Jamie Jenkins Burton, a social worker, was working from home August 12 when her 10-year-old son came into her bedroom. “Momma, you need to look at daddy’s truck,” he said. She quickly threw on flip-flops, walked out the front door and immediately knew her family was in trouble. Though there was only water as high as the truck’s tires, the block was nearly flooded. “You couldn’t see the street from the yard,” Burton says. “There was just a layer of water like a lake.”
Within the next hour, Burton, her husband, their four girls and son had driven to an aunt’s house. They got there only to evacuate the next day, as her relative’s home was also flooding. Next they headed to Burton’s mother’s, but they weren’t safe there either. Floods forced the family into a hotel by Sunday, August 14.
Burton had no idea what would become of her home. No one in Baton Rouge really did.
Authorities were expecting heavy rainfall a week before it hit Louisiana, says Mike Steele at the state’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness, but they could not predict exactly how severe it would be: Within a week, there were at least 13 people dead, more than 100,000 homes damaged and a $30 million bill. The vast destruction speaks to the power of 6.9 trillion gallons of rain.
Mississippi also saw flooding but didn’t experience any serious injuries or deaths. There, approximately 44 people were sheltered with 89 homes damaged.
“[The flooding] is entirely consistent with climate change,” says David Easterling, a director at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. While it cannot be linked directly to climate change until researchers conduct a formal attribution study—which can take upwards of six months—it is expected that storms like this will increase in intensity and frequency. And people of color will continue to suffer disproportionately.
Louisiana’s coastal communities show how climate change has unevenly impacted people of color in the region. The band of the Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw tribes is set to leave the sinking Isle de Jean Charles by 2022, which will make them the country’s first climate refugees. In 2005, Hurricane Katrina left large swaths of the New Orleans population displaced, and a staggering 73 percent of people were Black.
“Let us not forget what happened in response to Katrina, Rita, Gustav, Ike and the response to [the] BP [oil spill],” says Michele Roberts, national co-coordinator of the Environmental Justice and Health Alliance for Chemical Policy Reform (EJHA). “These communities are still suffering and challenged with remediation and redress from all of those other disasters, and now they have this [flooding] in addition to that.”
The recent storm certainly didn’t discriminate—out of the 20 parishes that were hit, only five have a significant Black population. Still, Central Louisiana medical director of public health, David Holcombe, says the majority of people he’s seen at shelters have been Black. More than 1,000 have crowded the Baton Rouge River Center shelter, one of 31 throughout the state. Holcombe expects the number in shelters to decline, yet he adds a third have nowhere to go because their houses are flooded. “It’s a very devastating situation,” he says—and especially for those from Baton Rouge, who had 19 inches of rain.
To make matters worse, the Baton Rouge River Center shelter has a heavy military and police presence, says Crystal Williams, who founded North Baton Rouge Matters. She says police have kicked people out for suspicion of stealing and one woman was threatened with a ticket for spanking her child before authorities ultimately threw her and her four-year-old son out. Williams claims that the only people who have been made to leave are Black, with many of them forced to sleep on the bench outside the shelter because they have nowhere else to go.
The Louisiana Department of Children and Family Services, which was overseeing the shelter until the Red Cross took over August 27, responded that they have not heard of such instances and none have been reported. Catherine Heitman, the department’s spokesperson, said in an email to Colorlines:
“We did not just throw residents out of the shelter. Our practice was to offer assistance, give warnings if necessary, and work with residents to promote behavior that supported the well-being of the shelter community as a whole. However, it’s important to remember, a shelter is a public place, with hundreds of residents, including children. It’s imperative that residents feel their shelter is a safe place, above all else. If residents break the law, there are law enforcement officers onsite to investigate and remove offenders, as warranted.”
This approach provides scant comfort to some in a community that saw two Baton Rouge police officers shoot and kill Alton Sterling on July 5. “A lot of people are traumatized from this experience,” Williams says. “They’re like, ‘Hey, we had the Alton Sterling case last month. Now, we have a flood this month. What is it going to be next month?’”
Burton avoided shelters altogether. She took her five kids to a hotel instead. Though she’s paying $130 a night, she insists it’s worth it. “I couldn’t imagine going to a shelter with all of my children,” she says. Her youngest is eight months old; her oldest is 13. Burton chose comfort and security over affordability—even if that means getting a little behind on mortgage payments for her home, which she bought almost a year ago to the day, on August 31, 2015.
When Burton was able to return home, she found it drenched in eight feet of water. Nearly everything in her three-bedroom house was wet. Irreplaceable photos of her five children, gone. Her wedding dress, ruined. Her furniture was full of mold, but she didn’t care about that, she says. “I can get another couch. That’s nothing.” Her kids’ artwork? She can’t have that back.
Not only did the home smell like human waste, but it was also literally full of it. Sewage came up during the floods—which is an environmental health hazard. “Mold is our biggest concern,” says Robert Johannessen, the communication director for the state department of health. Mold can present nasal and respiratory issues, according to the CDC. Some people may see no symptoms at all, but a 2004 study found that mold could make otherwise healthy people sick.
Burton hasn’t started to think about how much it will cost her to replace and repair everything. Her home had flood insurance, a safety cushion seven out of eight flood victims in East Baton Rouge did not have. She promptly filed a claim with her insurance agency and still has not received a response. “It’s great if they don’t give me a hard time,” she says. “But right now, I’m not feeling too confident.”
There are also mosquitoes outside Burton’s home—and the danger that some may carry Zika. As floodwaters recede, the department of health is expecting the number of insects to rise due to the dormant mosquito eggs that have hatched as a result of the water. The areas most susceptible are those home to the Aedes aegypti mosquito (which carries the virus) and include New Orleans Parish, Jefferson Parish, St. Bernard, Plaquemines Parish and one neighborhood in St. Tammany Parish.
So while some may have seen the flooding’s aftermath as an issue of climate justice, which looks at how low-income and communities of color will be disproportionately affected by climate change, it has evolved into an issue of environmental justice, which focuses on the health impacts of pollution and environmental degradation on low-income and communities of color.
The two are inextricably linked, according to Michele Roberts of EJHA: “You have some of the most egregious activities [i.e., bleach production, wastewater treatment, petroleum refining] happening where some of the most disastrous [climate] impacts are happening.”
A report she co-authored in 2014 emphasizes this. “Residents in chemical facility vulnerability zones are disproportionately Black or Latino,” it notes. As maps throughout the report show, many of these industries are along the coast, putting residents in danger if a storm or natural disaster were to create a leak in the facilities. So far, the EPA has responded to an oil spill of 300 to 600 gallons of motor oil related to the Louisiana floods. The agency’s biggest concern currently is household hazardous waste like cleaning supplies and pesticides, which residents need to dispose of properly, said an EPA spokesperson in an email.
But David Holcombe, the state medical director who spent time helping in shelters, isn’t just worried about the environmental health impacts. He’s also concerned about people’s mental health, which is the most common issue he’s found.
A third of flood victims have either an exacerbation of pre-existing mental health conditions or have developed new ones related to anxiety and depression, according to Holcombe. There is one medical shelter which offers behavioral health aid, but the general population shelters are trickier, he says. There, mental health issues get worse with displacement and sheltering because, he says, “it’s not normal.”
Jamie Jenkins Burton didn’t spend any time in a shelter, but her experience certainly wasn’t “normal” either.
“I had to evacuate three times during this whole situation—three times—within 36 hours with five children,” Burton says. “It’s been very traumatizing, not only to me but to my children.” She knows her family will need some sort of therapy as they process all that has happened.
She remembers when her neighbors who hadn’t evacuated called her begging for help. One is pregnant, and another has a son with special needs. Their 911 calls went unanswered as they waited hours for help. Their homes were flooding, and they couldn’t swim. “I was feeling helpless,” Burton says. So she turned to Facebook.
One post, 500 shares and 30 minutes later, her friends were rescued. “That’s the spirit of the community,” Burton says. “That’s the type of stuff that was going on when all this flooding came. It was everyday citizens just really answering the call.”
These acts won’t fix things overnight, but they can certainly provide a sense of relief to people like Burton. The rainfall has ended, but waters will continue to devour Louisiana as sea levels rise and more storms hit in the future. And when that occurs, its residents will need more saving. Even if it is just with one boat at a time, they know they can count on each other.