When I am old and forgetful, as I will be one day, and someone says, “Didn’t you live in Louisiana for a while? What was it like?” I don’t know what will have stuck in my mind about those three years. But if I had to guess, I’d guess I will say something like, “It was wet.”
Water was a constant presence there. We took the first pictures of the house we were renting in the rain, and we packed our moving truck during a sweaty 90 degree, 99% humidity September.
In southern Louisiana, it is hard to believe that water is a commodity that we should conserve, that there is a shortage somewhere. It feels like water is everywhere. It feels hard to control; it is something that must be worked around and lived with.
Maybe it feels different for those who grow up there and know no other place. But we noticed that our towels never quite dried on the rack between showers. Our dish drainer was always in a shallow pool of water. The condensation on the inside of a summer window was a bit disconcerting. A layer of some kind of mildew coated the inside of our teakettle. When we walked outside and our glasses steamed up like we were leaning over a freshly-opened dishwasher, we wished we lived somewhere else.
Of course, all this water led to some of what I liked best about Baton Rouge. The sprawling, majestic live oaks. Spanish moss.
Tiny frogs and nearly neon lizards right outside my door.
In the late afternoon sometimes, after a rain, steam would rise from the streets. It felt a little like magic.
We went to a barbeque at the tail end of a tropical storm. “If Fay is too wild, we’ll eat indoors,” our host said. A native, she spoke of storms like members of her family. A neighbor brought over a little striped kitten who had arrived, wet and hungry, on her doorstep the night before. We took him home and he changed our lives.
A week later, Hurricane Gustav hit. We were fine, our house was fine, and our yard was fine aside from many downed tree limbs and the neighbor’s roof losing shingles all over our lawn. However, the electricity went out and stayed out for nine days. It quickly became stifling in the house with the windows closed, so after we were sure the storm had passed, we opened them.
I quickly learned that air-conditioning really did more than just cool the air. The humidity came inside immediately and condensation covered everything we owned. The floor had a layer of moisture on it, so when we walked we left reverse footprints. Everything felt wet and gross. It took a long, dank three days before the air indoors and out had equalized somewhat.
We’d moved to south Louisiana two years after Hurricane Katrina, but she was a force everyone was still dealing with. Some of my classmates had just returned to school after taking a couple of years off to pick up the pieces after the storm displaced family or otherwise distracted them. Baton Rouge had gained a huge influx of people who moved up from the New Orleans area, and the infrastructure could barely handle it. Traffic was horrible.
After I graduated, I worked for a program at the school to recruit and train librarians to work in areas affected by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Many of the destroyed libraries and their collections had been rebuilt, but they were understaffed. Our grant paid for the classes of locals who wanted to move into these spots but lacked the education, and we recruited a handful of students from other parts of the country eager to work in the area for two years in exchange for a free degree.
These students were excited and passionate. They loved the state and wanted to help it. They saw the challenge, but it energized them and strengthened their resolve. More than once I sat in a room of two or three dozen people and thought, I’m the only one here who does not want a job being a librarian in Louisiana.
I don’t understand it. And yet I kind of do. My people come from a place of dust storms and depression, but we still say the land we belong to is grand. Of course, I don’t live there any more. So.
It’s been raining here this week. It’s been more rain than we’ve seen in a week the eight months we’ve been here. I heard today that there has been more rain this May than there was in January, February, March, and April combined and doubled. It’s been wet, and I’ve had to shake the water off the plastic-bagged newspaper every morning, take a towel and wipe the drizzle off my leather tote when I get to work, and dig the microfiber cloth out to clean my glasses more than I care to. As I walked to the bus stop this evening, I had to watch my step to avoid the earthworms that had come up on the sidewalks.
However, and I know it sounds contradictory, it’s still arid here. My lips are chapped and my pale skin is actually ashy in spots. As usual, when I walk across the carpet and then put my hand on a cat’s back, we both feel the static. Where I work, everyone carries a water bottle or mug of tea to every meeting and every presentation, no matter how short, because everyone is thirsty all the time.
No matter how wet it is here, in other words, it’s wetter in south Louisiana.
When we went to Baton Rouge to find a house to rent, everyone warned us to find something that wouldn’t flood. The one we picked out was, according to our research, in a 100-300 year flood zone. We decided that those were odds we could live with, as 40% of the city had the same rating. We’re not going to live there that long, we said. We’ll take our chances.
Yeah, it’s a block from the river, we said, but it’s right next to the university, and they won’t let the university go underwater. The levee is high and wide there, at least to my inexperienced eye. It has a paved bicycle trail. Even when the water is very high, it would have a long way to come before it got to us.
This is not a story about me being wrong. I am sure our former house is fine. The river is cresting. The ground must be saturated, and the toads have come up on the concrete under the carport to avoid drowning. The backyard will have standing water for days, and the toilet might not flush because there’s nowhere for that sewage to go. But that’s a minor inconvenience. The house is okay, and the city is okay, for now.