  People may have disagreed, and I’m typing sarcastically here but there were no differences of opinion about foreign or domestic happenings during the Johnson administration.  Seriously I think some college students today in the survey level courses seem to think of Vietnam and the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s like it was the Olympic games or disagreement about a traffic camera.

Unlike federal politics today, Russell Long had the ability to get things done in the Senate as did Allen Ellender.

Over in the House, the state had F. Edward Hebert, Hale Boggs, Ed Willis, Joe Waggoner, Otto Passman, Gillis Long, T. Ashton Thompson, and Jimmy Morrison of Hammond representing the 6th District.

Before someone tries the political party argument, keep in mind that this was in the age of the Solid South.  Although all members of the Democratic party, these men were part of the de facto two-party system in the state of Long and anti-Long Democrats.  Even mellowed by age, Jimmy Morrison remained a maverick between the factions.  This delegation had seniority.  This delegation played pivotal roles in most legislation going through Congress.  This delegation was visible in the small communities and responded to the poor farmer, shrimper, laborer, and the wealthy and powerful in the same fashion.  They represented their constituents, not special interests.

Today, I see very few members of Congress who command even an iota of the respect and influence of the any member of the Louisiana delegation during Hurricane Betsy.

Regardless, however, listening a recording of that conversation between Russell Long and Lyndon Johnson with Ed Willis listening in on the Long end, it’s about upcoming elections. Senator Long knew that he along with Senator Ellender and the Louisiana House delegation would secure financial assistance from Congress.  Today, I don’t think the Louisiana delegation can be confident of receiving additional assistance from their peers in other states.  In this case by not showing up, President Obama is keeping resources available for those in need and he has provided what is in his power as Commander in Chief as requested by the Governor.

You can listen and follow a transcript to the conversation between Senator Long and President Johnson at the link below:

I will note that Congressman Cedric Richmond penned at letter to Director Fugate and other members of the Louisiana delegation did sign a letter requesting expedited actions from the President.

Political posturing, we don’t need it.

The press, well I am grateful that we have a number of journalists in print and on television who do extraordinary jobs investigating, reporting, and informing the general public.

Their job is made harder by the public relations people and commentators who try to pass themselves off as journalists or are mistaken to be in that field by the general public.

Advocate why not publish a story like that of a lady who has celebrated her 90th birthday for the past 4 or 5 years?  She is sweet and generous as can be and has lived in the same home for 90 years.  In that house she reared I think 3 children, experienced the grief of discovering the body of her husband who passed away while plowing a field, loved many grandchildren, great-grandchildren, and great-great-grandchildren along with the children and grandchildren of others from her generation.  She can still bake bread, tend to her flowers, but at the moment doesn’t really understand why she cannot go back to her house.

As she responded to one of the great grandchildren:

Flood you say…sweetie that house hasn’t flooded in 90 years.  The river is way over yonder, and Pappy, that would be my Daddy’s Daddy so your really great and greater Pappy built up the banks years before I was born when he had to build a dam to conserve water. We took down that dam but that river isn’t going to stray anywhere.   This old house and land doesn’t flood, sweetie.

She’s right as always except that old house had about 6 feet of water inside, and when it requires a boat to get within sight of the house what can you say because she has confused the highway with the larger river about 5 miles away.  Honestly, from a photograph I mistook the highway for that river.  That’s how deep the flooding is.

Sorry editors at the Advocate, but your focus should be on the area and providing accurate reports to your readers and to the wire services.  This flooding is a disaster, and it really strikes home for me because that is my hometown.  Those are people that I know, love, and respect.

Even with the flooding back home in my neck of the woods, there is another disaster happening at the same time with those wildfires out in California.

I cannot guestimate the number of communities destroyed by tornadoes.

Not that far from where I live now, over in Ellicot City, MD, they experienced a dramatic flood that for all intents and purposes knocked out the entire downtown area.

It was a few weeks back and only now are business owners being allowed in to see what is left of their establishments.  In 5 days, the area will be closed for a month to repair the damaged infrastructure.  I’ve seen President Obama at some of these disaster areas but not all.  It’s no different with any other president.  The sad fact is that someone, somewhere is suffering at this very moment and at multiple locations quite a number of people are suffering at the same time.

The President is danged if he does and danged if he doesn’t and that will not change for whoever follows him into the Oval Office.  No man or no woman can be everyplace at once.

Editors at the Advocate, you will need to interview real people with real troubles and not pick soundbites from the President or anyone else.  Why not talk to some of the old reporters who used to work at the paper?  They were journalists and not media hogs focused solely upon profit.

So what are the people facing this adversity in Louisiana going to do?

They’re going to try their best, maintain their faith, and carry on.  They’ll be sad, hurt, angry, and frustrated.  They’ll unleash attacks upon others just as a means of coping.  They’ll also do what they can to assist others facing the same problems that they themselves face.

That’s not unique to my hometown, my Parish, or my birth state.  I’ve seen that everywhere that I have lived.  To me that’s the United States of America but to be more exact that’s human beings.

The people of my hometown, Parish, neighboring communities and parishes may be left with flooded homes, tons of building materials, possessions, and keepsakes destined for the trash, and if truly lucky a slab and perhaps part of a frame so that rebuilding does not have to start from scratch.  It’s not politics, partisanship, but it’s a sad fact of life.

All the result of some rain from a storm that never even warranted having a name.

Does anyone care?  Should anyone care? 

The people affected care, and We the People care but apparently that doesn’t sell advertising or provide enough for some in the media to know where to look, what to ask, and most importantly when to listen.