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"Louisiana Flood Recovery" An APR 40th anniversary encore presentation

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Katie Willem
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Alabama Public Radio is turning forty years old. All year long the APR news team is diving into the archive to bring you the best of the best of our coverage. That includes this story from 2016. Baton Rouge, Louisiana was hit hard by flooding which prompted a volunteer relief effort at the University of Alabama. APR student intern Katie Willem went along to cover the story.

The Louisiana floods didn’t completely destroy Katherine’s Ray home. But it came close.  Students from the University of Alabama and Troy University are using hammers to tear down what’s left.

“I would say by the time we arrived on the scene, things had leveled off quite a bit.” 

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Brandon Sinanan is one of them. He says it’s the resilience of the people that he’s encountered here that will stick with him…

“There was still some hidden emotion.  You could see people cracking a little bit as they talked about their houses and about their possessions and all the things that they lost, but I think they were faced with the reality of the situation that they had to keep moving on and they were resolved to do so.”

“You would be talking on the phone and everything would be fine, and like fifteen-twenty minutes later, people are running for their lives.  The water is coming.”

Marlyn Elbert remembers that day.  Her friends tried sending a boat— but it was going to take too long.  Then they tried sending a four wheeler—but the water was too high…so she and her four year old grandson had to walk.…

“I went to go step in the high water and the little four year old, he said ‘I prefer my mommy and Gabby.’  Gabby is his little Yorkie dog.  So he was trying to tell me ‘I’m scared,’ and this is somebody that takes swimming, but we just kind of made it into an adventure for him.”

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Katie Willem
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That’s the kind of story Sinanan heard all weekend. He’s one of eighteen students who packed into cars and travelled the five hours to Louisiana. The group felt prepared, but unprepared for the weekend they were about to face.  Not just the damage—but, the people.

“We have been actively involved in people’s homes.  Thank God you all are out there today.”

That’s Jon Bennett. He’s the Pastor for Belfair Baptist Church.  His church is located near some of the hardest hit areas in Baton Rouge. 

“We have been out in the community, gathering groups and going in and helping people to clean out their houses, to gut their houses.”

Make that four houses for the student group from Alabama. But Bennett says the work includes more than just hammers and crowbars…

“You can do more than pray, after you’ve prayed, but you can’t do more than pray before you’ve prayed.  We’ve prayed for people but in addition to that, we’ve put feet to our faith.  We’ve been active in the effort of helping people to kind of try to sort of get their lives back to a place that’s manageable.”

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It may be no coincidence that today’s prayer was followed by the song Oceans, relating to the story where Jesus walked on water, but Peter fell when he doubted.

“So we helped a few people this weekend who were less connected than I guess your average Louisiana resident who lost a lot.  

Jake Green was also one of the students on the trip. 

These people were primarily African-American, which unfortunately there is a bit of unintentional segregation still of the different parts of the community.  But these people had lost a lot.  They didn’t have a lot of people that could help them, other than their family and their families had also lost a lot.”

The flood didn’t care what race the victims were. Green says the work was the same wherever they went.

“(We) knocked down eight feet of drywall all over the place, take down siding, take down TVs, and take apart beds, walked past photo albums that had been ruined.  Just a lot of damage and a lot of sadness, but they were very positive still.  They were very thankful and they didn’t focus on the bad things.”

We’re at what’s left of the home of Gernarda Bailey. She cleans up during the day. Then, her husband comes home from work, and the two of them clean through the night.

“They wouldn’t allow us to come back until the Tuesday after that Saturday.  The water was gone but it was unbelievable what we found in our homes and what our cars, still with water in them, up to the dashboard, and just looking at the devastation in my home knowing that it was almost like building another house.”

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Many of the walls were only halfway torn down, or were not taken down at all.  Wood paneling covered most of the living room’s walls and most of it was still up.

“I may never remember your names, but you’re printed in my heart.  Without you guys, I wouldn’t have made it, and there’s just been an outpour of volunteers that have been very, very concerned about us, but I will hold you guys in my heart for the rest of my life.  Thank you so very much.”

It doesn’t take long for fans of the Alabama Crimson Tide to be reminded that they’re in LSU country.

Brandon Sinanan says there’s more than college football rivalries going on. When Tuscaloosa was hit by tornadoes in 2011, Louisiana residents came to Alabama to help. Now, it’s Alabama’s turn…

“It was a privilege for us to be able to go there and to help those people.  We weren’t saviors; we weren’t heroes.  We were people uniting to help others.  What we did and what we saw their community doing is what society should operate as.  We were doing what we were supposed to do and it was a great joy to see those things come together.”

Former APR intern Katie Willem covered stories for the newsroom ranging from the sexual assault SANE Nursing program, a voting registration drive by U.S. Senator Doug Jones, and University of Alabama researchers studying a 2017 solar eclipse.
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