Newer waters, same river: The Louisiana floods, and a state in turmoil
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The Greek philosopher Heraclitus is believed to have said, “Ever newer waters flow on those who step into the same rivers.” Though cryptic, one of the more popular interpretations is that he viewed the essential nature of the universe as being ever-changing. Another interpretation is that history moves forward (the water flowing), but in ways that don’t always seem to change (just looking at a river, it’d be hard to say whether it matters that new water is flowing through it – it’s still the same river).

Put another way: newer waters, same rivers.

It’s an idea that resonates with me when I think of my home state of Louisiana. It’s a place that’s always changing, but seems more the same no matter what. For a lot of reasons, that’s often been difficult for me to accept.

It has been hard to watch elected officials from my state say and do embarrassing or hateful things, and to see so many of my fellow Louisianans embrace them for it. And it has been hard to watch Louisiana’s coasts literally fall into the Gulf of Mexico with seemingly little to no concern from the state government. And it has been hard to see one of the most religious states in the nation, and also one of the most impoverished states in the nation, choose to support policies and politicians that punish poor people rather than uplift them.

Those things have all changed over time – Louisiana recently elected a governor, John Bel Edwards who issued executive orders adding workplace protections for LGBT Louisianans and finally expanded Medicaid for over 200,000 folks living in or near poverty. I felt a bit more hopeful recently, watching these steps towards progress take place. But then Alton Sterling was brutally killed by arresting police officers for seemingly no good reason and three police officers – Brad Garafola, Matthew Gerald, and Montrell Jackson – were also brutally killed for no good reason. 

For everything that changes, the more things can seem the same.

Newer waters, same rivers.

I was born in New Orleans in October, 1991. About two weeks before I was born, David Duke, former Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, made the gubernatorial runoff election along with Edwin Edwards, an undeniably corrupt (but entertaining) former governor of the Bayou State.

About two weeks later, Duke was defeated, 61 – 38%. The next year, Louisiana helped elect Bill ClintonWilliam (Bill) Jefferson ClintonThe Memo: The center strikes back Monica Lewinsky responds to viral HBO intern's mistake: 'It gets better' 40-year march: Only one state doesn't recognize Juneteenth MORE in a three-way race with then President Bush and Ross Perot.

In 2016, David Duke is back, attempting to ride the coattails of Donald TrumpDonald TrumpMaria Bartiromo defends reporting: 'Keep trashing me, I'll keep telling the truth' The Memo: The center strikes back Republicans eye Nashville crack-up to gain House seat MORE – whose rhetoric isn’t so different from Duke’s, or of other white supremacists – both of whom are making their campaigns into crusades against “crooked” Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonThe Memo: The center strikes back Democratic clamor grows for select committee on Jan. 6 attack White House denies pausing military aid package to Ukraine MORE and the “corrupt” Democratic establishment, as well as the policies of the aforementioned Bill Clinton. This time, it still looks like David Duke will be rejected – it’s harder to say that people will recognize the same sort of hate and divisiveness in Trump. But then again, it’s not so hard to understand that a lot of people aren’t as big of fans of the Clintons this time around.

Newer election, same politics and politicians.

In July of 2005, my family moved back to Louisiana. We moved a lot when I was younger – Georgia and Alabama on two different occasions, Maryland once, and briefly, in Zurich, Switzerland when I was very young. But we’d always come home to New Orleans for holidays and vacations, and then Covington when my grandparents retired to the Northshore.

August of that same year was when Hurricanes Katrina and Rita pummeled the Gulf Coast, and Louisiana in particular. We evacuated from our new home in Mandeville the morning that Katrina made landfall, and we got stuck on the Interstate on our way to Texas. It was miserable, but we made out better than many. The storm landed several trees in our roof, and leaks lasted for years, but most of our possessions and all of our family made it through.

Even as a teenager, upset at having been forced to move again, I can remember the devastation caused by Katrina affected me more profoundly than I had expected. I remember feeling angry when Pat Robertson went on television and said that the flooding and death and destruction in and around New Orleans was “God’s wrath” over abortion. And I remember feeling deeply sad for the people left homeless or killed by the storm and its aftermath.

After high school, I attended Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge – a city that would become my home for the four years I attended, where I would ride out several other hurricanes and tropical storms, and a place I still care for deeply. After graduating with a degree in political science, I moved to Little Rock to work for campaigns in Arkansas, then to Virginia to find new opportunities – only to move back to Louisiana, this time to Lafayette, as a policy analyst for a local economic development organization.

I didn’t stay in Lafayette or with that job terribly long, moving back to Virginia to pursue different opportunities and apply for graduate schools. But for those who have never been, it is a city as definitive of Louisiana as New Orleans or Baton Rouge.

Both Baton Rouge and Lafayette, and the many smaller cities and towns surrounding them have been devastated by a “thousand-year rain” that blanketed South Louisiana for nearly two straight days. I’ve seen the many hundreds of pictures of submerged houses and ruined roads.

It is hauntingly familiar to what I saw in 2005.

Newer storms, same destruction.

Back in 2005, folks in Baton Rouge and Lafayette opened their arms to take in people from the Greater New Orleans area who were scattered across the country in the weeks, months, and years following Hurricane Katrina. My family only had a few trees hit our home, and we were forced to stay away for a full month before power was restored and our home was in livable condition – that’s nothing compared to the families who lost everything in places like Slidell or coastal Mississippi or the Ninth Ward.

I’ve already seen friends and family in New Orleans and the Northshore opening their homes and rushing to the aid of friends and family from Baton Rouge and Lafayette, just as had been done for them.

Newer disasters, same compassion – same resilience.

Like I said before, in many ways, Louisiana exemplifies Heraclitus’ claim: changing, but only in ways that can be hard to see or are fleeting. Sometimes I have a hard time accepting that about Louisiana, becoming frustrated with what I see as intolerance or ignorance overruling people’s better judgment.

There are many areas where Louisiana needs to do better, in my opinion. There is still a lot of discrimination against people of color, women, and LGBT folks. The environment – particularly coastal erosion and pollution of the Gulf – is not treated as a serious issue, despite its importance to people’s livelihoods and the state’s economy. And the state still doesn’t do enough to combat poverty or its effects.

But I think I only see it that way because in weeks like this one, I’ve seen the people of Louisiana be their best for one another when times are at their worst. There are some things, deep down in the people and places here, that don’t need to change. You certainly can’t say Louisianans don’t care.

To paraphrase former President Clinton: there’s a lot wrong with Louisiana. But nothing that can’t be fixed by what’s right with Louisiana. That’s easier to see in weeks like these.

Voss is currently a graduate student at the University of Michigan’s Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy in Ann Arbor. He graduated with a B.A. in Political Science from Louisiana State University in 2014, is a New Orleans native and has called both Baton Rouge and Lafayette home. Follow him on Twitter @JacksonVoss


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