Home is supposed to be a safe place, somewhere to rest, recharge and be free. We select the places where we live according to our means and our preferences. We fill our houses with people and things and memories. Our abodes often hold clues as to who we are and what is most important to us. A home is more than just a structure. It is a backdrop for our experiences, the slate on which we express the inner workings of our very souls. When the places where we live are invaded either by mankind or nature it is grievously wrong. Somehow we all understand the sense of loss when we learn of someone whose home has been destroyed. The feeling is visceral and basic to our natures. When the tragedy is close to our own homes it becomes even more real. “But for the grace of God…” we utter and wonder how we have been so fortunate while others suffer.
Living along or near the Gulf Coast has always been a kind of crap shoot. The land is barely above sea level and storms from the sea are inevitable. Over time the manmade stretches of concrete and buildings make it more and more difficult for the water from the rains that fall to find a way back to the ocean. The land is often swampy, spongy after a deluge. Humans must engineer retention ponds, irrigation systems and levees to overcome nature’s tendencies to flood the land in such areas. As our populations grow we become more daring and build on acreage that has been empty for all time. The developers assure us that we will be fine because there have never been floods in this area. We forget to consider that there have never been people in such places either. We really don’t know for certain what will happen until the rains pound on the land. When we find that we were wrong it is too late to prevent the human misery.
The metropolitan area of Houston is my home. I have lived here for most of my sixty seven years. I know which areas are high enough to withstand heavy rains and which have flooded over the years. I have watched in horror as deluges from the sky have inundated entire neighborhoods. I have been stranded and unable to reach my home when the skies opened up in fury. I both fear and respect the ways of nature because I have witnessed their destructive forces. I have been lucky in that regard but I never feel completely immune from the possibility of one day finding water seeping into the rooms of my house. I have long ago prepared for the worst. I carry insurance for both the winds of hurricanes and floods caused by incessant rain. There is an ax carefully stored inside my attic in case I must create an exit to my roof in order to find refuge from rising water. I have a ladder that will allow me to climb safely from one of my second story windows. I have these things because of images that I have seen again and again. I want to be ready for any eventuality but hope that I never have to use the tools that allow me to sleep more soundly even when the storms are raging over my head.
The state of Louisiana is like a beloved relative to me. The people there are simpatico with those of us from Houston. We share common experiences much like cousins. The same plants that thrive in New Orleans do well in my backyard. The heavy blanket of humidity that marks summers here are found in the cities and towns of our neighboring Gulf Coast state. We are friendly people who embrace life. We face the same dangers from the storms that inevitably come our way.
The recent floods in Baton Rouge have been heartbreaking. This wasn’t supposed to happen there. When Hurricane Katrina threatened New Orleans many of those who fled from its fury sought refuge in the capitol city. It was farther inland and surely a safer way to hunker down until the storm passed. When New Orleans was seemingly destroyed beyond repair eleven years ago there were thousands of people who gave up on the idea of ever living there again. They did not have the emotional strength to risk enduring such an ordeal one more time. They had lost everything and would have to rebuild but they would do so in a more secure place. Some of them chose Baton Rouge or Houston or San Antonio, anyplace that offered shelter from the horror.
I watched the people from New Orleans pour into my town like refugees with barely the clothes on their backs. They were frightened every time lightning lit up the sky, thunder roared and rain pounded on the roof. Their scars slowly healed and they moved on, leaving entire lifetimes behind. It was gut wrenching to witness and I remember feeling grossly inept in helping them. I also realized that none of us are entirely immune from such tragedy. Be it hurricanes, storms, tornadoes, wildfires, earthquakes or tsunamis we are all potentially in harms way. We never quite know when our circumstances will change. Mother Nature surprises us again and again.
This summer has been especially difficult. Fires still rage in both northern and southern California. Windstorms blow in Arizona. Floods have overtaken cities and towns in a swath that stretches across the country. Among those affected is the city of Baton Rouge, a place that has endured unspeakable manmade and natural tragedies in the space of only weeks. Somehow their sorrow seems all too personal and terrifying.
I listened to an interview with a woman whose home was under water following the rains that unrelentingly fell a couple of weeks ago. She had once lived in New Orleans but when the levees broke eleven years ago the waters swept away every possession that she had ever owned. She found a welcoming kindness when she fled to Baton Rouge and decided to stay. She worked hard to create a new life for herself and her family. She only recently purchased a new home. She was happy and proud of herself. She had been strong and resilient. She was careful. She had asked if her new neighborhood had ever flooded. She wondered if she needed to purchase flood insurance. She was told over and over again that she need not worry about such things. She was safe. She was finally home.
She loved everything about her new house. She didn’t have much to put in it but the place was filled with love. The people around her were friendly and helpful. Her terrible journey seemed to be over. She felt that she might finally rest. When the unthinkable happened and she once again watched the water encroach on her world her resolve wavered. She feels broken but determined. She tries to smile but only tears come from her heart. She wants to believe that she will one day feel safe again but somehow that seems to be an impossible task. When I saw this woman trying so desperately to be optimistic and brave my heart literally burst open in a flood of empathy. I felt her pain.
It is fine to wait for our government to come to the aid of those who are in need. We certainly hope that our President will understand their situation. What matters most is that those of us who have the means find ways to help them through their ordeal. They will need much in the coming days and weeks. There are ways to make a difference. We can give of our time, our talents and our treasure. Every tiny effort is multiplied a thousand fold whenever we work together. New Orleans rose from the dead because love poured into that city from all around the world. So too must we do our part to assist the good people of Baton Rouge. We need to loudly send the message that we will not forget them in their hour of need.
“But for the grace of God…”