BATON ROUGE — It’s been a long, hot summer of pain and grief in Louisiana, its capital city engulfed by a string of tragedies that began with the killing of a black man at the hands of police. Then there followed the retaliatory slayings of three officers and now days of deadly floods.
Baton Rouge, the unassuming neighbor to hard-partying New Orleans of Mardi Gras fame, is enduring its latest turmoil with the catastrophic flooding. But stricken residents of the Baton Rouge area say they’ve seen people pull together — white and black, officers and civilians — in ways that give optimism as the high water begins to recede.
Anger. Sorrow. Vengeful glee. Guilt. Terrence Carter has experienced it all during Baton Rouge’s summer of tribulation. On Thursday, as he walked through the murky water on the floor of his home, Carter said he was experiencing, of all things, hope.
The tragedies began July 7 with the shooting death of a black man at the hands of two white police officers, followed by the July 17 ambush killings of three officers by a black man, and now, the rains that inundated thousands of homes and businesses. There’ve been more than a dozen deaths.
“A couple of weeks ago, it seems like everybody was pulling apart. Now it’s no black and white thing. Everybody’s just got to help everybody to come out of this,” Carter said.
Carter, who is black, knew Alton Sterling, the black man killed outside a Baton Rouge convenience store after a struggle on the pavement. Angered by Sterling’s death, the soft-spoken Carter protested at police headquarters. He confesses he was initially happy when he first heard about the deadly assault on the officers by an attacker who was then fatally shot.
Then he felt guilty about the officer deaths: “Their families lost them. They had kids who’ll be growing up without a father.”
Then came the rains, which sent 4 feet of water into his home. The stench is overpowering and the task ahead daunting.
One sure sign of how the city has unified has been the “Cajun Navy,” a corps of regular citizens who have gone out on boats to rescue people stranded in their houses. One of those rescuers was Sterling’s aunt, Sandra.
When floodwaters began rising near her Baton Rouge home last Saturday, she stayed to help her neighbors get out, first by school bus, then by boat. Sterling estimates she and others helped more than 200 people reach dry ground last weekend.
While pushing for justice for the nephew she helped raise, Sterling also has helped lead the calls for peace in the grief-stricken city. “I couldn’t save his life, but I can probably save a lot more now. That’s what really motivated me to go out,” Sterling said Thursday.
Flood waters are largely receding across southern Louisiana.
But at least 13 people have died, and authorities are going door to door looking for more. Over 85,000 people have registered for federal disaster assistance, more than 30,000 have been rescued, and an estimated 40,000 homes have been damaged.
The anti-police rhetoric seems to have quieted somewhat, as officers once viewed with suspicion are now often the ones risking their lives to rescue people. They are also struggling with flooding of their own. Roughly 20 percent of East Baton Rouge’s sheriff’s deputies have been driven from their homes.
Capt. Darryl Armentor, whose team of deputies has rescued countless people in recent days, said he hasn’t had time to fully process this summer’s events or express the toll they have taken on police and other emergency workers.
“There’s no time for stress now. We just work,” he said. “It hasn’t stopped.”
For Armentor, the pain has been personal. He knows the parents of one of the officers involved in Sterling’s shooting. He knew the sheriff’s deputy killed in the ambush and the one who was critically wounded. And then the flooding left half a foot of water in his house.
There is, of course, fear that as the floodwaters recede, so will this sense of unity. That will be the test.
“This is a critical juncture where communities can decide to go one direction or another,” said Albert Samuels, a professor at the city’s predominantly black Southern University. “The issues that existed before the storm will exist after the storm. It will be interesting to see how the city handles this.”