At LSU, 'normalcy' sought amidst chaos of epic disaster
BATON ROUGE, La. — On Saturday morning, a single mother with the delightfully Cajun name of Weslie Robichaux got a knock on her door from a neighbor.
“He told me the water was rising and I needed to start gathering my stuff to leave,” said Robichaux, who lives in the Old Jefferson neighborhood in the southeast part of Baton Rouge, an area that saw flooding in the 1980s and was on edge when flood waters started rising again over the weekend. “But I just thought that I’d have a relaxing morning, make breakfast, then get ready.”
It turns out, she didn’t have time. The water from nearby Claycut Bayou — which directly connects to the overflowing Amite River — was quickly spilling over its banks. Before she knew what hit her, water was down her street. Shortly after, her brother was at the door and her parents on the way to get her out.
She escaped with little more than what she had with her. A breast cancer patient who was between her third and fourth rounds of chemotherapy, she now must also deal with the fact that she had also lost her home, a one-story 1980s ranch that took at least four feet of floodwater, and all of her belongings inside.
“I don’t even know how I’m going to deal with all this,” she said.
Three days later, Les Miles took to the podium after LSU’s Tuesday football practice just a few miles away from where Robichaux had fled the floodwaters. He announced that Leonard Fournette, the Tigers’ Heisman Trophy hopeful at running back, had suffered a sprained ankle.
“It’s a slight sprain,” Miles said. “He is in a walking boot.”
Normally, that would be the topic of the day in Baton Rouge. LSU’s star going down as part of a rash in injuries in August camp that has already claimed the season of starting defensive end Christian LaCouture and reserve linebacker Isaiah Washington might even headline an entire local newscast, not just sports.
Not this time. Not in Baton Rouge, where worries have become real, not the stuff of entertainment.
It wasn’t even the headliner for Miles, who started the interview session by thanking the local media for its around-the-clock coverage of the flooding, pointing out one news crew that had a member of the crew, David Phung, jump into the water to save a woman and her dog from drowning in a sinking car.
“He’s a hero,” Miles said.
LSU’s football team can watch from a safe distance because, as Miles puts it, “LSU is as safe a place as any right now.”
The university sits on high ground, protected from the Mississippi River by high levees. Its buildings are rock solid and can withstand hurricane force winds. The football facility has a 100-yard indoor practice field — pretty much a necessity these days if you are competing in a Power 5 conference — and one of the four outdoor practice fields has an artificial surface that holds water well. Even on a rainy day, the Tigers will generally have two full football fields to safely practice on.
That means even as the community struggled around it, its prized football team barely missed a beat, even during the epic rain — two feet of rain in two days, a “1,000-year” event, according to meteorologists — that was causing so much destruction outside of campus.
How much destruction?
- At least 11 people have died as a result of the flooding.
- Governor John Bel Edwards said Tuesday that at least 40,000 homes had been damaged by the flood, mostly in the Baton Rouge and Lafayette metropolitan areas.
- He also said that at least 20,000 people had to be rescued from their homes or vehicles because of rising water. Many, like Robichaux, were caught off guard by how quickly the water rose.
- In Livingston Parish, a suburban area just east of Baton Rouge, it’s estimated that 75 percent of homes were destroyed.
- Watson, a booming suburb in northern Livingston Parish, saw 31 inches of rain in 48 hours, roughly equal to four years of rain in Los Angeles.
- Over 4,000 people were being housed in Celtic Media Centre, Baton Rouge’s giant movie studio that, until the repeal of tax credits to the movie industry, was the setting for a lot of blockbuster films in recent years (from the Twilight series to Battle: Los Angeles). Overall, over 8,000 people were in shelters and hotels were booked to capacity.
Miles is no stranger to this kind of devastation. His first year as head coach at LSU was in 2005, when Hurricane Katrina devastated nearby New Orleans and turned Baton Rouge, itself sideswiped by the storm, into the epicenter of the recovery effort. LSU’s campus was a shelter and as the fall progressed, LSU football became a rallying point for a suffering state.
This year, Baton Rouge has been in the news all summer. A police shooting of a black man led to street protests that drew national news, then the murder of three police officers by a lone gunman. As Baton Rouge dealt with its internal issues, Miles declared at SEC Media Days that what the state and local community needed was a winning football team.
The summer brings back unwelcomed memories for Miles.
“It looks like Katrina flooding,” Miles said. “And certainly the issues on the perimeter (outside of the program) prior to this with the loss of life … our community has gone through some tough times, and it (LSU football) is certainly a great way for a community to come together.”
The flooding only amplifies that need.
Yet, few people knew. One of the gnawing things to locals was the failure of the national media to even acknowledge that Baton Rouge was going through the worst natural disaster this country has seen since Super Storm Sandy.
By Wednesday, the media was doing a mea culpa on its lack of coverage, but before then, there was little about Louisiana’s struggle outside of local coverage. The one exception came from, interestingly enough, sports media.
ESPN’s Scott Van Pelt, who has a long-time affectionate relationship with LSU and Baton Rouge, called out the national media for its lack of coverage while sending good thoughts to the people affected by the floods.
Van Pelt’s piece points out the rescue of recently retired LSU radio play-by-play man Jim Hawthorne who, like many people, saw the waters rise to his home faster than he could react to them. For a while, Hawthorne was missing. For all intents and purposes, a lack of a charged cell phone keeping him from contacting people and floodwaters keeping people from finding him.
It’s a story that repeated itself throughout the Baton Rouge area. People were having to leave their cars, stranded by the rapidly rising flood waters on Interstate 12. Homes went from seemingly safe to lost in a matter of hours.
Yet, few outside of Louisiana knew about it. But there are countless stories to tell.
On Sunday morning, a man named Doug strapped a small rowboat to the back of his pickup truck and headed to Antioch Road near the Old Jefferson neighborhood. He knew there would be people gathered there who might need a lift to their homes through the floodwater.
He quickly got two inquiries. One was a man who knew where a man was stranded by the floodwater. He also wanted to check to see how much water Weslie Robichaux’s home had taken. Another was a couple that wanted to get their cat and check if they had anything left in their flooded home.
On the way to try to rescue the stranded man, Doug pointed toward a submerged house directly across Antioch Road from Old Jefferson.
“That’s my house,” he said, hardly a hint of sadness in his voice. “The water came in fast. Lost everything.”
Shouldn’t he have been somewhere else, dealing with his own losses?
“Nothing I can do,” he said. “There are a lot of other people that need help more than me.”
Upon the return from that run — the stranded man would not leave the pets in his home (he finally left later Sunday night) — Doug’s guest moved aside for the couple with the stranded dog. Meanwhile, a large pickup pulled up carrying a bass boat.
Three men were in the truck and came out and asked if anybody needed help.
“I’m from Sorrento,” said the truck’s driver, referring to a town in surburban Ascension Parish. “I flooded in 2014 and got rescued. I figured it was time to pay it back.”
The men were African-American, and they pulled up to help in a mostly white neighborhood. In the context of the summer in Baton Rouge with the racially charged news of shootings and protests, it was a significant gesture.
As soon as they announced their intentions to help, there were two immediate requests. An elderly couple was stranded near where Doug lived. Another couple needed to be rescued, but they needed their cats.
These gentlemen would get a chance to repay their rescue many times over that day.
The spirit of Doug and the men with the bass boat is something Miles saw in his first year at LSU through the reaction of Baton Rouge to the Katrina crisis. It’s what helped him learn he had found a home.
“I’m proud to be a part of this community and call it home,” he said Tuesday.
He was trying to keep his players as removed as possible from what was going on around them and keep them focused on football. The city needs a winner, after all. The best thing the football team could provide is a welcome distraction.
But even this team, mostly insulated from the disaster, had suffered.
Miles said the family of Caleb Roddy, a freshman tight end from Denham Springs, the largest town in flood-ravished Livingston Parish, saw some minor flood damage. The family of another player, Baton Rouge native Russell Gage, had to move into a shelter because of the flood.
Even Miles was affected. He said his brother, who lives in Ascension Parish, texted him for help getting out. Either because he was busy with practice or because of the spotty phone service Baton Rouge has seen lately — a main relay station for AT&T was flooded, leaving many without cell phone service for over a day — he didn’t receive the text until after his brother sent him another text saying he had gotten out already.
“I guess I’m a bad brother,” Miles quipped.
Miles suggested a desire that his team find a way to be more hands on. He said there were shelters being set up on campus and said, “I think our guys would enjoy going there and seeing and helping people.”
On Tuesday, Robichaux reported that water had receded from her home, and the long process of rebuilding could begin.
First will come the removal of all sheet rock and insulation to avoid mold, then the treating of the studs to prevent mold from creeping into whatever new is built around it. In the meantime, she found an RV to park in the driveway and live in while the work is done.
That’s complicated by the fact that local contractors will be booked solid for the foreseeable future, and many of them have their own destroyed homes to deal with first.
“I’m just glad I can get started,” she said.
By the end of September, she’ll be done with chemotherapy and, if she’s lucky, her home will be on the way to recovery as well. A fresh start, in a way.
In the meantime, Miles’ football team will have kept “eyes on the prize” he said and if it does, it will give those going through recovery a welcome distraction.
On the wall of LSU’s team meeting room is a sign that reminds players who they play for. It puts “team” above “self.” In 2005, the word “Louisiana” was placed above “team,” a reaction that team had to Hurricane Katrina.
He said it wouldn’t be fair to put that responsibility on this team. It would have to be their decision.
Or maybe it’s not their decision. When LSU opens its season at Wisconsin, TVs will be tuned in at re-opened, formerly flooded sports cars, trailers in driveways, and the high-and-dry homes that will, in many cases, be backed with more than a house full of occupants.
Nothing gets the attention of a busy Louisianian like LSU football and, by early September, between ripping out drywall and picking up the pieces, they’ll be ready for the distraction.