By Eric Elliott
When James and Sharillynn Aucoin stood in front of their home in Baton Rouge on Tuesday, August 16th, all they could do was cry.
We just stood there and cried, Sharillyn told The Pioneer, remembering the day they returned to their home after the flood forced her and thousands of others in Louisiana to flee their homes for safety. Im still emotional about it.
You would see your neighbours and you would go across the street and just hug one another and be so thankful that each was alive and was not injured, James said. You would literally cry in each others arms at the devastation.
It was only two days earlier when the skies opened with torrential rain, peppering the Louisiana capital, home to over 200,000 residents. For James and Sharillyn, who had lived in their home in Baton Rouge for 45 years, this wasnt the worst rain they had experienced and thus they thought little of it as it continued to fall outside their home.
Even the news reporters on the local TV stations led them to believe there was nothing to worry about with the nearby river expecting to crest at two inches. They thought they were OK.
Slowly, though, the water began to rise. As the water began to flood the streets, James and Sharillyn began to pick things up in their house and move them onto beds, silently praying the water would stop rising. By 3 a.m. on Sunday morning though, the Aucoins were standing in several feet of water with more still on the way.
The water was coming up extremely fast and my wife was trying to hand things to me to put up in our attic to preserve some items, but it seemed like as soon as she started moving things from one level to get in the attic, the water was up to that point, James said.
Pictures were taken off the walls and jewelry was gathered in a frantic rush as the water increased to hip level for Sharillyn by 7 a.m. that morning.
You just sort of walk around in a daze watching it happen and think, What can I do? and you reach the point where all you want to do is say, Please Lord, let me get out of here, she said.
After struggling to open a door to get outside, James and Sharillyn waded through four feet of water to their front porch, holding a grocery bag of clothes above their head with Sharillyns purse around James neck. Lucky for them, it was only minutes of standing on two cast iron stools the last of their items that hadnt floated away before a rescue boat floated to their porch to take them to safety.
In total, the catastrophic flood caused as much as $8.7 billion in damages to Baton Rouge homes with 134,000 households registering for aid. The flood, known as the worst natural disaster since Hurricane Sandy in 2012, took the lives of 13 people in its wake.
After the water receded, James and Sharillyn, along with thousands of others, returned to their homes to try to salvage what they could of their remaining belongings.
At the ages of 74 with their home in ruins, they decided it was the perfect opportunity to relocate closer to their son in nearby Curryville. Nearly two months after leaving Baton Rouge, they had already found a new home for themselves. Left behind in Baton Rouge were photo albums filled with memories of their children and grandchildren along with jewelry and vehicles they would never get to use or see again.
What did remain were a few items that James was able to get into the attic before the waters submerged their home. Among them, one of the most cherished items in the Auccoin household, was a copy of the Columbia Valley Pioneer from July 2nd, 2010. On the cover was a picture of James and Sharillyn canoeing down the Columbia River on one of their annual vacations to the Columbia Valley.
When you ran our picture of my wife and I canoeing on the Columbia River (on the cover), we had that framed and thats one of the items I pulled off the wall and put in the attic that did not get wet, James said. The love that my wife and I have for each other, it was so symbolic in that picture that they took.
Since 1990, the couple has made their way to the valley once a year for vacations, each year falling more in love with the scenery and culture that the area cultivates.
Its kind of a neat feeling that we love it up there so much with the space and the air and everything, James said, speaking from their new home in Curryville. The people are so nice up there and friendly. Theres something about the Columbia Valley, the Purcell Mountains, and the Rocky Mountains on either side of you and knowing that mighty Columbia River starts just south of Invermere; its just kind of like the beginning of heaven.
On each of the couples journeys to the valley, they make sure to do a canoe trip from Fairmont to Invermere in addition to joining in festivals such as Radiums classic car show held every fall.
One of their favourite valley destinations, though, is the Thrift Shop located in downtown Invermere. James said hes collected numerous collectibles from his trips inside the famous thrift store, including a ceramic bear that he still holds onto today.
Just like the last 25 years, James and Sharillyn had plans to return to the Columbia Valley for a vacation in 2016, but had to cancel those plans, along with two other trips, because of their chaotic life after the flood. James said they are both saddened they wont be able to make the journey north this year to their own version of heaven.
Yall are so lucky to be living in the Columbia Valley, its one of the most beautiful places Ive ever seen in my whole life, he said. We go there and we feel like were going to heaven and were able to come back and not many people can go to heaven and come back. But in our minds, were going to heaven and were coming back afterwards.
The framed newspaper cover will find its new home on the walls of their new home in what Sharillyn is calling, the survival hall, where, were going to put up a lot of art work that doesnt look as good as it used to, but it will remind us of what weve been through and how far weve come since the flood and the fact that we made it and that things are going to be OK.
Although James and Sharillyn werent able to make it back to the valley in 2016, they say they are grateful to be alive with the opportunity for another return to heaven in 2017.
You can survive a lot more than you think you can survive and it may put you to the test, but when you come out on the other end of it healthy and whole and in a new home and everythings going be OK, you just have to accept some loss, Sharillyn said. Life has some losses in it and we had huge losses in this every stick of furniture we owned except two pieces was destroyed but thats just stuff. Its not your being, its not your life, its not your means of living. Your means of living is your family and each other and we had that and you just have to go on through adversity.