Summer skies above the Bayou State held distinct pressure early August 2016. Storms brewed beneath the surface when racial tensions turned violent. While gaining national attention, Louisiana’s melting pot seethed and many residents ran for cover seeking refuge among local church bodies. A community divided cannot stand. Citizens around the capital city attested to the localized pressure as tensions continued to grow. Under the watchful eye of the media, the deadly storm raged. Soon, another storm would hover. Within days, Louisiana transitioned from crisis to catastrophe as an unnamed storm system sat stubbornly over the widespread Southeastern parishes.
Thursday night, August 11 — skies turned violent, the vehement storm unleashed torrential downpour on the sleeping Bayou State.
Friday morning, August 12 — school closures were announced for at least eight parishes; flooding began with the Comite and Amite rivers. Travel was challenging in the capital city area as interstate and road closures rapidly increased. Denham Springs 8:00 am, high waters forced a roadblock on Range Avenue at The Parc at Denham Apartments. Family en route to the Baton Rouge Airport for a flight to Ecuador was further detoured, but with the help of a local friend, Marla Whittington, successfully navigated. Friends with friends in high places accompanied with modern technology would be the running theme of redemption throughout this historic event. Without warning, the Comite rushed upon the Hooper Road area and news of homes flooding in Central unfolded. At the Baton Rouge Airport mid-morning business carried on; flight to Ecuador departed on time. Meanwhile, shelters in the Baker area opened, evacuations were underway.
Urgency accelerated in the following hours. Unrelenting rains swelled the Comite, Amite, and eight additional rivers; floodgates continued to break. At the height of calamity — history in the making — crisis upon crisis emerged with rising waters across Louisiana and the nation was unaware, national media silent.
Friday evening, August 12 — Denham Springs, Falconcrest Drive off Rushing Road, Marla Whittington made preparations for the potential of her neighborhood flooding in before she and her children Logan and Lexie went to sleep. Next door, Marla’s parents, concerned about their medical conditions, loaded a packed suitcase in their vehicle and prepared to leave home the following morning.
Saturday morning, August 13–4:15 am Denham Springs, Montgomery Avenue off River Road, Joe Chustz received word of River Road flooding via phone call from AJ Hebert. Joe and his wife, Libby presumed they’d have all day to lift their belongings. The river had already reached their front yard. Panic set in. Their son Camden, 17, was at the home of Matthew Guzzardo. Calls for help were made to Camden; Libby’s father, David Boone; and Zach Harris who lived nearby on higher ground. The rush began to gather belongings. By 5:00 am waters approached the home. Libby grabbed clothes and five-year-old Oliver, still sleeping, and headed for her parents’ home off Dunn Road. Joe and their daughter, Payton, 17, worked frantically to store belongings in the attic.
On her way out Libby passed her father who expressed concern that she may not get out. Camden and Matthew arrived at the end of the road in Matthew’s jeep. Camden directed his mother safely via route to Florida Avenue. From there the route turned perilous as Libby’s only option was the risky drive through waters washing over the hood. “I still don’t know how I made it,” Libby reflects. “I feel anxious every time I talk about it.” In the midst of their escape Oliver woke and remained surprisingly calm. They arrived safely at the Boones’ home, Oliver returned to sleep. Libby and her sister, Katie then headed back to Libby’s home. They were turned back by police at a road block at Florida and Range Avenues. Eventually Libby lost contact with everyone.
At the Chustzs’ home Joe, David, Zach, Matthew, Camden, and Payton continued lifting belongings. As waters continued rising, a decision was made for David to get Payton and the Chustzs’ dog to safety. Escape would not come easy. Rising current threatened to overtake them, once pulling Payton under, then rushing David’s car and forcing a failed ignition. Higher ground became increasingly out of reach. Their only option to abandon the car, the two forced the doors against the waters’ resistance, made their exit on foot, and carried the dog to Albertson’s. Their cell phones were ruined. Payton was successful in calling through to Libby but the call dropped. Once again, Libby succumbed to panic. Fortunately, Joe’s parents were en route to the Chustzs’ home. They spotted David and Payton and escorted them to the Boones’ home. The family’s journey was far from over. Matthew and Camden, determined to save two of the Chustzs’ vehicles, worked tirelessly to move them to higher ground several times. Their efforts proved successful. Meanwhile, Joe had become privy to news that many elderly neighbors had not yet left. The side of the street opposite the Chustzs’ home is elevated but remained powerless to the flood’s path. With the aid of his neighbor, Jason, Joe procured a boat and mission began to rescue their neighbors. From there, they continued rescue in the Don Avenue area. At least six elderly were among those rescued and — astonishingly — two women hanging onto a stop sign.
As the Chustzs’ story unfolded Camden became separated from his father as well as his shoes, walked barefoot to McDonald’s on Florida Avenue, and called his mom in the nick of time. By the time Libby arrived, the rushing waters had reached Hatchell Lane near the railroad tracks. A call any later would’ve halted Camden’s recovery. With the exception of Joe, the family returned safely back to the Boones’ home. Joe eventually made it to his parents’ home in Livingston. Crisis halted, tragedy averted, the Chustzs’ found refuge among family. Their journey, though fraught with peril, was one of many collaborative efforts during The Great Flood that attributed to saving lives. Their journey, however, was only just beginning. And though the disaster had not yet gained desperately needed media exposure, news had traveled further; Libby received a call from Ecuador.
Saturday morning, August 12 — Falconcrest Drive, Marla Whittington woke to news reports of flooding in her neighborhood near friends on Woodcrest Drive. She left for help in her SUV. Surrounding streets had flooded, water continued rushing in. On the way, Marla called her sleeping friends who woke to water in their home. Her attempt to rescue them was road blocked. Marla was informed by police that she had approximately twenty minutes to leave her street ahead of the rising waters. Her calm resistance to evacuate, though she presumed she would be flooded in, was met with the officers’ emphatic insistence — her house was going to flood. Marla’s parents had left before daylight.
Marla’s escape plan was swift. She woke her kids with orders to pack bags quickly then retrieved important documents from her safe with little time to place them in her car. The water moved rapidly, covering her street. Change of plan — the kids were told to get dressed and go, there was no time to pack bags. They quickly dressed while Marla loaded medicines, their two dogs, and hedgehog. Lexie left barefoot. Logan set across the street to implore an elderly neighbor to leave with them. She refused. With no time to reason, the Whittingtons left their home. Marla laid on the horn in hopes of waking sleeping neighbors then called those with numbers in her contacts. Distance traveled to the interstate wasn’t far but waters had risen significantly and covered the SUV’s headlights. Although she knew her vehicle would not survive the damage, she didn’t want to leave it. She floored the SUV and prayed, “Lord, it’s in Your hands!”
Ahead of the water Marla drove to Baton Rouge. By the time she’d reached College Drive, she learned, via phone call from her elderly neighbor, that her home was taking on water. Marla maintained contact with the neighbor until assured that the elderly woman was safely boated out. Her last report from neighbors evacuating was 3–4’ of water entering her home and rising. With no clear plan ahead, no belongings, the family set out to buy shoes for Lexie and Marla answered a call from Ecuador.
Saturday Morning, August 12–11:00 am Denham Springs, Cook Road off Pete’s Highway, JD Robinson, 14, received a call from his father, James who had left for work early that morning and was heading back home. JD’s battery was running low but he managed to inform his father that water was soon to enter their mobile home. James instructed him to pack a bag and leave. JD packed clothes and his PlayStation and headed out. Holding his bag over his head, he waded through water up to his chest. His father urged him, “Look for a boat! Find people who are saving people.” And he did. A crew of New Orleans policemen and firefighters were on mission rescuing people by boat. They carried JD to dry ground at the Pete’s Highway overpass where he was left waiting for his father. For nearly five hours, JD awaited rescue, for the most part, alone.
At the corner of Pete’s Highway at Bay Street, just a couple blocks from Florida Ave, James met water and could drive no further. There, he met an old man with a boat. They quickly swapped stories. The man shared how he’d lost everything — his home, new truck, clothing, even his Dr. Pepper. James then shared that his14-year-old son was alone at the overpass awaiting rescue. “You’re telling the truth?” he asked incredulously. “Here, take my boat. I don’t know you but I trust you,” he said, handing James his last possession of value. Along with lock and chain, James also received instructions to chain the boat to the street sign when he returned. Navigating the small boat through the water’s current was challenging. But mission accomplished — JD was rescued. On a quick stop by their home they discovered 6” of water inside and rising. James packed a survival bag. The two quickly stored belongings on counters, though later they’d find their efforts futile. After 4:00 pm Saturday evening James and JD were back on dry ground safely. With just one bag each, they loaded in their SUV and headed for shelter.
In the course of what would come to be known as The Great Flood of 2016, the number of similar stories unfolding would rise exponentially as the unnamed storm dumped 7.1 trillion gallons of water across a twenty parish area. The Great Flood showed no partiality or respect of persons and covered every social and economic class, race, and age. Its indiscriminate wrath, in comparison to the divisive storms of early August, brought forth a unity that far exceeds its destruction. A common thread was woven throughout communities — The Golden Rule proved effective as neighbors helped neighbors. At The Parc at Denham Apartments, Denham Springs (where high waters had forced the roadblock early Friday) Brandon and Courtney Richoux opened their third floor apartment to a couple on the first floor. The young couple (expectant with second child) and their daughter escaped the storm safely, high above the waters, as their residence took on water. The Richouxs’ and their neighbors’ vehicles flooded along with the majority of the complex. In the hours before the families lost communication, word of their safety would reach Ecuador, echoing loudly above the news of Social Media and in the absence of national media. Splendid irony flowed from waters purposed to destroy.
In the widespread area that covered over 146,000 homes, shelters opened and closed as swiftly as the rising flood. Livingston Parish would be among the hardest hit areas with over 75% of homes flooded. At Christ’s Community Church of Denham Springs, Pastors Willis and Shannon Easley opened shelter to some 900 people and countless pets. As the flood’s expanding boundaries forced the closing and moving of shelters and increasing evacuees, CCC — known in the community for its outreach — faced epic challenge. With many of its core family rising to the challenge (including some who flooded), crisis met with unmatched faith. Rescue missions unfolded and miracles of Biblical proportions were witnessed. Need met provision. The elderly, sick, and feeble arrived; a doctor traveling was detoured by flood and found seeking refuge at the shelter. Food on hand paled in comparison to the staggering number of evacuees; Shannon organized a line for breakfast, prayer was offered, all were fed. Similar stories continued to unfold, provision increased exponentially. Shannon testifies of answered prayer by way of unity within the community during and after The Great Flood.
A staggering 30,000 were evacuated by law enforcers, firefighters, Louisiana Army National Guard, and residents. Among the many extending hearts, hands, and help, the group of grassroots citizens known as The Cajun Navy launched efforts to work alongside authorities. The group’s wisdom in researching protocol and contacting law enforcers before releasing their boats in the waters served to form a cohesive unit. With the use of modern technology and social media for the organizing of search and rescue, The Cajun Navy was successful in rescuing thousands of residents as well as animals. In contrast, a few well-meaning citizens in Livingston Parish acted impulsively and commandeered a school bus. After rescuing residents stranded at Walmart in Denham Springs, it was evident that the group operated without a plan. While their efforts may appear noble, their lack of wisdom echoed loudly.
The waters receding revealed the bogged Bayou State’s devastation. At least thirteen people were confirmed dead. Among the vast number of residents with damaged homes, the majority did not have flood insurance. Additionally, six schools in East Baton Rouge Parish and fifteen in Livingston Parish were heavily flooded. Loss of businesses further compounded the economic impact. The flood’s aftermath resembled a war zone, the structures additional casualties. Rescue gave way to clean-up. The light of media flickered; its biggest spotlight aimed at Denham Springs High School showcased the flooded school’s first football game of the season. Honor has its reward. Joe Chustz is a coach at Denham High; his son, Camden, Zach Harris, and Matthew Guzzardo, are football players. ESPN coverage of the game also highlighted the extensive damage to the school. In the wake of catastrophe, this provided an opportunity for a community in one of the hardest hit areas to gather in unity. A new anthem echoed from Jacket Stadium, the sound of hope rising higher than the waters. People of common ground and purpose gathering in harmony became an unstoppable force. For Denham Springs, its high school and community, and the Chustz’ family, the process of restoration began first within its people. It continues slow but steady.
The Whittingtons returned home three days after The Great Flood forced them out. Entry was challenged. Flood current had forced furniture against the door. Five feet of miry flood water left their home, as well as Marla’s parents’ home, completely devastated. Nothing was spared. Marla is certain of one thing — God has given her peace and blessed her through it. If she’s not careful, she knows that she could return to a place she doesn’t want to be. “A place of ‘poor, pitiful, me’ . . . a place of feeling sorry for myself and my children who lost everything they owned. That’s not me,” she says. “I’ve never been that person. This flood changes me for a season. Then my focus shifts back to where it needs to be. My children and I are okay. We are better than okay — we are blessed beyond measure. My God didn’t leave me, didn’t forsake me, He was right there all along.”
James Robinson and his son, JD returned to a home in shambles. Water had risen above the countertops destroying everything in its path. As a home renter, James later received some help from FEMA, though minimal. In the months following, they resided in Prairieville with JD’s mother. From there, challenging trips were made weekly to accommodate JD’s post-flood school schedule. The two are currently living with family in Denham Springs and contemplating their next move. In spite of their loss, father and son are infectiously optimistic and grateful for life.
In the months following the anomaly, threads of unity continued to weave its pattern of hope. Though governmental aid became a means to some in the rebuilding process, it falls short to restore and pales in comparison to the unified efforts of the people, churches, and other bodies. Ripple effects of The Great Flood consistently reveal a recurring theme. Louisiana culture, though undeniably diverse, is prevalently known for its commonalty. Beyond its unique cuisine and Cajun traditions, The Bayou State is a land of unique people, rich in generosity, with expressive hearts for people, and great faith in God — friends of a Friend in highest of places. Hope continues rising over Louisiana, high above the destructive waters of The Great Flood. Restoration is sure, its sign brightly displayed in a bow across the sky.
Resource for statistics: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2016_Louisiana_floods
How you can help: Louisiana restoration efforts continue because of many. In the weeks following The Great Flood, Rob Gaudet streamlined efforts to effectively organize the restoration process via the Cajun Relief Foundation. His experience and wisdom have equipped him for success. Visit http://cajunrelief.org/ and https://www.crowdrelief.net/ to learn more about the vast efforts of the citizen-led group and various ways you can help via options made easy. Arms linked across the miles form a chain of strength and abundant resources.
Together, we will rise.
Written by, Rena Gunther
Denham Springs, LA