By: Zev Behar  | 

Students Assist in Baton Rouge Flood Cleanup on YU Service Learning Mission

The first thing we noticed stepping out of the car was the smell. It washed over us like a cold shower, causing us to shiver and wretch in the street. Piles of garbage sat in front of every house, a lifetime of possessions, tossed to the wayside like an old piece of furniture you want to get rid of on YU Marketplace. Albums, clothing, furniture; nothing could be saved. One student on the trip said what we were all thinking: “Every time I see walls I think about the 5 feet of water that most houses had in Baton Rouge and it is something you can’t forget when you see that much mold and that much destruction.”

Unfortunately, this was nothing that we hadn’t already been dealing with for the past 5 days. The only difference was the smell. Dorothy, the leader of the Nechama group that was giving us supplies, rushed over to inform us that we would not be allowed in this house without masks and gloves. Of course masks and gloves had always been “required,” but for some of the tamer houses they were not fully necessary. This house, our last of the relief mission, was by far the worst. Walking towards it, it was clear that this was going to be different. There was almost nothing sitting in the front yard which meant that this house had been untouched since the flood three weeks earlier. What that meant was that we would be entering a house made of mold, full of dilapidated furniture, warped floors, and a refrigerator that will haunt our memories for years to come.


The worst item we had to remove from any of the houses we had worked on the entire trip was the refrigerator from this one. Full of food that would have been expired before the flood even happened, this fridge had been sealed shut by the water and left to fester and mold until it became a box of mold, sludge, water, and our own personal hell. The smell that came from this fridge was like nothing I had ever conceived and it permeated throughout the entire house, clogging our nostrils and lingering in the air like a bad dust storm. It took nearly all of us to remove that fridge and it did not help that the floor had been warped completely out of shape, making it that much harder to wheel it out of the house. After nearly ten minutes of struggling to move this fridge about ten feet, we finally managed to throw it to the curb and then take a deep breath of the air we once dreaded breathing, but now seemed like a gift of fresh air.

The second thing that was different about this day was the fact that the owner of the house was there to help us clean it out, which had not been the case for the past four houses we had worked on. Ms. Pat, as we came to know her, was not just standing idly by. She was helping just as much as we were – which is surprising since she is not young and it was quite a bit of work. As gross as it was, we buckled down and went to work by creating a conveyor belt of people passing items from inside the house and out onto the street. It was at this point that things got a bit difficult for Ms. Pat. She began to stop us with every box we brought out, every piece of clothing and furniture. She would spend time inspecting every single thing to find what was salvageable. It was heartbreaking to watch and explain that most of the things she wanted could not be kept due to extensive damage and mold. It was especially difficult since we knew that Ms. Pat didn’t even own the house – she was only renting.

Tzivya Beck, a student at Stern College for Women mentioned that “when we were cleaning Ms. Pat’s house it was so different from all the other houses we worked on, especially since she was renting from the house, so really all that we were taking from her house was all that she had; the house itself didn’t even matter to her.” When cleaning out this house, unlike the others where we tore down the walls and pulled out all the nails, we only took out the furniture because that is really the only thing that Ms. Pat had.

But it wasn’t all sad. As we continued working, the pile of salvageable items began to grow. Albums, letters, books, and many other items were able to be saved. It also helped that Ms. Pat had an absolutely optimistic demeanor. Whether it was because she found something she could save or because she was telling us how proud she was of her kids and what they were up to, or her thirteen cats, the entire time we were there she didn’t stop smiling. As hard as the work was, Ms. Pat’s smile made it easier. As the day came to a close and we finished emptying the house, Ms. Pat began thanking us profusely. She was so grateful, in fact, that she invited us back to Baton Rouge in the spring to join her for her annual crawfish bake and that we would always have a place to stay if we were in the neighborhood, and I think deep down, all of us are considering going back.