Mary Bradford invited me into her gutted home in Baton Rouge earlier this month after she saw me taking pictures of the pile of her discarded household items. It had been five weeks since the 1,000-year flood hit southern Louisiana.
The flood was caused by a storm that dropped up to 29 inches of rain in some areas in less than 48 hours and caused rivers to crest at record-breaking heights.
Statistically, a flood of these proportions has a .001 chance of happening in any given year, which is why it’s called a 1,000-year flood. The rain, along with questionable water-management decisions, made this flood a disaster that the Red Cross deemed the worst in the United States since Hurricane Sandy struck the East Coast.
Many of the homes that were flooded in the Baton Rouge area still have contents and debris that haven’t been hauled away, according to the Baton Rouge Advocate.
Bradford considers herself luckier than most. She has flood insurance and she was able to get family, friends and volunteers from local churches to gut her house within the first week of the flood.
All the same, “It gets overwhelming because it goes on day after day after day, and there is no relief,” Bradford told me. Her eyes teared up as she explained how difficult it is to look at the “piles of stuff in the front – all of your memories.”
Once search and rescue was over, people started looking for explanations about why many areas that never flooded before did so this time.
In Walker, Louisiana, Mayor Rick Ramsey said he is planning to sue the state and federal government for building a dividing wall on Interstate 12 that he believes acted as a dam for the rainwater during the storm. Video shot during the storm showed water hitting the wall and being pushed into the city instead of flowing across the interstate. Had the divider not been built, he contends, much of the flooding would have been averted.
Bradford, some local officials and residents in the Baton Rouge area question if their homes would have been spared if the state had finished the Comite River diversion canal, a project government officials have talked about for 33 years.
I started photographing the aftermath of the flood on August 14, when the rain began to taper off. It was a month after Baton Rouge’s racial tensions made national news following the police shooting death of Alton Sterling and the killing of three officers by a lone gunman.
Community activist Gary Chambers, publisher of the Rouge Collection, said he is continuing to fight for justice for Alton Sterling and now doing what he can to help the African-American community recover from both hardships.
“We have an abundance of issues to fix,” Chambers said on his Facebook Live feed. Among them is the issue of where potentially toxic storm debris would be dumped. Two of the sites officials picked impact African-American communities: a long-controversial landfill in Alsen, north of Baton Rouge, and a temporary landfill next to Monticello, on the city’s east side.
Despite the pain caused by the flooding, there are signs of humor and faith in the wreckage. A couple of homeowners deemed themselves winners of the “Yard of the Month,” and in Central, in East Baton Rouge Parish, I spotted some spray-painted neon smiley faces.
American flags on porches and the tops of junk piles raise the question: Did those who survived the flood win a battle or live to fight another day?