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Giving Thanks After the Flood

As this holiday season begins, Louisiana waits on federal disaster relief funding; no word yet on the Governor's request to Congress for an additional four billion dollars. While some flood victims spent Thanksgiving in newly fixed houses, thousands more are still not home. Jessica Rosgaard went to a free holiday meal for flood victims in Baton Rouge.

A jazz band welcomed hundreds of flood victims into the Baton Rouge River Center for an evening of holiday celebration, and thanks.

More than 100 days after the floods, many Louisiana flood victims are still displaced.

Tony Washington, a small business owner from Zachary, sits with his son at one of a hundred white-clothed tables, enjoying a traditional turkey dinner and the music.

Their neighborhood flooded not once - but twice.

“My house flooded in March and it also flooded in the last event," Washington said, "so we was just repairing the house, or finishing the repairs, when this flood came.”

Washington’s house took on three feet of water in the spring; August was worse.

“I had to take eight feet of wall out - so it was terrible. Everything in our house was gone.”

He and his family are living on their property in a Manufactured Housing Unit - what we used to call a FEMA trailer. He would be considered one of the lucky ones: only about 1,500 people are in MHUs. There’s not enough inventory for more, and the approval process takes months.

The event, Love on Louisiana, was co-sponsored by Essence Magazine, Tina Knowles-Lawson - AKA, Beyonce’s mom, who has family roots in New Iberia - and Beyonce’s BeyGood Foundation.

In addition to dinner, attendees celebrated ten “Hometown Heroes” - teachers and students who went above and beyond in helping their community during the flood. They received recognition - and hugs - from Solange and Kelly Rowland of Destiny’s Child.

Levi Lewis appreciated the recognition from these famous ladies. He's a senior at Scotlandville Magnet High School in East Baton Rouge and plans to go to Lafayette next year on a football scholarship. His school served as a shelter when floodwaters rose.

“My dad he woke me up first thing that morning, man, we got some work to do. I went to my school to help out at the shelter, dish out food, set up cots. It was so much going on at the time it was kind of hard to keep in, but I had to stay strong and help out," Lewis said.

Many in Louisiana felt overlooked and ignored by the national media when the nameless storm ravaged their homes. Baton Rouge Mayor Kip Holden, whose time in office ends next year, says local government won't forget.

“What this organization and everybody coming together tonight is saying to people in Baton Rouge that you are not in this battle alone, that we’re gonna be here with you, we’re gonna try to raise money to take care of needs that you have.”

Sitting across the convention hall, Lawanda Warr says she had five feet of water in the East Baton Rouge home her family rented. She worked at Park Forest Elementary school where her 10-year old daughter, Leah, was a student - that flooded, too. They lost everything - at the school, and her home. Being at this event seems to help - if just a little.

"It’s very important to know that, you know, I wasn’t the only one. It was many many people.”

She and her four kids are living in an RV on her parents' property. Her landlord sold the house she was renting, so there is no home to go back to. To make matters worse, her recent FEMA claim was denied. Yet despite everything she lost, she’s focusing on what she has: her job, her life, and her family.

And as for Tony Washington… he’s celebrating the holiday in his temporary trailer.

I asked if he planned to cook a while turkey in a FEMA trailer, to which he answered:

“No, I’m gonna do it outside - I’m an outsider! I get the butane pot. I might get the pig and roast it all outside. That’s how I do it!”

After the pumpkin pie was finished, everyone left with a free turkey. One less expense for survivors this holiday season, as Louisiana waits for federal disaster money to help the many people still in need.

This story has been brought to you by the Louisiana Public Radio Partnership, and made possible with support from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

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