A federal state of emergency was declared in Louisiana two weeks ago after severe flooding crippled the southern part of the state. The Baton Rouge area received over 6 trillion gallons of rainwater in only two days, causing more than 10 rivers to overflow and inflicting damage on more than 100,000 homes. Now, homeowners and volunteers like me are dealing with the wreckage.
Step 1: Remove all furniture
Floods make no distinction between socioeconomic classes, so the Goodwill sofa and the Pottery Barn sectional will be equally ruined and unceremoniously dumped on the front lawn. Same goes for plasma TVs, painstakingly “distressed” coffee tables and dining room chairs that have been passed down for three generations. Mattresses, fridges, stoves, exercise bikes, dressers — you take everything to the curb.
Step 2: Remove anything not nailed down
Things have been sitting in several feet of water, so anything porous must be thrown out. Books turn into solid, heavy bricks, pages morphed together, still dripping. Wedding photos are damaged beyond repair, faces blurred and bodies stretched into colorful shapes that no longer resemble loved ones. All clothes must go. All bedding, towels, blankets and pillows. Computer, laptop, cable modem — was it stored more than five feet above the floor? If not, it’s gone, too.
Shoes, slippers, groceries in the pantry. Old documents, placed in the bottom drawer of a locked file cabinet for safekeeping: They’re gone. Social Security cards, birth certificates, warranties and insurance papers, all soggy and illegible. You scoop everything into trash bags and carry them out to the growing pile on the lawn.
Step 3: Rip up all flooring
Carpet that squishes when you walk on it, water seeping up from underneath: Cut it out, roll it up and remove. And take out the pad underneath it, the collector of years of dust and dirt and life, now soaked through with sewage water. When the Amite River overflowed, it also lifted raw sewage into those houses. This stuff is vile. This stuff makes your gag reflex kick in, even though you’re a grown woman, even though you’re wearing a mask, even though you know this is somebody’s house, somebody’s life, and you need to get yourself together because there is still so much more work to do.
You roll up the carpet. You roll up the pad underneath. You carry it out and you breathe through your mouth as the sewage water drips on your clothing and soaks through your shoes. The pile outside grows.
Step 4: Remove drywall
You work as a team. Someone removes the floorboards, someone the door frames, someone the doors themselves. One person notices marks on one of the frames — heights of children and grandchildren marked in pen, starting low and growing taller with the child’s age noted alongside each line. They remove this board carefully, set it aside for the homeowner to decide whether to salvage it.
For the drywall, you need tools, primarily a crowbar and a hammer, and knowledge of how to use them when nails and soggy leverage work against you. Then you need box cutters. You cut the sheets out in large sections, pry them from the wall with your hands. Sometimes you get frustrated, can’t find the right angle, can’t find the box cutter, so you take a hammer and smash it in, then begin to tear small pieces with your fingers. The wet drywall crumbles, coming off in two-inch chunks that aren’t efficient or clean, but it still feels like progress so you keep going, living for those rare moments when a two-foot chunk comes off instead.
You carry the larger pieces out one or two at a time, your fingertip strength being tested to the max. If only you’d done those rock-wall climbing lessons way back when. You collect the smaller pieces in a wheelbarrow and dump them in the pile out front. It’s so big now that you have to walk around it to find a place where more can be added. You toss sheets of drywall onto the top like a backward game of Jenga, praying they don’t topple back down.
Step 5: Take out insulation
The insulation is in thick sheets, cotton-candy pink and formed into rectangles to fit between the boards of the house. It looks innocent and almost cute, but you know underneath the cheerful fluff lie tiny pieces of fiberglass, just waiting to bury themselves under your unprotected skin.
You remove the sheets carefully, one by one, the bottom half dripping with water. Roaches scramble out from underneath. You scream, surprised, then wonder if that’s what’s crawling inside your own house’s walls.
Step 6: Weep
All that remains of the house is the wooden frame. You walk from room to room, not by using doorways, but by simply going through walls that no longer exist. This was once a bedroom, you marvel. That an office. This was once a home that held stories and lives and love.
You step outside to look at the massive pile of debris you have created and see a matching pile heaped on almost every lawn on the block. The absolute devastation of the flood is exposed, pulled from houses piece by piece and dragged into the light.
And so, you weep. You weep for the owners of the house you have just gutted. You weep for the owners of the houses all around you, who may not have work teams to come and help them reclassify their treasures as trash. You weep because you are physically exhausted and emotionally drained, and you have only been at this for one day and yet there are thousands of people who have been doing this for weeks now and who are still so far from done.
You know you will go back to your unflooded home, in your unflooded city, and shower, sleep and regain the strength needed to come back out and serve again. Because that is what being a neighbor means, again and again when hurricanes and floods ravage your state.
But for now, you weep. You weep because the destruction is so real, so great, so all-encompassing, that it leaves you with no other way to respond.