On Saturday in Denham Springs, Louisiana, about 15 miles east of Baton Rouge, the parking lot of a Sam’s Club was turned into a one-stop shop for flood victims.
Just days earlier the entire area was under water, but now this is where people can grab a shopping cart, get free cleaning supplies, cases of water, and ice.
They can also talk to FEMA about their claim for government disaster assistance.
And they can get a hot meal from San Antonio’s Chow Train – a nonprofit food truck. Its volunteers traveled to Denham Springs to help with disaster relief.
“I saw the coverage and I knew we had to help,” said Chef Joan Cheever who runs the Chow Train.
This is the ninth disaster that Cheever has run to in the last five years – including the tornadoes of Moore, Okla., the Bastrop fire and the floods in Wimberley and San Marcos.
“What the Chow Train brings is some good food – some hugs – just to listen to some people’s stories and tell them that they aren’t forgotten,” she said.
“It’s horrible – just horrible what these people are going through right now,” said Dennis Quinn, Cheever’s husband. He’s the Chow Train’s “road boss,” running logistics for the operation.
“Driving down some of these side streets you can see the water marks up on the sides of some of these houses - 4- or 5-, 6-feet. They had to rip out 90 percent, 100 percent of the interior of these houses because there is so much water damage,” he said.
The streets of Denham Springs are overflowing with the things that used to be people’s lives.
“You can look down the street and it looks like everybody’s house threw up. Like they all have a virus and everybody’s house threw up. Everybody’s contents are coming out,” said resident Jeremy Timmons.
He’s shirtless and pulling the soggy sheetrock out of his own home. The house is stripped bare down to the wooden structure – like bones. And just like his neighbors, all of his family’s ruined personal belongings are piled up in the front yard. He said that was tough for his children to watch.
“They’re watching us throw everything out and I’m going – you can’t save everything. I’m sorry but you know – the wet photos – the wet baby clothes. That was the hardest part. We’re throwing things out and having them pick through what you threw out. You can’t have it. You have to let it go,” he said.
The folks of Denham Springs are having to let a lot go. More than 3 feet of rain fell over two days. Thirteen people died. According to city officials there were more than 30,000 high water rescues and 40,000 homes are considered a total loss.
“That’s why they call it a tragedy. You lose things. It hurts,” said Timmons.
But the scale of the devastation makes this tragedy difficult for the residents to process.
“I’ve been through tornados and I’ve never seen anything like this,” said Matt Krautsdurfer. He woke up Saturday morning when the toilets in his house started bubbling up storm water. He got his family to higher ground. Then 6 feet of water invaded his home.
“With a tornado there’s just nothing left – there’s debris everywhere. With this you actually got to go in and pull everything out of your home and take all your memories and put them to the curb. It’s really hard to decide what to keep – what not to keep – what to salvage – what not to salvage,” he said.
Annie Avants said she needed to be rescued by boat from the high water at her trailer. Now that she’s back home, she says the place is a mess.
“Flooded – all way through and everything – I lost everything – the ice box – the stove – the washing machine – the drier – everything,” she said.
Avants now joins the tens of thousands of others in Louisiana – trying to put her life and her home back in order.
“I cleaned all the mud out – and everything – and I got more mud in there and I’m still cleaning,” she said.
And she says she’s got a long way to go.
“One day at a time, sweet Jesus, because I ain’t never seen nothing like this.”
Cheever and the Chow Train folks agree. They’ve never seen a disaster like this either – but they expect there will be more – and they’ll be there with a hot meal and hugs.