In August of 2016, a state of emergency was declared in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Prolonged rainfall resulted in a catastrophic flood that destroyed over 40,000 homes and killed over 13 people.
One month later, I arrived in Baton Rouge along with a team of volunteers to aid in relief efforts. We teamed up with Operation Blessing, who sent us to a woman’s house with an address and a wheelbarrow full of tools. The first time we met Shantay, I could tell she was heavy with grief. You could sense the weight of the world upon her shoulders, and she carried it with a weakening strength. The water had flooded her home and filled it with nine feet of water. Nine. There was black mold on what was left of the ceilings.
The rain had fallen an entire month ago, and there was still so much work to be done. Her street was lined with piles of what looked like trash but used to be everything she owned. She greeted us and let us into the home to work, but then she mostly kept to herself, sitting in her car behind a cigarette and tired closed eyes. It felt almost intrusive of me, coming into a strangers home only to tear it apart. Though the house was completely beyond repair and needed to be destroyed, this was the home that Shantay grew up in, with her twin sister, mother and stepfather. This was her home, that a group of people she’d never met were about to knock walls out of. It had already been cleared out of belongings that were remotely salvageable: a few pots and pans, canned goods and piles of soaked documents that were actually not salvageable, though she was keeping them nonetheless.
I found a stack of mail, still wet and weighted by the rain. At one point I took a break from ripping nails out of wooden beams and walked to the edge of the driveway, where the massive pile of wrecked belongings turned a corner. I knelt down and spent a long while uncovering photographs beneath wet clothes and trash. Some of them, you could still make out faces between the clouded border that the flood had painted. I saved those ones. I picked apart soaked photographs that were bonded together, bleeding milky color as I separated the back of one from the front of another.
As the days went on, Shantay opened up to us more and more, and we became more like a new family. She would come in and out, taking lunch breaks with us and even buying us ice cream to show her appreciation. Between bites of frozen treats and lollipops, we found out that her mother had passed away recently, and that the house was left to her and her twin sister. Losing her mother, on top of losing her mother’s home had put her in a seemingly helpless situation. “It’s devastating,” she said. “I miss calling my mom every day…The things that used to matter don’t matter. Nike shoes. TV. The things that matter the most are the things you can’t replace…photos…” she trailed off. I asked her what the most special thing she had that was saved, to which she replied a photograph of her mother that she used to put by her bed, and her mother’s baby pictures.
While she felt blessed enough to be staying at her boss’s home for the time being, she told us that she had recently passed people living on the streets, without a home. They were sheltered only by a tarp. “Not even a tent, a tarp. It still bothers me.” Shantay’s heart was revealed to us throughout that week. I loved the way she spoke: slowly as if each word had been carefully thought through before she released them. Though she had suffered so much loss, she carried with her a deep sense of gratitude. She told us that she was blessed.
On the last day, she gave us a tour of the land that traced what was left of her home. Though the inside of her house had been violently taken away from her, the trees stood strongly rooted around the property, still bearing fruit. Like the fruit trees, her hope remained.