In Baton Rouge, hope that disaster can heal

Jerry Bowie takes a break from gutting his house on Thursday. The Baton Rouge resident had back surgery just three weeks before floodwaters inundated the region. credit: Photo by Shawn Fink for The Washington Post

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A summer of tragedy

July 5: Alton Sterling, a 37-year-old black man, is fatally shot by two white police officers while he was held on the ground. The shooting sparks nationwide protests.

July 17: A lone gunman ambushes Baton Rouge police officers, killing three and wounding three. The attack is said to be racially motivated.

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Aug. 10-17: Nearly 30 inches of rainfall inundates southern Louisiana, claiming at least 13 lives and damaging about 40,000 homes.

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BATON ROUGE, La. – James Tullier’s home took on five feet of water in the flood that devastated a wide swath of southern Louisiana last week. He figures it is a total loss.

That should be devastating. But Tullier doesn’t care. He is worried about something far more important: the welfare of his son Nick, who has been fighting for his life since July 17, when he and five other law enforcement officers were ambushed by a racially motivated shooter intent on attacking police. Three of the officers were killed.

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James and his wife, Mary, have hardly left the hospital where Nick is in intensive care, unconscious but able – James is sure – to sense the presence of his family members. They have been by his side 24 hours a day since he was shot just over a month ago.

The house is “just not a priority,” Tullier said. “Nick’s a priority.”

Perhaps no other family so embodies both the wounds and the strength of this Southern capital city, where the summer of 2016 has felt like one long siege.

In fewer than six weeks, this city has faced grievous man-made and natural disasters, from the police killing of Alton Sterling that provoked protests and mass arrests by a heavily militarized police force, to the shooting of Nick Tullier and his fellow law enforcement officers, to the epic flooding that now has left tens of thousands displaced.

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The city and a vast swath of south Louisiana are facing a huge cleanup and a housing crisis. Families are grappling with moldy drywall, the intricacies of applying for federal disaster aid, and the trauma of loss and sudden homelessness.

But alongside the devastation here, there have been astonishing displays of generosity and selflessness, and a swelling pride in the way communities have rallied to take care of each other.

Hundreds and perhaps thousands of volunteers launched boats to rescue those trapped in their homes. First responders who have lost their own homes have continued working long shifts. And in the many subdivisions where people are doing the hard, hot, smelly work of pulling sodden debris out of their homes, strangers have shown up bearing bottles of cold water, snacks and clean T-shirts.

Among many people, there is a hope that when Baton Rouge residents look back at this unnamed storm years from now, they’ll see that it didn’t just upend lives, but also began a much-needed healing.

“I’d like to think there’s almost a silver lining,” said Steven Gremillion, the chief medical officer at Our Lady of the Lake, the Baton Rouge hospital that is caring for Tullier. “That somehow this event, this flood, is what it took for us to come together.”

The hospital, the sole trauma center in the region, has played a central role in responding to this summer’s tragedies. Five of the six officers shot on July 17 were brought here for treatment. Hospital administrators declared a Code Yellow, the term for a mass casualty emergency.

Less than one month later, as floodwaters began to rise, they declared a Code Gray weather emergency. To make sure that patients were cared for, more than 700 employees were asked to stay indefinitely; they ended up staying 96 hours, many of them receiving word during that time that their own homes were going under.

“It’s a privilege and an honor to serve the community in the capacity that we have,” said Scott Wester, the hospital’s chief executive. But doctors and nurses are exhausted. “We’re ready for a normal pace of life.”

Stephen Hosea, a physician, made a harrowing drive on Aug. 13 from his home in the city through rising water to one of the hospital’s outlying branches in Livingston Parish, one of the region’s hardest-hit areas. The clinic sat on a dry island within a sea of muddy floodwater, and Hosea stayed for three days, treating the patients who were being delivered by the National Guard in high-water trucks.

Many were elderly and frail. Two were babies born at home to parents trapped by floodwater; one infant was 18 hours old by the time the family could get to the hospital, its umbilical cord clipped with a potato-chip clip.

“It was a beautiful baby,” Hosea said. He treated those patients even as his own home was drowning under 40 inches of water, and his wife was calling to ask what they were going to do. “I don’t know,” Hosea said. “We’re insured. We are going to be fine. A lot of people in Livingston Parish, it was extremely tragic. They were devastated.”

The water has been an equal-opportunity destroyer, taking the homes of black and white residents, the poor and affluent, police officers and protesters. All kinds of people need help, and all kinds of people are offering it.

Terrie Sterling, a nurse who serves as chief operating officer at Our Lady of the Lake, said she thinks that opens a door for the healing of racial divisions in Baton Rouge.

During the flood, she saw something in the emergency waiting room that gave her hope: a small and diverse group of people who had come for refuge and shelter, trading information and sharing cellphone chargers, and building, in the middle of so much chaos, a little instantaneous community.

“In a very small way, six individuals had come together to help each other because they had nowhere to go,” said Sterling, who is African American. “I know that that can happen in a greater way, we just have to help it happen.”

“Some people say it’s God teaching us a lesson to forgive and forget,” said Jewels Simpson, who is white, and whose home was flooded.

Not everyone thinks that the water is enough to wipe away deep and long-standing racial divisions.

“Everyone’s together because now they have no choice but to be in one place because of the devastation,” said Nefertiti Bennett, a community activist who goes by Queen and who took part in the protests after the killing of Alton Sterling, a black man who was selling CDs outside a convenience store before he was fatally shot by police. The Justice Department has opened a civil rights investigation into Sterling’s shooting.

Bennett was standing outside the convenience store on Thursday, beside bags of clothes she had brought to donate to those affected by the flood.

“The event will die down. Once everything gets settled down, it’ll be the same,” she said.

Even amid this shared devastation, there are signs of old fractures. Those with enough money took refuge in hotels and those with a network of support stayed with family or friends, while others still have no other place to sleep except on cots in temporary shelters. Some families have large crews of volunteers helping clear out their homes; others have nobody. And amid reports of looting, many people said they were worried about belongings being stolen from their flooded homes, a sign of how rumors grow along lines that reveal existing fears.

But the hope that the flood will spur healing is widespread, shared by the mother of Alton Sterling’s son and the chief of police.

“We have to come together,” said Quinyetta McMillon, the mother of Sterling’s teenage son, Cameron.

McMillon said her house stayed dry, but her brother and his two young children were rescued from their home by boat. Her mother lost her home to chest-deep water; Cameron, who was staying with his grandmother for the summer, lost nearly all his belongings. “Right now, it’s time everyone needs to pray,” McMillon said.

Carl Dabadie Jr., chief of the Baton Rouge Police Department, said that his officers were already struggling with the effects of this long summer – and then more than 100 of them, out of 650 total, lost their homes in the flood.

“Emotionally it’s been devastating, physically it’s exhausting, and I just don’t know how much more we can take,” he said.

But he said that he has seen hope in the ruined neighborhoods, where curbs are lined with mountains of water-damaged refrigerators, mattresses, televisions and children’s toys. “You see white people helping black people and black people helping white people, and it’s amazing,” he said.

Even out in the subdivisions ravaged by water, people grappling with unfathomable loss are hoping that the flood does some good. “The city needs to heal up,” said Inez Bowie, taking tearful stock of her home, where mold was already beginning to grow on the jackets hanging in a closet. “I hope that this is an eye-opener for everyone,” said Bowie, who used to buy DVDs from Sterling. “It’s not just black people, it’s not just white people. Everyone has lost.”

Back at Our Lady of the Lake, it’s hard for James Tullier to comment on whether the flood will heal Baton Rouge. He is not thinking about that. He’s thinking about what it is going to take to heal his son.

Nick Tullier, 41, has served as a deputy with the East Baton Rouge Sheriff’s Office for 18 years, his father said. He worked in law enforcement because he wanted to serve others.

The night before he was shot, he was driving to his home in the suburbs when he saw a woman by the side of the road. He stopped to help: She had a flat tire but no spare, and so he put his own spare on her car and then escorted her home.

James Tullier said after his son was shot, he was desperate to find the woman his son had helped. He met her at a funeral for Montrell Jackson, one of the officers who was killed in the same attack that injured Nick Tullier: She was the aunt of Jackson’s wife.

Tullier was shot in the head and in the stomach. When he arrived at the hospital, doctors told his family that he probably wouldn’t make it 24 hours. Then they said he wouldn’t make it 48 hours. Then they said at five days, he would start to deteriorate. Then he came off the breathing machine.

Now it has been 34 days, as of Saturday, and he is still alive, still fighting.

Inside Nick’s room, his mother and fiancee stood on either side of his bed, holding his hands. Under a sheet was tucked a bag of dozens of medallions, sent by police departments from across the country.

“We’re convinced he’s here for a reason,” said James Tullier, who posts daily updates about his son’s condition on Facebook. He doesn’t want people to forget about Nick. He doesn’t want them to stop praying.

He said that he has been working on a plan for Nick’s rehabilitation and recovery once he’s well enough to leave Our Lady of the Lake. Though the Tulliers’ home was ruined in the flood, they had moved their motor home to higher ground, and so they will be ready to go wherever Nick goes, wherever the best care is.

“When you think you’ve got it bad, somebody’s always got it worse,” James Tullier said. “Look how bad we got it. But Nick’s alive.”

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Sarah Netter in Slidell, Louisiana, contributed to this report.

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Video: This Baton Rouge family tries to salvage what they can after the floods

The Ash family has been through hurricanes Katrina and Isaac. They are once again trying to rebuild their lives after another natural disaster destroyed their home. (Paavo Hanninen, Zac Manuel / The Washington Post)

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