Geneva and Donald Elkins
…know about little things that add up to the perfect storm. We go to their house to discuss the flood with Geneva (Donald is working), and she and her friend, Lacey Roy, greet us at the front door. New, un-plastered wallboard covers each wall about 2 feet up.
Geneva moves slowly, recuperating from a thoracic nerve block two days before. Two mattresses lay on the living room floor and a small table stands in what had been the kitchen and dining room. All the furniture and lower cupboards are long gone. Larry brings our two lawn chairs in from the car for us to sit on. They’ve been living with her mother until two days ago when they came home.
A Perfect Storm
One might say the August 13, 2016, flood creates a ‘perfect storm’; a bunch of ‘little’ bad circumstances that add up to a big problem for them.
When the rain starts, Geneva is still recuperating from her July 20, kidney removal surgery. All three children, Orin (8), Lila (5) and Melanie (3) also live with major medical complications; Melanie may soon need a liver transplant because of a genetic liver and lung problem. They fixed her faulty heart valve shortly after birth, but a thyroid issue remains. Lila wears hearing aids and also deals with kidney issues. Orin wears braces to straighten his feet and suffers from a less severe case of the same liver and lung disease as Melanie.
Because of extensive medical bills, earlier last year they switched from only a basic insurance that would not cover certain expensive medications or the eventual transplant, to another policy with more comprehensive coverage. The better policy covers these needs, but at $2,000 a month – plus a $9,000, per person, annual deductible. Last May, to save money, they dropped their flood insurance policy.
“Compared with what others around here have to pay, it was super cheap because we don’t live in a flood plain. But we weren’t worried. This was just one area where we thought we could save, so we dropped it,” Geneva tells me. Donald works 55-60 hours per week as an iron worker, taking all the overtime he can get, just to pay the medical insurance. They’re not eligible for Medicaid assistance because Donald works and makes too much money.
The Amite River overflows
Towns and parishes have a series of pumps and levies designed by the federal government’s Corps of Engineers that usually take care of most flooding. But when the Amite River crests at 46’ above flood stage, these proved almost useless. No previous experience prepares them to manage this much water; an estimated 4 trillion gallons, three times that from Hurricane Katrina. They call it the 1000 year flood. In the end, 20 out of 64 parishes are declared disasters.
The area where the Elkins live has never flooded, so when relatives call to tell them water is coming into their homes, the Elkins grab the children, jump in the truck and go to help. Water covers their yard, but they trust it won’t come in the house. Donald has dug a trench around the outside to funnel water to the back of the property.
By the time they return 4 days later, they find there’s been 3” of water in the house. They also see a high water mark about 20” on the outside. Temperatures spike to around 100 degrees the day after the flood creating a hothouse for mold and mildew to blossom immediately on walls, doors, furniture, and even up under beds. Compared to the feet of water others experience, 3” doesn’t seem like much but still does significant damage. Flood damage. Not covered by their Homeowner’s insurance.
Help comes from regular people, not the government
The twenty-seven men from the Michigan church Pastor Ostten had contacted, come with donated wallboard and replace the bottom 2 feet on walls throughout the house. They tear out all the flooring and kitchen cupboards. “We also got a ton of help from the ‘Cajun Navy,’ Geneva says.
Because of the children’s lung problems, Donald and Geneva throw away any furniture and beds with mold. They salvage the washer and dryer.
“All the communications were out around here…The only place an AT&T cell phone would work was at our neighbor’s, 3 houses down, in their back yard. We had no land line, no cable and no internet,” Geneva says. “At that point, we had no idea how big this was…
Lacey agrees. “We live in Prairieville so we didn’t get quite as much. I’m so thankful I didn’t have any water in my trailer, but others that live on the same property had water in theirs. Nobody in the media really knew how bad it was for a long time. I live here, and I had no idea it was so wide spread.”
“The power went out, and we lost everything in our freezer. About $2,000 worth of food…” Geneva and Lacy tell story after story of their, their relatives and neighbor’s plight. The word ‘devastating’ hardly covers it.
Geneva gives us a tour of the house. We walk on bare concrete. The main bathroom’s end wall is still missing. The water is off for the day because Donald tried hooking up the water in the children’s bathroom last night and accidently crimps the water line too much. He’s an iron worker, not a plumber. But, plumbers cost money. The master bathroom still has bare studs and only a toilet. A new door leans against the wall, waiting for installation. It’s hard to get much accomplished in the evenings when you must work 60 hours a week. Larry makes arrangements to help Donald install the new door in the master bedroom on Saturday. A small piece of the greater picture, to be sure, but needed.
Geneva submits hundreds of documents to FEMA for the seventh time, and they are denied. This time because the two contractor’s estimates aren’t detailed enough. Acceptance or rejection seems to depend on which official looks at them and when. She’s looking for another contractor to create a more detailed appraisal. Given her health issues and Donald working all those hours, it’s a slow process.
We wrap up the interview. “Is there anything else that you want me to know?” I ask.
“FEMA sucks!” Lacey says immediately. Then they both laugh. It’s serious, but “you might as well laugh,” as Geneva says. We hear that a lot among most everyone who’s ever had to deal with the governmental agency. The flood victims feel there’s little understanding, and the wheels of government grind exceedingly slow.
In spite of everything, Geneva is positive. “That which doesn’t kill us, makes us stronger. We’ve been through a lot since we got married…we’ll get through this.”
Little by little, they’ll make it. But it all adds up.