Flooded Louisiana neighborhood to 'come back stronger, better'

Story highlights

  • Neighborhood east of Baton Rouge provides window into residents' watery hell
  • Denham Springs man: "The people pulling together is amazing, 100% amazing"

Denham Springs, Louisiana (CNN)Austin Schexnayder had been scrambling to salvage what he could of his home after Louisiana's historic floods. He hadn't seen his kids in six days.

When he first laid eyes on Olivia, 6, and Parker, 4, on Thursday, he donned sunglasses to hide his tears and put on a brave face. Parker asked to see his room and had one request as his daddy undertook the epic rebuilding project.
    "Leave Pider Man to keep us safe," Schexnayder told CNN, relaying young Parker's words.
    Pider Man, as it were, is the comic book hero Spider-Man, an applique of which sits on Parker's bedroom wall, watching over a pile of busted, soggy sheet rock and an empty closet that used to hold the boy's clothes and toy tractors.
    Pider Man will have to come down as Parker's father replaces the home's walls and repaints.
    "Hopefully, I can find another one on the Internet," he said.
    Long and lanky, Schexnayder celebrated his 33rd birthday Friday. He's a tough guy, a homebuilder who, neighbors say, has been quaffing energy drinks and working tirelessly for days.
    He doesn't seem like the type to cry, but he has every day since the rain came, he said.
    "This is everything we worked for, everything gone right in front of your eyes," he said, nodding to a yard filled with debris. "I would do anything for my kids, and I'll be damned if I'm not going to put a roof over their heads."

    Total loss

    For a window into the watery hell flooding has wrought on southeast Louisiana, look no farther than Schexnayder's South Point subdivision, about 13 miles east of Baton Rouge.
    America's worst natural disaster since Superstorm Sandy, Louisiana's flood rushed into South Point like a river. Laytrom Rheams, 38, was with his mother at a cousin's funeral in Chicago when the rainfall began.
    His wife, Carmelle Brumfield, called him at 4:30 a.m. on August 13 to tell him water had breached the garage. Two hours later, she called to report a foot of water inside their home of eight years.
    By the time the flooding receded, 4 feet of water had washed through parts of South Point.
    When Rheams returned home Wednesday, the living room furniture was on the wrong side of the room. A bed was sitting on the dresser. Televisions and the kitchen refrigerator were knocked over. A gray, foul-smelling sludge on the floor could be mushy sheet rock, he said, or it might be feces.
    "We had a fridge out back. It's in the woods. Our fence is knocked down," he said. "The baby's toys are gone, her TV, her clothes, furniture, appliances -- ain't nothing around here to keep."
    His daughter, Katelyn, 7, is staying with family. Rheams doesn't want her at the house. He doesn't even want her to see photos.
    Asked if there is one material loss that stings most, he shook his head.
    "My peace of mind is gone," he said.

    Sleeping on the highway

    Take a stroll through the South Point neighborhood and you'll see residents, drenched in sweat, hauling their belongings out to debris piles in their front yards, many of them 6 feet high or taller.
    Among them are National Guard Sgt. 1st Class Tommy Owens, 41, and Staff Sgt. Pamela Vance, 32. They were working in St. Helena and Tangipahoa parishes, helping save others, as water flowed into their home, normally about an hour's drive away.
    Vance's superiors cut her loose early August 13 to check on their home, but she got stuck on Interstate 12. Flooding had shut it down. She slept in the truck.
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    "All the police could tell you was, 'Looks like we're going to be buddies,'" she said.
    Vance contacted her best friend on the back side of the South Point neighborhood. Many homes there sit a couple of feet higher than hers and were spared. Vance asked her friend to retrieve Gizmo, her Maltese-Yorkie mix, from the house.
    Once traffic cleared, Vance met Owens in Independence to try again, this time towing a boat. They made it only as far as a gym about 3 miles from their home.
    Around 2 a.m. Sunday, they launched the boat and used Google maps and a flashlight to follow a stream -- which, by now, had swollen into a river -- navigating rooftops protruding from the water.

    'It was Katrina'

    Once inside South Point, the water rushed with such force between the homes, Owens had to turn the boat's nose into the current to prevent being slammed into houses across the street.
    They finally made it home and were dumbstruck by the destruction. It was a while before they garnered the wherewithal to tie their boat to the front doorknob and slosh inside.
    "We sat there for about an hour, sat there on the street corner, trying to figure out where we were at," Owens said, pointing to the intersection a few doors down. "It was Katrina. ... Where you had land, it was water."
    Owens experienced Katrina firsthand. He recalled being deployed to let residents back into their homes in Chalmette after the 2005 hurricane. A woman -- in her late 70s or early 80s, he estimates -- approached him and said, "I want you to shoot me."
    "Are you OK?" he asked.
    "What am I to do?" she asked back. "We don't have nothing. We lost it."
    Owens sighed as he surveyed his own home.
    "I can feel that woman's pain to a certain extent, not to the same severity, but I understand where she was coming from now," he said.

    Insurance? Yeah, right

    One of the first things Owens checked before he and Vance bought the home in January and began renovations was whether his home was in a flood plain. Negative, he was told.
    Schexnayder, the lanky homebuilder, was told the same, so he never sought the coverage. He got a call from his insurance company Thursday. A rep told him his $1,800-a-year policy didn't cover the damage.
    Noureddine Azmi, 55, is one of the few South Point residents who has flood insurance. He arrived home Thursday after a soul-sapping week in which he lost phone service and didn't know for two days whether his wife and two kids were alive. (They were; they joined him in his Baton Rouge hotel Wednesday.)
    "Oh, God," he muttered as he discovered new destruction, including the shredded liner of his above-ground pool. "I was in heaven, man. I'm not anymore."
    Azmi likes nice things, including ornate furniture from his native Morocco and a 1929 Mercedes Gazelle with a rebuilt Volkswagen engine. He frowned as he surveyed the car in his malodorous garage, its contents tossed askew.
    He doesn't know if flood insurance will fairly compensate him for his valuables. As a delivery driver, he worked hard for each item, so it's not like he can just buy everything anew.
    And one of his children, daughter Maram, 18, is headed to George Washington University at the end of the month. Azmi has a lot on his plate.

    Scam alert

    When Schexnayder is done gutting and rebuilding his home's interior, he says he's going next door to Azmi's house, then to another neighbor's, to help them rebuild.
    Schexnayder has lost almost everything. He was wearing a neighbor's shoes during an interview with CNN. He and his wife, Katie, just bought appliances that they're still paying for.
    But he has know-how, and he's not content to watch his neighbors' homes decay while they sit on a contractor's lengthy waiting list, he said.
    A disaster like this brings out the best in people, but it also brings out the slimeballs.
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    Around the corner from Schexnayder, a woman absorbed in salvaging her home said she was approached by a man claiming to be from a popular Baton Rouge church. He had his young daughter with him and said he was helping organize federal assistance.
    She asked that CNN not embarrass her, so we'll just use her first name, Chasin. She's a fraud investigator so she should have known better when he asked for her FEMA identification number, she said.
    She wasn't in the best state of mind. Her home had just been destroyed by flooding, and the guy had a little girl with him. A kid! She didn't realize until later it was a scam.
    "You've got to be a real piece of s***," Chasin's husband said.
    That's just one of the labels South Point residents apply to grifters who want to take advantage of people at their lowest points. Other popular monikers: Lowlife. A**hole. Mother (ahem).

    Good deeds big and small

    If you're looking to loot South Point, fair warning: Everyone is strapped. If you don't see a gun on someone's hip, it's probably in their car or home.
    Schexnayder and neighbor Derek Percle, 33, who lent Schexnayder the shoes, have been running looter patrols and watching the residences of neighbors who haven't made it home yet. They helped the police catch one looter earlier this week.
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    "The people pulling together is amazing, 100% amazing," Schexnayder said.
    It's not just protection, either. They're thinking of the little things.
    Deah Romero, 33, drove through the neighborhood Thursday, passing out toiletries. Her home is on the far side of South Point. She still has water and electricity, so she also offered to take neighbors' clothes and wash them.
    "We just saw some people hurting, and we don't have a lot of money..." she said, choking up before she could finish her thought.
    As she spoke, a woman in a full-size pickup truck with Mississippi tags pulled up and offered her water.

    Neighborliness will prevail

    When CNN first encountered Percle, whose home also skirted the floodwater, he was passing out shrimp po' boys that volunteers from West Monroe, 200 miles north, had cooked in a mobile kitchen they brought to South Point.
    Later that day, another neighbor, Anthony Williams, and his wife, Janet, hosted a barbecue, grilling up a pile of hamburgers and hot dogs for their neighbors.
    Some dropped in for a quick bite and got back to work gutting their homes, while others lingered and drank Michelobs into the night.
    "It's terrible that this is what it takes to bring neighbors together, but it's a good thing," Percle said.
    These types of neighborly acts are now the norm in South Point.
    "Neighbors you used to wave at or toot your horn at, they're sharing tools and making sure everyone's got water," said Rheams, the homeowner who lost his cousin in Chicago.
    As misplaced as it may seem to talk about silver linings while the funk of old water is still in the air, last weekend's storm came with one, to hear South Point residents tell it.
    "All that other s***, you can replace it," said Staff Sgt. Vance, pointing to her deluged belongings. "We can come back stronger and better because this does -- it brings everybody together."