For a moment Saturday morning, Lucille Huggins' house was quiet.
Shortly after 8 a.m., a few volunteers began shuffling around the home, surveying the scene to prepare it for a volunteer team coming to revamp its walls. A year ago, the 83-year-old Huggins’ Glennsade Avenue home swallowed nearly three feet of water, and she was forced to escape her submerged Park Forest North neighborhood by boat.
The quiet didn’t last long. Huggins, who has stayed with her sister Mary Hopkins since last August, arrived around 8:30 with a smile on her face and an extended hand to greet the volunteers. Dozens more workers began showing up, followed by a handful of reporters.
Then the governor came.
One year after August's sweeping flood, Gov. John Bel Edwards and a volunteer team from his office stopped by to spruce up Huggins' house as part of the governor's tour across South Louisiana to memorialize the misery, when 23 inches of rain dropped in 48 hours and overwhelmed rivers, neighborhoods and busy corridors. Volunteer workers from state offices also helped clean up houses on Dan Drive and on West Wendover Drive.
Edwards and his crew, made up of his cabinet and executive staff, spent the morning painting walls, scrubbing floors, mowing the lawn and chatting with a homeowner who can now say a sitting governor has painted her house.
“I’m so excited I can hardly talk,” a smiling Huggins told the volunteer crew.
Though the moment was joyous for Huggins, her journey thus far has been anything but.
Huggins, a retired educator who has lived on Glennsade Avenue for 20 years, has been stuck at her sister’s house — which miraculously avoided water in flood-ravaged Glen Oaks — since she fled Park Forest North. A week after the flood, she suffered a slipped disc, which temporarily paralyzed her from her waist down and now forces her to use a cane.
Huggins didn't have flood insurance because she didn't live in a flood zone. She contacted the Federal Emergency Management Agency but only received minimal funds. Realizing she would need more help and money, Huggins held on to the FEMA payment and and reached out to friends, family and local nonprofits for more assistance.
Huggins' church, Grace Episcopal in St. Francisville, pooled together donations to help her buy supplies and gathered a crew to gut her home. Last winter she reached out to SBP, a New Orleans-based nonprofit organization formerly known as the St. Bernard Project that helps homeowners navigate the flood recovery process. SBP has coordinated the renovation work at her home ever since.
“I’m thankful to God. Everybody has been kind,” Huggins said.
Edwards heard of SBP through Pat Forbes, the director of the state Office of Community Development whose daughter has volunteered for the organization. Edwards asked SBP to allow him to work on a home renovation site this weekend. SBP gave him three options, and he chose Huggins’ house.
Plenty of progress had been made on Huggins’ home before Saturday. New ceramic tile floors resembling wood had been laid, walls had long ago been gutted and re-sheetrocked, and paper had been taped down on the floor in anticipation of falling paint.
The den could barely hold the overflowing crowd Saturday as the governor, First Lady Donna Edwards and their company walked in and met Huggins at the door. Gov. Edwards thanked Huggins for her decades of service as a school teacher.
Edwards gave a pep talk that lauded the volunteers and aired his frustration with the bureaucracy of recovery. After some introductions and questions from reporters, the crew got to work.
"I'm ready to paint," Edwards said.
After taping corners and crevices, the crew members grabbed rollers and covered large swaths of walls. The governor and first lady tackled opposite sides of the home’s den, with the first lady joking the wall she painted was now “the first lady’s wall.” The couple eventually made their way into the master bedroom, with Gov. Edwards covering the bathroom.
Huggins couldn't help but watch. A sitting observer at first, she began following Edwards to check on his progress. “How’s it looking?” Edwards asked. “Good,” Huggins replied.
At least 30 volunteers from the Governor’s Office, if not more, piled into Huggins’ house. They weren’t just small level staffers, either. Folks like Chief of Staff Mark Cooper, Revenue Secretary Kimberly Robinson and Louisiana Economic Development Secretary Don Pierson Jr. could be found painting corners and getting on their knees to clean the floor.
Two hours later, the crews began wrapping up. The volunteers couldn’t do much more while waiting for the paint to dry. Besides, Edwards had to depart for a similar tour in Lafayette.
Gov. Edwards and his horde then stood outside for pictures and thanked Huggins for letting them come into her home. Edwards promised he and his wife would return within a few weeks to check on the home’s progress.
“He may have to touch up his little area,” Donna Edwards joked.
“If there’s no painting to be done, I’ll find some work for you,” Huggins told the governor.
The Edwardses left shortly after 11 a.m., and the rest of the crowd gradually dispersed thereafter.
Hours after the whirlwind began, and a year after this entire mess started, Huggins sat in a chair inside the home and took it all in. Though plenty of steps remain — cabinet installation, plumbing work, furniture replacement — her house was nowhere near its flood-ravaged status from last August.
“That was a whirlwind,” said Cli Roberts, SBP’s Baton Rouge operations director.
“Yeah,” Huggins said with a giant grin on her face.