As flood waters recede, will Baton Rouge's 'togetherness' hold?

The Louisiana city has had a tumultuous summer. But, for some, community efforts to exchange division for generosity have sparked a glimmer of hope that things could be different.

Brianna Paciorka/The Advocate/AP
Residents push an inflatable mattress through flood water at Tiger Manor Apartments by the North Gates of LSU in Baton Rouge, La., on Wednesday.

As the floodwaters in Baton Rouge, La. begin to recede, residents find themselves at a crossroads.

It’s been a tough summer for the city: first, the police shooting of unarmed black man Alton Sterling; then, the slaying of three police officers; and now torrential flooding that has killed 13 people and required the rescue of around 30,000 more as it damaged homes and businesses.

Above the deluge of bad news, however, stories of police and citizens – white and black – banding together to help one another have emerged. Strangers have opened their homes to those displaced by the floods, and police officers have started to rebuild trust among a majority black population, many of whom were furious at them.

Even Mr. Sterling’s aunt has been out in a school bus, and then a boat, to help rescue neighbors. In one extraordinary instance, CNN showed rescuers in a boat pulling a woman and her dog from a car already submerged beneath the floodwaters.

The question now is whether these showings of transcendent generosity and unity will hold, or recede over time as things return to normal.

"This is a critical juncture where communities can decide to go one direction or another," Albert Samuels, a professor at the city's predominantly black Southern University, told the Associated Press. "The issues that existed before the storm will exist after the storm. It will be interesting to see how the city handles this."

One black Baton Rouge resident, Terrence Carter, says the floods have changed the black-versus-white mentality that previously dominated. He also described the mixed emotions he has felt during the city’s summer of trials.

"A couple of weeks ago, it seemed like everybody was pulling apart. Now it's no black and white thing. Everybody's just got to help everybody to come out of this," Mr. Carter told the AP.

Carter, who says he feels hopeful now, had also experienced anger and a short-lived sense of vengeful justice following the ambush killing of the three police officers. He later changed his mind when he realized their children would be growing up without fathers.

So far, a community attitude of setting grievances aside for generosity has prevailed.

As many wait for the Federal Emergency Management Agency to come up with a plan to assist, some were overwhelmed with gratitude when members of the international home-sharing site Airbnb opened their doors.

"The generosity, compassion, and caring, to take from their own income and welcome strangers into their property. There are just no words for that. There are no words. I truly believe it's a Southern thing," East Baton Rouge resident Kim Stewart, who is staying for two weeks in an Airbnb host's home in New Orleans, told The Christian Science Monitor earlier this week.

The idea of Airbnb providers opening their homes to those affected by disasters took off after hurricane Sandy, which battered the Northeast coast in 2012. After one member asked the company if she could open up her home for free, the company responded by developing a disaster relief tool, Winston Ross reported for the Monitor.

Airbnb waives its fees and emails hosts in the affected areas when a disaster strikes.

Matt Hahne, who lost his job and house to hurricane Katrina in 2005, was taken in, fed and clothed by strangers in Houston for six months.

Now, he’s ready to return the favor.

A maritime consultant who specializes in emergency response, Mr. Hahne converted part of the downstairs level of his home to a small apartment that he lists on Airbnb. On Tuesday, he got the email asking if he’d like to help Louisiana flood victims by offering that apartment to them, for free.

He didn’t hesitate.

“It was kind of a no-brainer,” he told the Monitor. “It’s very easy to do, and it’s the right thing to do.”

This report contains material from the Associated Press.

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