What’s with the tents? Amid housing shortage, Baton Rouge flood victims struggling through

When long-haul trucker Barry Moulder gave the FEMA inspector directions to his flooded home, they were pretty straightforward: Head down Tiger Bend Road and look for the tents. As soon as the waters dropped, Moulder’s family — who rode out the storm by sleeping in their cars in a dry subdivision — pitched tents on the lawn.

“We rode it out in cars because there weren’t any hotels to be had and we didn’t have the financial liberty to get hotels,” said Moulder, 56. “And, anyway, my wife is hard-headed and wasn’t about to leave her house.”

The Moulders’ story is not unique. In pitched tents, borrowed RVs, relatives’ homes or in cars, plenty around Baton Rouge are making do with all sorts of tough living arrangements. Some people are also carrying on in soggy homes, spraying bleach and mopping to ward off the mold. An empty hotel room is impossible to find and vacant rentals nonexistent, they say. Even if one could be found, many simply don’t have the scratch to pay — not with looming repair bills, no flood insurance and no word yet on a FEMA check.

Eddie Smith spent the first couple nights with his in-laws after the floods claimed his home on Tiger Bend. But no rooms for rent and an anxious German shepherd named Dexter led Smith to move right back in after the water left, although his wife and a son are staying with relatives.

“That’s where I’m sleeping,” Smith said, gesturing to an armchair in his home, now gutted down to the studs. Dexter barked from the backyard while two smaller dogs scurried around the house. His 24-year-old son Alex has been staying with Smith on a mattress set up in the corner. Pat White, an 82-year-old retired carpenter, and his 81-year-old wife, Sally, were driven from their home of 45 years on Sunset Drive in Denham Springs. Now they’re living in a travel trailer loaned by a friend of their granddaughter.

“You know what? I’ve never met them, I’ve never even met this couple,” said Sally White of the owners of her new home parked in the driveway of her old one. “I’m just so thankful. God’s kept his hands on us.”

Amid buckled floorboards and the dank smell of mold, 76-year-old Randel Abshire Jr. hung in through the flood — which rose the four feet up to his doorstep and then poured six inches into his house — and through the miserable three weeks since. The doors and windows of his home on Fairwoods Drive in north Baton Rouge were thrown open. Box fans kept a breeze moving, and a pile of putrid carpet sat on the curb. Abshire parked his car at a local church before the flood came in hopes of saving it — “You know how they say the church is built on high ground?” — but the engine is seized up and ruined.

“I don’t have nowhere to go, that’s the problem,” said Abshire, a retired chemist for the highway department who bought the house in 1976. But things aren’t all bad, he added, noting that Red Cross volunteers and the church across the street bring by meals every day. Living with Abshire these days is a family of five from Denham Springs whose trailers were washed off their foundations.

“At least it ain’t no shelter,” said Brenda Glynn, who lived with Abshire before and moved back in after the flood. “We do what we gotta do.”

Amber Ballard, who has dated Glynn’s son for seven years and brought along her 9- and 10-year-old children, pointed out the salvaged mattresses they’ve arranged through the house, each coated with bleach and dried. Ballard said her family bounced between five different shelters after losing everything in the flood. Since sleeping on cots next to strangers, they were grateful for Abshire’s hospitality.

“The worst part is being hot all the time,” said Ballard, lighting a cigarette on the stoop. “You take a shower to cool off, then you’re right back sweating again.”

Ballard said she lived rent-free in a trailer back in Denham Springs but, because the place was owned by an aunt, they qualify only for rental assistance from FEMA. The government offered to pay two months rent, but she hasn’t been able to find something. Just down the street, 61-year-old Hazel Knighten rattled off the names of neighbors along Fairwoods Drive and notes where each is staying now: Two families in hotels, another with relatives across the river, another with cousins somewhere. When Knighten and her husband, Melvin, waded out of the neighborhood during the flood, they landed first at a hotel room for three nights, along with six others and four dogs. But they’ve more recently been sleeping in their grandchildren’s bunkbeds at their son’s house.

“All my husband’s cousins, all of our relatives, everybody else lost their house, so we had nowhere to go,” Knighten said as a crew of Southern Baptist volunteers from Florida helped tear out her walls.

Living with her 31-year-old son again, Knighten said she’s rearranging his house and fussing at him, mothering instincts she realizes annoy.

“We know, that’s why we’re trying to hurry up and find someplace else,” Knighten said. Standing amid a swarm of flies by the five-foot debris pile in front of her home, Knighten listed the volunteer groups who’d come by to help: College students from LSU and Alcorn State in Mississippi, church groups from across the country. But she also noted that her husband — along with many of those in the neighborhood — had cancelled their flood insurance in recent years, confident that they’d never flood and the money could be better saved for retirement. Now, they’re hoping for a FEMA trailer in the driveway while trying to repair a home that took in five feet of water and now features holes in the floor.

“My husband is retiring in a couple of years,” Knighten said. “Or, at least, that was the plan.”

Moulder, who calls his family’s Tiger Bend encampment the “Walking Dead” Compound after the hit television show about people carrying on after a zombie apocalypse, said his family will be sleeping in tents for at least another two weeks.

“And that’s a conservative estimate,” said Moulder, who’s living with his wife, Marta Beth, two sons and a daughter. But things could always be worse, Moulder quickly added. The volunteers and community spirit he’s seen since the food have really touched him, especially after a brutal July filled with news of shootings and protests. Each night, his family builds a campfire in their new home, tucked on the lawn between their gutted house and the tall pile of debris.

“We’ll roast weenies and sit around the fire, the neighbors will come over and visit,” Moulder said. “It hasn’t been bad at all.”

You may also like...

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *