Baton Rouge’s summer: Shootings, unrest, now floods

Michael Kunzelman
Associated Press

Baton Rouge, La. — Anger. Sorrow. Vengeful glee. Guilt. Terrence Carter has experienced it all during Baton Rouge’s summer of pain. And on Thursday, as he walked through the dirty water on the floor of his home, Carter said he was experiencing, of all things, hope.

“A couple of weeks ago, it seems 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,” Carter said.

Baton Rouge, the unassuming Louisiana capital city that is often overshadowed by jazz-loving, hard-partying New Orleans, has endured a string of tragedies this summer: the July 7 shooting death of a black man at the hands of two white police officers, the July 17 ambush killings of three officers by a black man, and now, the rains that have triggered catastrophic flooding.

And yet, amid this latest crisis, Carter and others have seen people pull together — white and black, officers and civilians — in ways that give them hope.

“We had so much division and hate in this city, but it’s kind of a cleansing and a washing and God letting us know that all the things that we are fighting over and that are dividing us, that he’s in control of everything,” Cleve Dunn Jr., a businessman and leader in the black community.

The waters are largely receding across southern Louisiana. At least 13 people have died, and authorities are going door to door looking for more. Over 85,000 people have registered for federal disaster assistance, more than 30,000 have been rescued, and an estimated 40,000 homes have been damaged.

Carter, who is black, knew Alton Sterling, the black man who was killed outside a Baton Rouge convenience store after a struggle on the pavement. Angered by Sterling’s death, the soft-spoken Carter protested at police headquarters. He confesses he was happy when he heard about the deadly assault on the officers.

Then he felt guilty: “Their families lost them. They had kids who’ll be growing up without a father.”

Then came the flood, which brought 4 feet of water to his home. The stench is overpowering and the task ahead daunting.

One sure sign of how the city has unified has been the “Cajun Navy,” a corps of regular citizens who have gone out on boats to rescue people stranded in their houses. One of those rescuers was Sterling’s aunt, Sandra.

When floodwaters began rising near her Baton Rouge home last Saturday, she stayed to help her neighbors get out, first by school bus, then by boat. Sterling estimates she and others helped more than 200 people reach dry ground over the weekend.

While pushing for justice for the nephew she helped raise, Sterling also has helped lead the calls for peace in the grief-stricken city.

“I couldn’t save his life, but I can probably save a lot more now. That’s what really motivated me to go out,” Sterling said Thursday.

The anti-police rhetoric seems to have quieted somewhat, as officers who were once viewed with suspicion are now often the ones risking their lives to rescue people. They are also struggling with flooding of their own. Roughly 20 percent of East Baton Rouge’s sheriff’s deputies have been driven from their homes.

Capt. Darryl Armentor, whose team of deputies has rescued countless of people in recent days, said he has learned a few things about himself during the crisis, like the fact that he can go three days without sleep before he starts to hallucinate.

For Armentor, the city’s summer of pain has been personal. He knows the parents of one of the officers involved in Sterling’s shooting. He knew the sheriff’s deputy killed in the ambush and the one who was critically wounded. And then the flood left 6 inches of water inside his house.

Armentor said he hasn’t had time to fully process this summer’s events or express the toll they have taken on police and other emergency workers.

“There’s no time for stress now. We just work,” he said. “It hasn’t stopped.”

There is, of course, fear that as the floodwaters recede, so will this sense of unity. That will be the test.

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