Interview: Joshua Nee of Thou, Bekki Vaden and Brenna Phares on Louisiana Flood Relief

The metal community is often unfairly maligned as a cold and unwelcoming place. The reality is that, like all communities, it’s a diverse grouping of people from all walks of life. In the face of the recent catastrophic and deadly flooding in Louisiana a few members of that community have stepped up to do the right thing. Where the United States media, and to some extent the United States government, have failed to protect the people of Louisiana, these individuals have stepped up to fill the gap.

If you’re not familiar with what’s going on in Louisiana the broad picture is that the area saw 6,900,000,000,000 gallons of rain in one week. That rain displaced thousands of families, caused an estimated $30M in damage and sent the nation spiraling into its greatest natural disaster since Hurricane Sandy. More than 70,000 people have applied for assistance through FEMA and even then, they will never be able to replace what was lost. That’s why the victims need everyone to step up and do whatever they can to help. As Thou says on “By Endurance We Conquer” off their 2010 LP Summit, “We are the stone that starts the avalanche.”

What the area needs most right now is supplies. Sure, there will be a monetary impact, but, with all the flooding, it’s been impossible for people to actually gather the simple daily necessities of human existence. I spoke with Josh Nee of Thou, his cousin’s wife, Bekki and Brenna Phares about their tireless relief efforts.

So, to start off I just want to try and get a handle on this whole thing. Can you talk about the scope of what we’re dealing with?

Josh: Sure, of course. Let’s see, the current talking points are that 4 trillion gallons of water were dumped over about 20 parishes (our version of counties) in a matter of about 36 to 48 hours. Louisiana’s pretty vast river systems began rising (many cresting well past previous record heights) and a week later those 20 parishes have been declared Federal Disaster Areas, 13 people are dead, and 110,000 homes have been damaged or totaled, displacing over 40,000 people. About 92% of those 110,000 homes did not have flood insurance as they were not located in areas with any reasonable flood risk. So the culmination of all of that is just a lot of heartbreak and helplessness and desperation.

 

Katrina. That comes to mind. When I first starting posting about this on Facebook people were asking why I was posting picture of Katrina. Can you talk about what sort of memories that brings up?

Bekki: for me, it brings up feelings of helplessness. I live in Knoxville, Tennessee and I have friends and family down there. I hate being so far away and feeling like there’s nothing I can do. Nothing makes me want to mobilize more than feeling utterly immobilized.

Josh: Yeah, I guess for most of the country, images of flooding and the Gulf Coast are synonymous with Katrina, and not without good reason. There’s a level of surrealism that kicks in during hurricane season here. There’s anticipation (we watch these things come in from the Gulf over the course of about a week, we’re typically able to brace for them), and then the the storm, and then a couple weeks of darkness and heat and this weird wild west existance with no power and everyone wears the bare minimum to keep cool and most everyone drinks to pass the time. At least those were my experiences during Katrina and Gustav. But Katrina still exists as this hazy dream / nightmare thing to me, which probably speaks to the way I process trauma or whatever, but I think a lot of people still feel like they watched Katrina happen in a movie.

Brenna: Honestly this situation was incredibly surreal compared to Katrina. With Katrina we all felt it, we experienced it, but most importantly, we knew it was coming. We had time to prepare. Here, it happened in a matter of hours. Friday I was strolling through my neighborhood in what we thought was typical Louisiana rain, and Saturday morning I was getting a call from my 80-year-old Granny telling me military was coming to rescue her because her house was completely flooded and she was stranded. Our home never even lost power. It was so surreal to be in a neighborhood completely unaffected, drive 5 minutes and have your car halfway under rapidly rising waters.

 

The news coverage has been slight, to say the least. Any reason you can think of for that?

Bekki: I imagine the upcoming presidential election and the media’s take on what sells has a lot to do with it. Although social media helps spread the word, it also allows us to disconnect from our fellow humans. “Likes” and “Favorites” often have us jaded enough to think that means that we’ve done something useful.

Josh: I actually stopped trying to figure that out because it was detracting from doing productive things. Maybe after all the coverage of the Alton Sterling killing and subsequent protests and then the police officers that were murdered, maybe the news crews were just tired of driving down here. I’m sure there’s some explanation but it’s not particularly important to me anymore.

Brenna: Honestly I think it’s a number of things. One, it happened so fast and unexpectedly that no one was on the ground here ready to report what was about to be history. No one realized that it was going to be such a monumental flooding. It rains here incessantly so when the forecast said rain all week, no one even blinked. Two, Louisiana is a poor and sorry state right now riddled with recent tragedies. While our community has been outstanding, our government and law enforcement have often failed us. People are tired of coming down here. It’s synonymous with the boy who cried wolf at this point. And three, don’t even get me started on the shallow media coverage these days. There is so much happening in the world right now, important stories that deserve to be told, and we just blindly absorb the media’s incessant and oversaturated coverage of this fuckfest (feel free to edit) of an election.

 

If you could direct the news what would the headline be right now?

Bekki: Maybe something like, “GET OFF YOUR PATHETIC ASS AND BUY A BOX OF TAMPONS OR DIAPERS YOU MORONS.” But then again, I tend to be more aggressive and direct. Thanks to years of activism and an unhealthy coping mechanism of trying to turn  (almost) everything into something one can laugh about.

Josh: That’s an interesting question. Maybe something along the lines of “Tragedy Strikes Baton Rouge, Again.” 2016 has been rough, y’all. But for real, I don’t think I’ve been able to wrap my brain around the entirety of the situation well enough to boil it down to a headline. It’s still very much a bunch of messy paragraphs and hand-scribbled sidenotes to me.

Brenna: LOUISIANA: A STATE UNDERWATER IN DESPERATE NEED OF HELP AND SUPPLIES, OVERLOOKED BY NATION.  That’s the polite and serious one. At this point I’ve already come up with about 12 morbidly comedic SNL skits about Louisiana trying desperately to get the world’s attention, flailing underwater trying not to drown, and everyone else in America is  just eating popcorn on their couches and waiting to see what Trump will do next. By the time people started caring, the headline should have just been “Gurgle . . . gurgle.” Sad but true.

 

It seems that the American government tends to leave Louisiana hanging out to dry. Over and over again. What’s going on with that?

Josh: While that is undeniably true, I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out that a lot of it is very much self-inflicted. Our former governor Bobby Jindal, looking to impress the kingmakers in the RNC with his “small government” approach for his failed presidential bid, would infamously reject federal aid at any possible turn. Infrastructure money, Medicaid expansion, and a host of other instances. But there’s a strain of political self-reliance that’s been in Louisiana’s DNA for several decades. Our robust oil and gas industry (until recently, anyway) did a pretty solid job of shielding Louisianians from much of the belt-tightening when the economy tanked a few years ago, and it has worked that way for ages. Once the cost of oil dipped before $35 a barrel, unemployment spiked and well, it’s been a mess this year. Our current governor, John Bell Edwards, has been working to get federal money flowing back to Louisiana. To whomever’s credit, FEMA, National Guard, and other federal agencies were on the ground almost immediately, too, which has been a welcome divergence from the Katrina playbook.      

 

Ok. So let’s get down to the actual relief efforts. What do you guys have going on down there?

Josh: My band played a festival in Olympia the weekend the rain began and since we got back to town on the 15th, I’ve spent more time gutting other people’s houses than I’ve spent at my own house. That’s pretty much where everyone is: helping friends rip out sheet-rock and flooring, and assessing local shelters’ needs and pleading with social media friends to ship supplies to them. I saw someone somewhere suggest using Amazon Prime to send supplies via free 2 day shipping directly to shelters and the posts I’ve made suggesting people do that have been shared like crazy. It really seems to register with people that helping out can be a very easy, convenient thing. Thankfully. FEMA has begun their appointments to assess damage. We’re still trying to track down elderly and disabled folks who haven’t been able to begin getting furniture out or pulling wet moldy carpet up. I think we’re all just now catching our stride as to how this is going to be handled but there’s still A TON of work to be done.

Brenna: Well, to the outside world it’s hard to distinguish what is actually going on versus the plethora of social media posts everyone is putting up about all the great volunteer work they are doing. Yes, volunteer work is definitely getting done and our community has come together like no other. But don’t let that fool you. There is still so much to be done. For every fifty friends you see posting about their volunteer efforts, there are about a hundred more who have no one helping them. Red Cross does not need any more volunteers. If anyone wants to get their hands dirty, that’s where the real need is. Some people have helped all of their friends and families and then let it stop there, but you can literally drive around and find strangers who still need help. They need help more than anyone because nine times out of ten they have no one helping them. We came across one older woman whose husband had passed away and she had been living in her wet house for four days. She said we were the first people who had come to offer help. And that is everywhere. As of yesterday I heard that at least 100,000 claims have been successfully filed with FEMA and they are estimating many more. There are a lot of unsung heroes in Louisiana right now and out of state. I have had a lot of friends from all over asking me what they can do to help if they can’t be here and Bekki and I have even set up a bit of an out-of-state “drop-off” at my house. She’s been rallying her friends and they are all sending supplies and I will distribute them to the facilities that have the most need. There are so many ways people can help, whether you live here or not.

 

How’s the sense of community right now? How does that compare to other disaster relief you guys have been through?

Josh: Honestly, this is unlike anything I’ve ever seen. People have been leaving work early to get to working on friends and coworkers and strangers houses. I, along with so so so many other people, worked on houses straight through the weekend, sun up to sun down. A group of local fisherman and hunters have gained a bit of notoriety for gathering their fishing boats to go out to find people trapped in their homes simply because it was the right thing to do; they’ve been lovingly dubbed the “Cajun Navy”. The volunteering efforts have been overwhelming to the point people are being turned away. Local musicians kickstarted an effort to form small groups to play jazz and folk music at the shelters. Maybe more than any other time that I can remember in Baton Rouge, people really seem to give a shit about the plight of each other and our community as a whole. Given the tenuous atmosphere that covered the city after Alton Sterling and those police officers were killed and all the protests ended so badly, I didn’t think something like this was possible, at all. It’s been incredibly encouraging to witness. We’re still nowhere near a post-racial society, but I think I’d settle for a post-disaster societal mentality.

Brenna: Wow. I mean I’ve literally been speechless. It’s been incredible. Just scroll through some of the photos online and you’ll see the social and racial walls have been broken down for something much bigger. For community. My heart has been overwhelmed. I have had multiple family members affected by the flooding and people have poured in to help.One friend whose family lost everything still came and helped my family until the water went down low enough to get to his own house. And this is happening everywhere. I want to give a huge hug to every member of the Cajun Navy as well, which includes not only Louisianians, but many people from surrounding areas driving in to offer their boats and help in any way they can. People have been coming out and cooking for the masses on their own dime. Everyone is offering anything that they can to be a helping hand in this community and it has been so uplifting after so many hard times this state has seen recently. Ha, I actually lost one of my jobs because I decided that demolition work was more important than actually going into work. But I don’t regret that decision at all. I wanted to be a cog in this community and do my part, however small, and that is worth more to me. Empathy is where everything comes into play as far as people truly seeing each other. If I were in their shoes I would want everyone to be doing all they could to help me and so that’s what I’ve been trying to offer. That’s what everyone has been trying to offer and it shows.

 

What was the first impulse that got you off your butt and ready to help? Was it a singular image or more of an overarching feeling of responsibility or neighborly behavior?

Bekki: Once again, for me, it was that feeling of helplessness. I have friends and family in Baton Rouge and they were posting their personal pictures and updates of the devastation. I wanted to do more than send a text that said, “are y’all ok?” Plus, my cousin and friend who live there are busting their asses in the relief effort and I wanted to help in anyway I could.

Josh: As soon as I flew back home from Washington state, nothing else mattered to me. I wanted to make sure my family was okay, I wanted to see what my friends needed. There was no way I could do anything else. Seeing the neighborhood I grew up in underwater, knowing that my friends and their parents had lost everything, all of it had me gnawing at the bit to get home and get to work.

Brenna: Ha, well the first time I got off my ass was to save my Granny’s cats. Saturday and Sunday were when the real flooding came full force and fast. No one had service (thanks AT&T) so a lot of people had no clue what was going on as far as loved ones being safe. I couldn’t reach anyone. My Granny, upon her house flooding, threw her cats in the attic before military picked her up. Once everyone got cell service back I called her and she was in good spirits but started crying and said the two things she cared about were her pictures of my Paw Paw and her parents wedding photo, and her cats. Not to mention it was her 80th birthday while all of this was happening. I knew then I had to go rescue them as her, amongst the majority, had no flood insurance and therefore nothing. So, I rounded up some kayaks and some friends and went out there. After “driving” (in quotations since we had to try multiple routes so as not to flood the vehicle) out there and seeing all the damage first hand I thought, “this is what I’ll be doing every day for the foreseeable future.”

 

How successful have the relief efforts been so far?

Josh: I don’t actually know how to answer the big picture version of that question. Lots of people are still in terrible situations right now. Parts of Louisiana are still underwater. Shelters and distribution centers are still struggling to keep up with the overwhelming demand for meals and medical supplies as well as basic living necessities like socks and underwear. On a personal level, I know that the people my friends and I have helped have a better grasp of their situation than they did before we showed up and feel a little less overwhelmed. I guess that’s some form of success.

Brenna: I can’t answer that in any official way, but judging by the amount of debris on the sides of the roads and the gutted homes and businesses I see every day, I would definitely say that consistent progress is being made. That people are being helped at least on an immediate scale. I know that our home and many others have been hosting flood victims, that people have not stopped after one week but are continuing to offer up services, that volunteers are still pouring in, etc. Now the true rebuilding will be on a more emotional level. People not only have to  rebuild homes but also rebuild their lives. And I hope our community is just as much a part of that as they have been for this initial stage of this tragedy.

 

Was there any aspect of your life as a musician that made you feel responsible? What’s the legacy of music in that community? How does it, as an art form, help people come together?

Josh: I don’t think being a musician has affected my outlook on this, though I will say that it has allowed my social media reach to be little wider to some degree, which has been helpful in pleading for supplies from friends across the country. Music is an overwhelming part of Baton Rouge’s cultural makeup. If the Blues weren’t born here, they were an infant here and to this day there are so many incredible players that call this place home, many of them affected by the flood. Baton Rouge has exported a lot of really popular southern rap, though most of those guys have moved elsewhere since the Cash Money in the early 2000’s. There’s been a steady stream of really talented jazz players from the area. Louisiana, and Baton Rouge in particular, loves a reason to gather and booze it up, and live music is typically the rallying point. I’d say that music is absolutely a critical part of Baton Rouge’s identity.

 

What can the average American do to help? What’s most needed? Mostly people love to throw money at problems or ignore them. What’s best in this scenario?

Josh: At this point, most shelters and distribution centers have itemized their lists of greatest needs. If you’ve got an Amazon Prime account, you can easily pick something off of the list and have it arrive two days later. From what I can tell, socks, underwear (all sizes), cleaning supplies, cots, dust masks, feminine hygiene products, bugspray, and deodorant are universally needed everywhere. Cash donations are still greatly needed and the following are sites I trust to keep the money in Baton Rouge and do good work:

What can people do, moving forward, to help this area that’s so often ravaged by flooding?

Josh: That’s a difficult question to answer given that so many areas that were flooded had never experienced flooding before! What can be done about that? At this point, just helping to keep the supplies flowing in the area is immensely important. So many people are starting over from scratch. Making sure we don’t ignore our economically forgotten North Baton Rouge family is important. Keeping the attention on victim assistance instead of political grandstanding is important. Continuing to make sure as few people as possible slip through the cracks is important, and that’s what we’re going to do.

Brenna: That is actually a common misconception. We are not often ravaged by flooding which is why they have called this the 500 year flood (and an assortment of other historical titles) and why no one saw this coming. Katrina was a hurricane. Something completely different. People were unprepared for this. It’s troubling that because we’ve had so much disaster happen to us that instead of getting more support from media and our country, we are being increasingly ignored and overlooked. Louisiana needs help and support in a lot of areas, and these tragedies should be a call to arms for our country, not one more overlooked problem pushed to the side so much that it becomes a separate entity from the rest of the country.

A massive thank you to Bekki (and Facebook), Brenna (also on Instagram) and Josh for all their relief efforts, their time spent on this interview and their inspirational efforts going forward.

It’s imperative that EVERYONE step in and help in any way that they possibly can. Reach out to these people via any of the social media links above and GET INVOLVED. You will not only be helping people in desperate need of supplies and kind words but you will feel better about yourself!

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