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Raising walls and hopes in Louisiana

October 13, 2016

Duson, LA – Charland Jordan will celebrate a different sort of Thanksgiving this year. As she walks through her home in Duson— a town in Louisiana near Lafayette — she offers visitors a grand tour.

“This is the room my grandson will stay in,” she says, pointing to new drywall that has been installed this week, “and this was just entirely full of water,” she adds, gesturing in a wide circle around her.

Jordan, who lives alone, was one of more than a half million people — eleven percent of the population of Louisiana — affected by flooding on August 12 and 13, 2016. She celebrated her 68th birthday in early October, but admits that the process of flood recovery has not always been this full of joy.

While millions in North Carolina await the outcome of historic flooding after Hurricane Matthew in early October, millions more in Louisiana are still recovering from the “thousand year” flood in August, dumped by a “no-name” storm.

“There was this stretch of time, when I realized I’d lost everything, that I was really down. I thought, ‘I’m 67 years old. I’m retired. How can I start over? I don’t want to start over,’ ” Jordan said.

Like so many others, she had no choice. When people knocked at her door and offered to help — including her own family as well as volunteers from Mennonite Disaster Service (MDS) and other groups — they made the difference between hopelessness and recovery.

Her five-year-old grandson offered a special blessing that the house will always have, Jordan says. “After volunteers helped muck out the house, I got rid of the mold, and then volunteers put the studs up. When my grandson walked in and saw the studs, he went around and kissed them all — in every room. I still see that image under the drywall,” she said.

Now living with family members, she will likely be back in her home by Thanksgiving.

A 20-minute drive away, Deborah Bordelon is also walking through her home. She won’t be living there by Thanksgiving, and she’s not sure about Christmas at this point. “I know people say ‘it is just stuff’ ” she says. “But I lost all the Christmas decorations — things my son made when he was a boy.”

As her granddaughters, 8 and 4, play around her, she explains that her husband died when her own children were about the same age as these girls. “It’s just me,” she said. “I’m all alone. And I’m a homebody. I’ve been in this area for years but I still don’t know that many people. I like to work in my garden. And I had so many Christmas decorations. The grandkids loved to come over and see them.”

The granddaughters say they still love coming over — their grandmother has lots of hugs, snacks on the counter, and a yard —but for Bordelon the realization that her home will never be the same is something she is still carrying around, trying to hold: the profound heaviness of starting over.

“I was one of those people who would say, ‘it’s just stuff and thank goodness you’re okay’ ” she said, “and I would see people on TV who had been through a disaster and I’d feel sorry for them.”

But she’s never been one of them, she said. She’s never had to ask for help before. “Now I’m ‘one of those people.’ I tell you, it’s devastating.”

She describes how a pastor came to her door to check on her, then how volunteers arrived over the next several days and weeks. She starts to cry: “They came at just the right time. I don’t know what I would have done.”

For Jordan and Bordelon, volunteer teams have been organized through the nonprofit Love Acadiana, a member of the long-term recovery committee comprised of faith-based and voluntary organizations working together to help people recover from the widespread flood.

Amy Speidel is a case manager for Love Acadiana, and has the difficult job of prioritizing the vast needs and listening to flood survivors as they tell their stories. When MDS teams arrive to work on homes, Speidel helps MDS project managers send teams to people who need them the most.

“They’ve been traumatized,” Speidel says. “It’s never about the ‘things.’ It’s about the memories.”

One homeowner was holding onto a bit of seemingly ruined wood, Speidel recalls. “It turned out to be the moldings that had the markings of the kids’ heights.”

She recalled another home in which she found words written on the studs of the kids’ rooms. Speidel asked about the markings, and the mother filled her in: “She said she was having a tough day and decided to walk through her kids’ rooms and write the promises of God on their studs of their rooms. That was her reaction, that God is a God of renewal.”

MDS will be continuing to organize volunteer teams in Louisiana through the fall. “We are thrilled that MDS is continuing to come in,” said Speidel. “When a family member walks in and sees the walls go up inside the house, the expressions of hope are unbelievable.”

By Susan Kim for MDS

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