On the Baton Rouge Floods of 2016 and My Nostalgia for The Half-Gone
My Aunt Debby bought the place from her mother in 1981. Originally built as a fishing camp in the 1950s, it’s located right on the bank of the Amite River, about twenty miles south of Baton Rouge in the small village of Port Vincent, Louisiana. Aunt Debby has spent the last thirty-five years of her life there, having raised the foundation from 10 feet to 13.5 feet after the 1983 floods, which got her. Although we still call it “The Camp,” it’s actually a large and sophisticated home, into which Aunt Debby has poured her life savings. It has hardwood floors and a kitchen island, a screened-in porch with an outdoor TV, a master suite that looks over the water, a boat dock with Christmas lights. It looks nearly untouchable up there on its stilts. So much so that when the contractor finished raising it back in the eighties, he told my aunt, “If this place ever floods again, it’ll mean that Baton Rouge has been completely destroyed.”
On August 14, 2016, my aunt was ferried to The Camp by boat, where she cupped her eyes with her hands to look through the windows. Inside she saw water lines on her appliances. The odd rearrangement of furniture pushed around in the flow. The tracks of unseen snakes, like lost rivers, across the silted floor of her home.
Eudora Welty says that fiction, of all art forms, is the one “least likely to cut the cord that binds it to its source.” Flannery O’Connor, Barry Hannah—if you dig enough, you could probably find that every Southern writer, present or past, has said something about the importance of place in her or his work. I have to admit, growing up in Louisiana and being inundated in that tradition, I got a little tired of it. I believed, instead, the great promise of fiction is that it is boundless, limited only by the writer’s imagination. I set my earliest stories in Ohio, Montana, Detroit—all places I’d never been. I felt pretty good crossing the Mason–Dixon in my head. That was two decades ago. Those early stories remain with me still, keeping each other good company in a folder on my computer called REJECTED.
The rainfall in Baton Rouge during August of 1989 totaled 7.67 inches.
This is the type of easy research writers enjoy when imagining the past. I googled up similar facts when, in my thirties, I worked on a novel set in the late eighties and early nineties in my hometown. It was my first time writing about the place where I grew up, and I found myself so overwhelmed by nostalgia for Baton Rouge that I figured a little science would do me good. Inevitably, the numbers came to nothing.
I remembered so clearly the way the creeks and bayous that ran behind my old neighborhood backed up in a storm, the way, as kids, we’d wade around the yard in our rain boots, paddle canoes down the street, cast fishing lines off the porch, catch the frogs that lined the water’s edge. Yet I could not find any floods or named storms to match the dates on my family’s photographs that showed us doing these exact things. Were these disasters, I wondered?
I was too young at the time to know the bond to place I was then making, in those moments of delight with the water-that-shouldn’t-have-been-where-it-was. I was too young to know this was the same bond so many who write the South feel. I was too young, in other words, to see the future. Too young to already miss the place that I lived.
This year, in the week of August 8th alone, 7.1 trillion gallons of rain fell on Louisiana.
When the flooding hit Baton Rouge, the cell phone service went down. From New Orleans, where I now live, I texted both of my parents and received delayed and sporadic replies:
“Water in the street but I think we’ll be ok.”
“Your step-dad took the boat out this morning. Rescued 4 families.”
Similar dispatches came in from Lafayette and Denham Springs. The interstate system, which connects these places, was soon underwater as well. Then pictures came through from the old neighborhood, the same neighborhood I’d spent most of the last decade writing about, water rising above the doorknobs.
I think of Zora Neale Hurston. Harper Lee. William Faulkner.
Eatonville. Maycomb County. Yoknapatawpha.
Our best writers have a way of articulating the South so that it feels, at the same time, always alive and already past. I think about rural communities giving way to strip malls. The ghosts of soldiers in blue walking across a family’s well-manicured, present day lawn. I think about my old neighborhood, a disappearing coast. I wonder if Southern writers know something different than most about the ground we all stand on.
I wonder if we live, at all times, in the half-gone.
When the interstates reopened I took a trip to Baton Rouge to see my people, have a look around. I wanted to see the street I grew up on first. As I drove into the neighborhood, it seemed already restored. People were out mowing their grass, walking their dogs in the heat. Then I turned the corner to my street, stopped the car, pulled out my phone, and hit record. Every house on the block was gutted. Heirlooms lined the road like demolition hills. Piles of sheetrock and end tables, mattresses and carpeting. The buzz of flies on family freezers. The smell. The video I caught does no justice.
I parked near my old house and got out of the car. Although I hadn’t lived there for nearly thirty years, I stood on the curb and sorted the ruined material as if it were my own. The front door to the house stood open and I walked inside. If I’d wanted to, I could have walked straight through the wooden framing, where there used to be walls, and into the backyard.
“Hello,” I said, but there was nobody home.
Yesterday, I talked to Aunt Debby on the phone. She’s living with my mom, whose house in Baton Rouge was luckily spared. The water at The Camp has now receded enough for her to drive there, and she visits it every day, either with insurance adjustors or contractors or by herself to go through what cannot be saved. I was curious how she was holding up.
“Are you at your house now?” she asked me.
“Yes,” I told her.
“Take out a measuring tape,” she said. “Measure two and half feet off the ground. Draw a line along the wall. Everything below that is gone.”
I told her I couldn’t imagine.
“You should do it,” she said. “I’m serious.”
“I will,” I said.
“Your dressers,” she said. “Your filing cabinets. Your kids’ toys. Your hanging clothes. Your photo albums. All of your furniture. Your appliances. Your guitar. Everything under your bed.”
“My god,” I said.
“All of your shoes.”
I showed my seven-year-old daughter the video I made of my old neighborhood’s wreckage. She asked me which house was mine, and I told her: the white one in the corner behind that big pile of stuff. She seemed especially interested in the clip of a gang of flies crawling in and out of the vents at the bottom of a freezer that had been set on the curb and wrapped with duct tape.
“What are they doing?” she asked me.
“They’re finding a way in,” I told her.
“Was that your freezer?” she asked. “The one you had as a kid?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “I doubt it.”
She looked at our own refrigerator, still new, stainless steel. This is the place she gets her food from; a crisp apple, a cup of milk. This is a thing she can count on.
“But it could have been,” she said.
“Yes,” I said.
I wondered if it was fear or knowledge I saw on her face at that moment.
I wonder if there is a difference.
It took me forty years of life, more than twenty years of writing, to realize that a story’s setting is no arbitrary thing. To write about one’s home is not a sign of imaginative weakness. It is instead like having a lover or child whose true power over you is only felt when you understand that one day, possibly this very day, that person will be gone.
So, I drop to my knees and take out my measuring tape. The lawn is mowed. The A/C is humming. The paint is still fresh and bright. But I’ve lived here long enough to know what’s coming. So I draw my line across the wall and listen for the trickle of water.
I wait for the splashing of snakes.
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