More than a year ago, the choir at Living Faith Christian Center belted out “it will get better” as they consoled a mourning Baton Rouge community at the funeral of a Baton Rouge police officer killed in the July 17, 2016, ambush.
On Sunday night, the same choir sang those same words, this time to commemorate the one-year anniversary of the floods that swallowed entire neighborhoods almost a month later in August 2016. Hundreds of those attending East Baton Rouge Parish Mayor-President Sharon Weston Broome’s “A Time of Reflection” on Sunday evening at Living Faith knew that it had, in fact, gotten better from piles of debris, deep water and lost memories that seeped through the Capital City last year.
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They rejoiced as they reflected on the new homes, rebuilt houses of worship and the goodness of God and humanity they said delivered them through it all. But even a year later, the pain of the anniversary was still raw.
First responders choked up remembering water whooshing above their cars, elderly people desperate for help, having to be away from their loved ones. Paramedic Amy Fowler spent more than three days on a boat rescuing people. The last she heard from her husband was that he was stranded in Livingston, and meanwhile, their son was evacuating from their home.
“I’ll never forget the fear, desperation but most of all the compassion I witnessed in those 76 hours,” she said.
Along with the first responders, clergy and political leaders also shared their stories about triumphs and low points over the past year. They laughed together, too, remembering how people thought a certain prayer or several decades of a house never having flooded would prevent it from happening last August, only to be proven wrong.
“The earth opened up and released water,” said the Rev. Kenneth Chandler, of Shady Grove Baptist Church. “The skies opened up and released water. I said to myself, ‘This is the day that the Lord has made. I will rejoice and be glad in it.’ ”
His words and the words of the others who spoke throughout the reflection drew rounds of applause and shouts of “amen!”
The neighbors who opened their doors to strangers, the children who befriended their new classmates, the houses of worship reminding people they could get through the hardship were among those whom Broome and Gov. John Bel Edwards said touched them the most. East Baton Rouge Parish schools Superintendent Warren Drake said donations flowed in from all 50 states and several foreign countries. But the people mucking houses, feeding neighbors and opening their doors were the local ones, and “it was our community that put us back together.”
“Can y’all believe it’s been a year?” Edwards said. “It is a time of reflection, and as the opening song reminds us, it will get better and God is in control.”
For Broome, the ceremony was especially personal. Her Park Forest home flooded, and she has spent most of the past year living with her daughter’s family.
“As we recognize the loss from the flood, we also recognize we are still here,” she said.
The floods came at a particularly difficult time in Baton Rouge. Weeks of unrest had unsettled the city, starting with the protests that emerged in the wake of a white Baton Rouge police officer shooting and killing Alton Sterling, a black man. A gunman then came to Baton Rouge and ambushed and killed Baton Rouge police Officers Montrell Jackson, Matthew Gerald and sheriff’s Deputy Brad Garafola. Three other law enforcement officers were injured in the ambush.
It was Jackson’s funeral that brought law enforcement officers from around the nation to Living Faith just a few weeks before the church flooded. But all of it was connected, said the Rev. Mark Ellis, of United Christian Faith Ministries.
“The enemy attempted to steal the identity of our community,” he said. “But you know what God did: He allowed some water to bring out the best of our community.”
On the other side of the parish, at Greenwell Springs Baptist Church, which was a hub of activity in the immediate aftermath of the flood, more than a dozen political leaders joined the congregation Sunday morning to pray for continued recovery and praise the work of religious groups in offering aid to flood victims.
The crowded church sanctuary in Central, less than a half-mile from the banks of the Amite River, escaped the flooding, though many of the worshippers did not, including pastor Tony Perkins, a former Baton Rouge state representative and head of the Family Research Council.
A string of state leaders spoke, including Edwards, U.S. Sen. John Kennedy, Lt. Gov. Billy Nungesser, Attorney General Jeff Landry and U.S. Rep. Garrett Graves.
“When the flood came, we didn’t have to wait for the government,” said Central Mayor Jr. Shelton. “Our churches were already out there.”
Landry, the attorney general, drew a standing ovation with his declaration that “the United States is a Christian nation” before attacking what he cast as the marginalization of Christianity in society.
“You know that when tragedy strikes, and things don’t go right and your world is turned upside down, there is only one person who is in control,” Landry said. “And we recognize that it’s God and not the government.”
Samaritan’s Purse, an international Christian aid organization, which based its flood relief efforts at the church, was singled out several times for praise. The aid group’s president, Franklin Graham, also delivered a video address from his travels abroad.
“I was so impressed with how you folks took care of the people in your community,” said Graham, the son of evangelist Billy Graham.