BATON ROUGE, La. – Five days into this disaster, adrenaline is giving way to exhaustion and – for many of those who left their homes amid rising water – a constant, churning anxiety about the future.
Thousands are still holed up in shelters or at friends’ houses on high ground, relying on Facebook videos and word-of-mouth for an answer to the question on everyone’s tongues: How bad is the damage?
“We still don’t know the state of our house,” said Justin Sylvester, 21, who lives with his girlfriend and their 11-month-old in Denham Springs, a town east of Baton Rouge that was among the hardest hit.
The three of them had been staying since Sunday at an emergency shelter on the vast grounds of the Lamar Dixon Expo Center in Gonzales, southeast of Baton Rouge. Sylvester said the shelter had provided everything his family needed, starting with formula for the baby and clean clothes.
But a shelter’s still a shelter, a gymnasium lined with cots with no personal space or guaranteed quiet – all the more difficult for a young father who isn’t sure whether his family has a place to live or a way to pay the bills. He said he hadn’t slept much.
“I don’t even know when I’ll be able to go to work,” Sylvester said, taking a drag on a cigarette. “It’s going to be a lot getting back to normal.”
After 2 feet of rain began falling Thursday night, water rose quickly in Baton Rouge and then migrated east and south, leaving a vast swath of damage. At least 40,000 homes have been damaged, according to Gov. John Bel Edwards, D. The death toll has risen to 11.
Roads remain flooded and closed, while schools, businesses and government offices have been shut down for days. The American Red Cross has called the storm the country’s worst natural disaster since 2012, when Hurricane Sandy pummeled the East Coast.
“The Red Cross is mounting a massive relief operation, which we anticipate will cost at least $30 million and that number may grow as we learn more about the scope and magnitude of the devastation,” Brad Kieserman, vice president for disaster services operations and logistics for the Red Cross, said in a statement.
Many scrambling to escape the water or witnessing the devastation from afar have wondered why the flooding has not gotten more widespread national attention. William W. Craig Fugate, administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, referred to those concerns at a news briefing Tuesday, but he assured residents that the federal government was deeply aware of the scope of what happened.
“This is a very large disaster impacting tens of thousands of people,” Fugate said. “Irregardless of what it may be getting in the national coverage, we know this has been a significant impact here in Louisiana.”
President Barack Obama declared the flooding a major disaster, and so far, 20 parishes have been added to that declaration, officials say. More than 60,000 people in the state have registered for FEMA assistance.
Authorities are also seeking to keep people off the streets at night, raising the specter of looting in a region where scores of homes have been abandoned.
The East Baton Rouge Sheriff’s Office said in a statement posted on Facebook that between Monday night and Tuesday night, about 10 people had been arrested for looting in that parish. The tally included four men who the sheriff’s office said broke into a Dollar General store and stole $750 worth of supplies. The sheriff’s office announced a curfew between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m.
First responders – many of whom face their own crises at home – have been racing to keep up with calls for help and rescue. Officials said it’s unclear how many people are missing in neighborhoods that are still flooded.
“I don’t know that we have a good handle on the number of people who are missing,” Edwards said at a news briefing Tuesday afternoon. He said it was likely that many who are missing are safe but unable to communicate with their loved ones.
The number of those stranded and still needing rescue “was next to impossible to say,” said Mike Steele, a spokesman for the Governor’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness, “and it’s changing every minute.”
In other neighborhoods, where water has receded, the damage is only now becoming clear as residents return to begin cleaning up. The curbs in the Sherwood Forest Oaks neighborhood of Baton Rouge were lined Tuesday afternoon with the detritus of people’s lives: couches and mattresses, flat-screen televisions and dressers, all waiting for a garbage truck to come.
Inside one home, the air was humid and smelled of rotting food. The floors were covered in a thin layer of mud, and a refrigerator lay on its side, tossed by water that had risen to shoulder height, according to the marks left on the walls.
Josh Raley, 29, an associate pastor at the Community Bible Church in Baton Rouge, was helping a church member haul armful after armful of ruined things outside. “If Hurricane Katrina taught us anything, we’re looking at six to nine months before anything gets back to normal, and probably longer,” he said.
Sandi McGrew spent most of the first few days of the storm trying to keep her animals – including a dozen horses and four dogs – safe. Two of the horses died, so she had to tackle the question of how to dispose of their bodies.
But by Tuesday, she had time to reflect on what had happened. She was living on the second floor of her ranch, which she usually rents out to tenants; her own home, on the first floor, was devastated.
The scene downstairs “reminds me of the Titanic,” she said. “Everything floating. Things that were in one room are now in another. I lost everything.”
“I’ve been so focused since the water started rising on the safety of the horses that I couldn’t think about my things. The horses are all right. Now what do I do? I don’t really know where to go from here.”
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Berman reported from Washington.