Truth – a Louisiana August afternoon IS a sauna. As for walking or biking to do errands these days- I don’t even think about it. I now plan extra time to get shopping done so I can enjoy easy chats with cashiers and clerks about gardens and grandchildren and Chubby Carrier. Shock at the difference between the best and worst housing and a sense of the surreal at the lack of shock with our healthcare system jolt and daze me once more. Again, I move among people who take up more space and I wolf plate after plate of rich food that is gloriously spicy and inventive and the best eating anywhere. A mixed homecoming.
After months in my Nordic Neverland, planting my feet back on American soil has been unsteady and tentative. The experience of living with Finns- who hold beliefs quite distant from our own- has challenged the sure-footedness I felt a year ago. Self-reliance, perseverance, equality, balance, integrity and collaboration look disturbingly different in the two countries.
I feared my unsteadiness would increase on returning to school a few weeks ago. I knew that I would return to a system that in application and philosophy is in many ways the opposite of Finnish practices and beliefs. I worried about another year of staying afloat amid competitiveness, assessment, overload, measures, demands, bureaucracy and fear so that I could serve our students. I began the school year hesitantly, knowing I needed inspiration and strength.
Then came the flood.
For sixty nonstop hours, rains of Biblical proportions pounded. Eleven Louisiana river gauges recorded all-time highs. More than four trillion gallons of rain. Homes went under. People were stranded. Caskets surfaced. Twenty of the state’s 64 parishes are now under disaster declaration. Over 40,000 homes have been destroyed. Over 40,000 people evacuated. The sheriff in Livingston Parish, just east of Baton Rouge, estimates that 105,000 people in a parish with a population of about 135,000 have lost everything.
While many of us have lost property, others are untouched. My own river house is safe. However, homes only two streets away took in five feet of water. My sister and niece in Baton Rouge evacuated in boats. I waded through thigh-high water to get to my father’s house. By Sunday or Monday, the rains had relented and most of us were able to assess the damage.
That’s when the real flood started- an amazing outpouring of community love. My 90-something dad and I rolled up our shirtsleeves and prepared to get to work, but not for long. A team of young people from the Baptist church knocked on the door and asked to help removing the soaked flooring. A couple of hours later, three rooms were stripped. Later, a neighbor came by with chips and sandwiches, then another later delivered pizza. A group from another church dropped off a filled cleaning bucket. Neighbors stopped by regularly to check on my dad, share stories of the rains, and offer mold tips.
Since I never lost power, I was able to check on area family and friends. I saw that the same community support that I had enjoyed with my father was washing over everywhere. College and high school athletes gathered at flooded homes to lift, haul and demo. Folks broke out the crawfish cauldrons and threw together great, fragrant pots of jambalaya and bread pudding to feed those unable or too busy to cook. Others had set up laundry stations – running their washers and dryers nonstop. Volunteers met at churches each morning and dove into the dirty work. I learned that one church counted 400 workers on Tuesday. A group of Alleman middle school ELA teachers strapped on goggles and toolbelts, then tore it up. And the Cajun navy- the same folks who evacuated neighbors as the waters rose- continued moving people and pets and chickens. Hundreds and hundreds donated bedding, food, school supplies, clothes, toys, hot meals- and then stayed around the donation centers to sort, assist, and deliver. Someone even shared a photo of a barefoot tequila lady going door to door offering liquid comfort. It seemed like everyone pitched in. Young, old, black, white, men, women, Catholic, Baptist- community.
Most of us were so busy, we didn’t have time to think about the lack of national media attention. I didn’t give it much thought until one of the mildest women I know “ranted” on Facebook. This lack of national coverage prompted me to recall some of my experiences as a Finland Fulbrighter. Not unexpectedly, few people outside of our state know much about Louisiana. A few had seen True Detective and several knew about Mari Gras. But more often, I was asked about racial tensions. I wish they could know more.
I wish they could know about the selfless, big-hearted. vibrant community here – I wish they could have seen it. In this flood I found my inspiration. Every boater in the Cajun Navy, every high school and college athlete, all the Baptist/Catholic/Protestant volunteers, all the kids passing out water, the concerned neighbors, the army of neighborhood cooks and laundry help, the tool-belted ELA teachers, all the eager lifters/movers/haulers and demo help… you inspire me. Your heart and generosity and love of neighbor have sparked my desire to wade into this flooded system and work hard to help our children and young adults. It is a privilege to share this place with you. Living in Finland was amazing- but now, I’m home.
As for the World’s Almost Nearly Perfect People, they’re right here, chere.
Anna Marquardt is a classroom teacher, living and learning with her wonderful Louisiana community in Carencro. This blog represents her personal views and opinions and not those of the Fulbright Commission.