‘Why are you still smiling? I say because I still have life’
Family of injured player and Southern University community recover in wake of Louisiana flooding
Simply put, sometimes in life, you need the patience and psyche of the biblical figure Job to persevere.
The Gales family of Louisiana exemplifies that. To the max.
On the afternoon of Sept. 26, 2015, Devon Gales, a 5-foot-9 wide receiver for Southern University, was left paralyzed after a routine collision during a game against the University of Georgia. Eleven months later, on the morning of Aug. 13, his stepmother, a rain-soaked Tanisha Deans-Gales, found herself driving an all-terrain vehicle in an effort to seek higher ground as raging floodwaters forced her family from their east Baton Rouge, Louisiana, home
“My adrenaline was pumping so much, I didn’t even feel the water,” Gales told The Undefeated.
The Baton Rouge area has been in the midst of what was defined by the American Red Cross as the worst natural disaster in the United States since Superstorm Sandy pounded the Atlantic corridor in October 2012. But this time, the disaster was caused by a powerful storm without a name.
Still, at least 13 people have died in the devastating floods of south Louisiana.
Check the math: At least 60,000 homes have been damaged, at least 30,000 people have been rescued, at least 8,400 have taken refuge in shelters, and nearly half of the state’s 64 parishes have been declared disaster areas. And these figures likely will increase because structural damage and residents’ welfare still are being assessed and more rain is expected this week in the region.
As Southern University senior running back Lenard Tillery told The Undefeated, “It started raining that Friday night and it just wouldn’t stop.”
Unlike Hurricane Katrina in 2005, there weren’t calls for massive evacuation beforehand. Most folks went to bed on Aug. 12 expecting routine rain showers. But there was nothing routine as they awoke the next morning to a cataclysmic scene — and arguably one of the most under-covered news stories of the year.
Southern University head football coach Dawson Odums told The Undefeated, “One of my assistant coaches said he went to bed that Friday at 11 p.m.; he woke up at 3 a.m. He said the water was up to his ankles in his house.”
Depending on the area, some Louisiana towns received 24 to 31 inches of rainfall within a 48-hour span. For the sake of comparison, those totals are more than the amount of rain Seattle normally receives in November, December, January and February. Combined. An estimated 6.9 trillion gallons of rainfall in one week have created a waterlogged region in serious humanitarian need. Analytics revealed that’s enough rainwater to fill 10.4 million Olympic-size swimming pools. Those factors led some meteorologists to classify Louisiana’s deluge as a “1,000-year rain.”
A nightmarish evening
It seemed as if the weekend of Aug. 12 lasted a nightmarish thousand years for the Gales family.
Asked if she felt her family was cursed, Gales adamantly replied no.
Instead, she evoked the power of spirit and soul in her life. “Not at all,” she responded. “No, because my faith is so strong. We have a limitless source of faith. The rain has to stop at some point. People ask me, ‘Why are you still smiling?’ I say because I still have life.”
As fate would have it, Tanisha Deans-Gales and Devon Gales had returned to Baton Rouge from Atlanta that Friday to celebrate her 41st birthday with family and friends. They had lived in Atlanta in a Southern University-financed condominium since Devon Gales’ injury to be near the Shepherd Center, a private, nonprofit hospital that specializes in the medical treatment, research and rehabilitation of patients who have suffered brain trauma and spinal cord injuries.
Devon Gales was only two weeks away from finishing a special 12-week rehab program called Beyond Therapy, which provided a sort of microfocus to strengthening neck, back and lower-body muscles and connective tissue.
Then, an expected time of joy turned to anguish as an unexpected weather event rained on their parade.
When the waters rose on that Saturday, Tanisha and her husband, Donny Gales, grabbed what clothing possessions they could from their home, which had been partially modified to make it more accessible for their son. Donny, 43, piled his three children, Devon, 22, Dalen, 12, and Teah, 8, plus two young daughters of Deans-Gales’ co-worker, into his truck. She trailed them, as she also ferried two elderly neighbors on her four-wheel drive all-terrain vehicle.
With the roads washed out, Tanisha Gales and her husband tried to navigate the backyards of their neighbors’ homes in an effort to seek higher ground on the opposite side of the street. Her husband’s truck got stuck twice in the process, the first time six houses away from their home.
As water began to seep onto the floorboard of the immovable truck, the younger children began to panic. “Devon tried to keep them calm by laughing and joking around,” said Deans-Gales, a special education teacher.
If they only had Noah’s Ark, Devon wondered aloud.
Added Southern’s Tillery to The Undefeated, “Devon is the most positive person I know. He’ll always find the light in the darkness.”
Getting out of the first jam required major ingenuity.
Donny and Tanisha Gales decided to return home on her ATV to retrieve a strange-looking assemblage of huge chains, cables and pulleys commonly known as a Come-Along. When they returned to the scene, Donny Gales attached the winchlike apparatus to a sturdy pine tree, which was used as an anchor of sorts.
It was the same winch Donny Gales previously had used to raise a deer stand in a tree for hunting in the woods.
Using a manual cranking mechanism, and with a neighbor’s son at the steering wheel, Donny Gales and two male neighbors outside managed to tow the truck out of an uncompromising hole that sucked in the vehicle’s two front tires. The process took about a half-hour.
Then, about 10 feet away, Donny Gales’ truck became mired again in a neighbor’s yard. This time, Donny Gales managed to extricate the truck through rocking maneuvers using the reverse gear. With that, knowing the danger spots, he learned which areas to avoid as the Gales family finally reached a neighbor’s home that was unaffected by the floodwaters.
Their destination was only several hundred feet away from their home; that was the line of demarcation. That short distance could determine whether a family survived intact or lost everything.
Location, location, location for survival in Louisiana.
When you reference naturalist-evolutionist Charles Darwin’s theory of Survival of the Fittest, think Donny Gales, a former fullback in the mid-1990s at Southern University. He’s an avid outdoorsman — a hunter, a fisherman and a versatile handyman. He also owns three ATVs and made sure all family members knew how to operate them.
Without his immense outdoor and mechanical skills, the Gales family could have been in an immutable predicament.
Donny Gales explained that his survival skills developed as part of his upbringing during his teenage years in rural Louisiana. “When I was growing up,” he told The Undefeated, “I never had a real father figure. So I hung around a lot of older guys. Men from an older generation — in their 30s and 40s at that time. Uncles, friends, my grandfather. They taught me how to hunt and fish and how to survive outdoors. I can shoot a deer, skin it and cook it in the woods. Can do the same with catfish.”
Donny Gales even has stuffed deer heads and antlers mounted on his walls.
That “older generation” of mentors also taught him how not to panic.
Added Deans-Gales: “That’s why when the neighbors need help, they look to my husband.”
That Saturday was no different, as they rescued some of those neighbors.
Neighbors helping neighbors
The Gales family lived on the highest point of their street. Yet they still saw 4 feet of water in their home. Neighbors at the lowest point saw the rising waters touch their roofs.
Once the Gales family reached safety, they could exhale — but only for a moment.
Donny Gales returned home to retrieve his second truck — and his son Devon’s wheelchair — before the family loaded up at their neighbor’s house and headed across the Huey P. Long Bridge over the Mississippi River for an overnight stay at a friend’s residence about 15 miles away in Port Allen, west of Baton Rouge. More room in a drier environment.
Yet Devon Gales still needed to attend his physical therapy sessions.
Then on that Sunday morning, Deans-Gales’ cellphone rang.
That’s when she received a call from an angel. From the state of Georgia — again.
Bryant Gantt, the director of player wellness for the University of Georgia football program, reached out to the Gales family. He supplied her with four round-trip Delta airline tickets to Atlanta. That way, Devon Gales could continue his therapy at the Shepherd Center.
“Mr. Gantt paid for it himself,” Tanisha Gales said.
When Devon Gales was injured last September, the University of Georgia was front and center in aiding the Gales family. The university booked a flight to Atlanta for Devon’s parents to see their son after his catastrophic injury. The school also spearheaded a Devon Gales T-shirt drive to raise funds for the family, including relaxing its copyright regulations in order to allow the iconic, bold-letter “G” decal on its football helmets to be marketed as part of the images on the T-shirts.
Most of the Devon Gales T-shirts were bought by Georgia residents.
When the Gales family arrived in Atlanta last week, Brad Akins of the Akins Ford dealership near Winder, Georgia, offered a rental car for use by the family.
Donny Gales, a 17-year veteran at UPS who returned to work on Aug. 22, stayed in Louisiana to hold down the fort and oversee the recovery and rebuilding effort, as he stays with his mother in Morganza, Louisiana, a 45-minute drive away. “I’ve been separated from my wife and children since last September. It’s been challenging,”
Donny Gales said in a moment of reflection: “But the Lord doesn’t put more on you than what he thinks you can handle. I still have gratitude. I made a promise that I would be there for my children.”
Except for one mattress, the Gales family lost all of their furniture, flooring, most of their sentimental items, the washer, dryer and other appliances. Even parts — the bottom four feet all around — of the walls separating the rooms are gone. “Now you can see from one side of the house to the other because there is nothing in between,” Donny Gales’ mother said.
However, they did manage to salvage their vehicles: Donny Gales’ two trucks, their three ATVs, though his mother’s two cars sustained heavy water damage.
While the misadventures and shenanigans of ringleader Ryan Lochte and his band of swimmers at the Rio de Janeiro Games held the nation’s rapt attention the last several days, the Gales family and thousands of others in Cajun country were left to their own devices and now have to pick up the pieces — again. Many in that region have questioned national concern as well as the media coverage.
Perhaps the highly respected Russel Honore, the former lieutenant general in the U.S. Army who helped stabilize and restore order in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina, stated it best during a conversation on the news show AC:36o with CNN’S Anderson Cooper on Aug. 19.
“We were worried for a time because this story was a second- or third-page story and third or fourth in the lineup,” said Honore, who received a bachelor’s degree in vocational agriculture from Southern University in 1971. “We took second seat for a couple of Olympic athletes for a 24-hour period that did something down in Brazil.
“But they topped the news for a period when we needed to be focused on the American people for the need … here in terms of the second poorest state in America hit again by a catastrophe.”
Honore was commander of Joint Task Force Katrina and was responsible for coordinating military relief efforts for Hurricane Katrina-affected areas throughout the Gulf Coast.
“I don’t think people realize how bad it is down here,” Deans-Gales explained.
“We’ve lived in this house for 17 years and this is the first time we have ever seen a flood here of this magnitude. This is worse than anything I’ve ever seen in my life. It’s like something out of a movie.”
The Gales’ harrowing ordeal seems reminiscent of the novel 1984. She recalled a poignant conversation with her son, Devon: “He said, ‘Momma, we have been down at the bottom so long, we have nowhere to go but up.’ ”
FEMA help isn’t enough
Now the Gales family and many others await Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) assistance. Honore told CNN’s Cooper: “Where we will need help is the volunteers and the donations. They help fill those gaps because the FEMA staffers really don’t give people enough money to get back in their homes. And that’s where the donations and the volunteers come in, to help get people back in their homes.”
Deans-Gales concurred, saying, “The bad thing is what do you do when FEMA comes and gives $5,000 or $10,000. What can you do with that when you have lost everything?”
At least 106,000 households have registered with FEMA.
And most residents in the Baton Rouge area didn’t have flood insurance, such as the Gales family, who didn’t live in a designated flood zone and have no choice but to rebuild their house. The Gales family has been awaiting the completion of a new, totally accessible home sponsored by the Triumph Over Tragedy Foundation. However, construction has been delayed as the foundation has scrambled to raise enough funds through donations to support the project, all of which means a potential completion date is anyone’s guess.
University of Alabama head basketball coach and former Southern University basketball player Avery Johnson donated a tractor-trailer truck delivery of supplies that are based at Southern University’s basketball arena, the F.G. Clark Activity Center, which also has housed evacuees from the flooding. Johnson’s shipment included water, soap, towels, toothpaste, pillows, Gatorade and clothing.
“I will continue to be a part of the restoration efforts,” Johnson said in a statement. “This was just a small showing of love and support for a community that’s dear to my heart. I’m proud to be a 1988 graduate of Southern University, and I wanted to let people down there know we are thinking and praying for the entire community.”
This is the same generous Johnson who has visited Devon Gales at the Shepherd Center in Atlanta to show moral support and has appeared at fundraising dinners and banquets on his behalf.
About 25 Southern University athletes needed only two hours to offload and properly place the coach’s supplies in the arena, including football player Danny Johnson.
“The school asked for volunteers,’’ Johnson, a junior preseason All-Southwestern Athletic Conference (SWAC) cornerback with NFL aspirations, told The Undefeated. “I also gave away some clothes that I don’t wear anymore. It’s still a lot of people who have to start from square one.”
This historic storm was all about location, as the Southern University campus, built on a bluff with the Mississippi River on its backside, was largely spared any debilitating damage.
And Southern University still has a football game to prepare for, the season opener at the University of Louisiana-Monroe on Sept. 3. That most of the football players were already on campus for summer practice during the storm was a godsend.
But school employees live in various parts of the region, including areas hit hard by the storm. Said Danny Johnson, “It was bad here because people weren’t expecting it to flood. I feel a lot of people were caught off guard.”
The roof collapsed on the home of one of the school’s custodians; she still comes to work. The school’s cafeteria is understaffed.
“Who do you think stacks the chairs at night in the cafeteria?” Southern University coach Odums said. The football players.
Distractions for the much-anticipated football game? Not here.
Tillery, a preseason All-SWAC running back who helped his neighbors strip their floorboards and remove furniture from damaged homes, said of the flooding, “It’s something we can rally around together as a team. If anything, it should be motivation.”
The Gales family could write a book about motivation. Optimism, too. And patience.
Said Deans-Gales, “God has something in store for us. And that’s what we bank on.”