I was born and raised in southern Louisiana, and flooding was a fact of life in our low-slung neighborhood. A summer cloudburst could put us on the five o’clock news in New Orleans, and we’d see our neighbors swimming in the drainage ditches and floating in pirogues down the street. Because I was a kid, this was more exciting than dangerous. School would be cancelled, and my parents would make daiquiris. I used to dream of waking up underwater, the house rocking gently, the window covered in fishing net. Those dreams were never unpleasant.
Now I’m grown with my own kids, and I live 1,000 miles away in Northern Michigan. I watched this summer’s historic flood unfold on my laptop screen. But this wasn’t just a routine summer storm in a neighborhood prone to filling up like a bowl. This was a freak weather event called a monsoon depression, and it dumped unprecedented amounts of precipitation across the south of my home state, killing at least 13 and displacing tens of thousands. I watched in horror as one of my closest friends posted video updates to Facebook. Mild concerns about whether the canal behind her house would hold quickly became frantic expressions of disbelief as the water filled her house and she boarded a truck driven by the National Guard.
“Just pray, y’all,” she signed off, her voice shaking. So I, dry and safe in my living room up north, lit my candles and prayed.
I didn’t leave Louisiana for any significant amount of time until I was well into adulthood. Where I come from, you grow up to live around the corner from your momma, but my momma died when I was 14. At 26, I moved to Pittsburgh for graduate school. I might as well have moved to the moon.
Those first few months, I was sure I’d made a terrible mistake. I didn’t know a soul, and even my language seemed wrong. There were a thousand expressions that suddenly lost all their meaning. I remember asking a deli server for a sandwich “dressed”—Louisiana shorthand for lettuce, tomato, and mayo. “Dressed?” she asked. “Dressed,” I repeated. And then we just stood there in silence across the counter from each other, staring uncomprehendingly.