*(top photo) Kevin, Crystal, and their 15-year-old son Micheal stand in front of their newly-repaired home with IRT volunteers.
“After looking at our repaired house last night, we went back to our trailer and cried together,” said 33-year-old Crystal Boatenreiter. “We cried because we can see the light at the end of the tunnel. This nightmare is over. Finally!”
Crystal’s real-life nightmare began two years ago in August 2016 when it started to rain. Crystal lived with her partner Kevin and 15-year-old son, Micheal, outside Baton Rouge in Springfield, Louisiana. When Kevin and Crystal bought their home six years ago, they did not know it was in a 1-in-1,000 year flood zone and that 2016 was the year the river would flood for the first time in human memory. “I have lived in Louisiana my whole life and have lived through many tornado and hurricane warnings when nothing ever happened. After a while, you stop listening. I thought this flood was just another warning,” said Crystal.
Crystal’s friend called to say she was coming to rescue her in a boat after watching the water level rise throughout their neighborhood on the day of the flooding. Crystal had five minutes to get her family out of the house and only had time to grab her favorite stuffed animal, a few books, and a swimsuit, thinking she might have to swim at some point. She now laughs when recalling this last detail.
In fact, she laughs throughout the retelling of her traumatic story. Despite the obvious pain in her voice, she can find the humor in almost anything. She says their family had been through a lot, even before the flood, “If we can’t laugh at it then what is the point?” she said.
Crystal and her family went to stay with her friends who lived on higher ground. They were trapped by flooded streets for a few days, and friends brought them food and other supplies by boat.
After three days, Crystal, Kevin, and Micheal went back to their house to survey the damage, all the while still hoping that their home had been spared. They were not that lucky. Their home was severely damaged. They lost everything - all of their clothing, furniture, and personal documents.
They stayed with friends for the next three months while they figured out a plan. During that time they experienced so much kindness from friends and neighbors. Kevin’s coworker even bought Crystal new clothes. “This flood was devastating, but it helped me to realize how little I actually needed. I only missed having my own home and a safe place for my family.”
LIFE BEFORE THE FLOOD
Crystal’s partner Kevin, 36, has type 1 diabetes and works in a chemical plant making scaffolding. Crystal is a stay-at-home-mom. Her son, Micheal, has cerebral palsy and she did not feel she could leave him at home on his own until recently. Also, before the flood, she was recovering from a head injury. She had spent a few days in the hospital and suffered from constant headaches for the next two months. She still has some cognitive problems and has become a very forgetful person, but her headaches are no longer debilitating.
“We never earned a lot of money, but we were happy with our “normal, boring lives”, said Crystal. “I can’t wait to go back to boring. To only have to worry about where to put the couch sounds so exciting after having so much to worry about over the past two years.”
“Losing my home and trying to figure out where to go from there has been the hardest experience of my life,” she said. And Crystal and Kevin have been through what most parents would consider to be a nightmare with their son, Micheal. He was born 12 weeks premature and was not expected to live. When he did survive, he was not expected to walk, talk, or have a normal life. But, he has defied all predictions. Now at 15, he is getting good grades in school, he is popular with his classmates, and he plays the drums. He wants to be a famous drummer when he grows up, but if that doesn’t work out he wants to be a physical therapist so he can help other kids like himself.
“Micheal is my miracle,” said Crystal. After her emergency C-section, she was delirious from sedative drugs and the emotional trauma of having a premature baby. She said, “I was on so many drugs that I actually spelled my son’s name wrong on the birth certificate. I wanted to name him after my dad, Michael. Later, I realized that this was no mistake at all because his name has the word ‘heal’ in it, and that is a miracle.”
LIFE IN THE FEMA TRAILER
After a few months and feeling like they were wearing out their welcome with friends, they decided to try and live in one room of their damaged house. But, they couldn’t stay for long because so much mold had grown and was causing health problems for them. After moving around and staying with friends, they moved into a FEMA trailer on their property.
For the next year, Crystal and Kevin tried their best to work on the house themselves on the weekends, an overwhelming endeavor considering they knew little about construction. They did have help from a family member who fixed all the electrical in the house, but they themselves made very little progress otherwise. Day after day, they slept in their trailer only a few feet from the house they loved so much but could not live in. They did not know when life, if ever, would get back to normal.
After living for a year in the trailer, FEMA was going to begin charging Crystal $800 a month in rent. She could not afford to keep paying the mortgage on the home she owned but couldn’t live in, and at the same time pay rent on the trailer. “If we could afford another $800 a month, we would have bought another house after the flood! I knew we had no other option but to leave the trailer.” said Crystal.
“The first day I saw this big group of IRT volunteers come to work on our house, I was in tears. I couldn’t believe they were actually coming to fix our home!” Crystal said. In just one week, the team of 16 IRT construction volunteers were able to repair Crystal’s home so that they could finally move back in. “The team was able to fix so many things in one week that we had been trying to do ourselves for the last two years. I didn’t feel like I deserved this. I felt so grateful. It felt like Christmas.”
IRT volunteers fixed the roof, put up drywall throughout the interior, fixed the floors, the ceilings, and the bathrooms. “They made it livable again,” said Crystal. “It’s completely surreal. It’s a miracle. I called the local news to come out because I wanted other people to see this, they wouldn’t believe me otherwise!”
IRT has been sending volunteer construction teams to Louisiana since 2017 to repair homes after the floods of 2016. The floods damaged more than 140,000 homes, businesses, and schools. Many victims, like Crystal, Kevin, and Micheal, were poor families without flood insurance, who could not recover on their own.
When asked about her future plans now that she has her home back, she said she looks forward to going back to her normal, boring life, “It will be a luxury to no longer worry if my house is safe to live in. Who knew boring could be so nice?” Then she laughs, “Life is kind of hilarious, isn’t it?”
IRT has 30 years of experience in assisting victims of disasters, both nationally and internationally. Disaster recovery is a long-term process, and IRT supports affected communities for years after the initial emergency is over. In the US, IRT worked for four years in some of the hardest hit areas of New Jersey after Superstorm Sandy, rebuilding nearly 50 homes. After Hurricane Katrina (2005), IRT deployed teams every other month to the Mississippi coast through March 2012, rebuilding and repairing 219 homes. IRT is also continuing to respond in Texas, Louisiana, and Puerto Rico (2017) following last year’s devastating hurricane season.