Millennial Life, October 2016

Kaylee Hughes Finds Joy in Her Faith Despite the Storm

by Trapper S. Kinchen
The UNO men’s basketball team and Hughes’s family in front of their flood ravaged home.
The UNO men’s basketball team and Hughes’s family in front of their flood ravaged home.

As millennials, we find ourselves at a serious developmental crossroads. We have just begun to face life head on – our dreams raw against a world-weary storm of frustration – and each of us is busy learning how to cope with adversity. With a little faith, we can overcome the ache of disappointment and embrace positivity.

Sixteen-year-old Kaylee Hughes lives in the center of Livingston Parish with her parents and three younger sisters. Their charming, single-story, brick home is situated on the Hog Branch tributary of the Tickfaw River, about 45 minutes from Baton Rouge. Lush meadow vistas and thick stands of oak trees dot the landscape around their tiny community.

Hughes is the eldest of four daughters. She and her younger sisters, Jaycee, 14, Maggie, 7, and Harlie, 3, attend Holden High – a kindergarten through twelfth grade public school – where her mother teaches. Her father works alternating three-week shifts on an oil pipeline in Alaska. But, the Hughes family is very close, and their deep familial bond helps buoy them during times of crisis.

At the beginning of August, Hughes embarked upon her junior year of high school. She settled into basketball, softball and track practices, began working on new material for her church choir, and hunkered into a study routine. But, on August 12, the creek behind her home began to rise.

Hughes marking the water line in her family’s sunroom.
Hughes marking the water line in her family’s sunroom.

Like most Louisianans, the Hughes family is familiar with the wild force with which natural disasters often strike. Two years ago, their house was severely damaged in a fire. Her family soldiered through a lengthy renovation process before finally getting resettled. Then, this past March, when the melting snow from the Midwest began draining southward, their home took in nearly a foot of water as the Tickfaw River distended to almost twice its normal size. They had only been back in their house for three months when the recent flood struck.

Hughes, her mother and sisters, along with an aunt and cousin, spent Friday, August 12, equipping for what the National Weather Service promised would be a historic flood. “All day Friday, we were busy sandbagging and buying water pumps, but we weren’t expecting the river to crest until Sunday, so we decided to sleep in our own beds that night,” Hughes said.

Exhausted from a hard day’s work, Hughes quickly fell asleep. But, under the cover of darkness, water was swiftly breaking over the embankments of Hog Branch Creek. Before long, the brisk muddy current had reached her house.

“I was lying in my bed, reached over, and felt water,” she said.

Hughes’s youngest sister, Harlie, standing by the ruined contents of their home.
Hughes’s youngest sister, Harlie, standing by the ruined contents of their home.

In the nick of time, Hughes’s grandfather collected them in his lake skiff. While he shuttled the family to a cousin’s house, they came across a cluster of panicked evacuees. “We had to rescue a few people. There were a bunch of kids with a couple of wailing moms. We finally got them to dry land by the fire station. We gave them all the food we had and a tarp to keep the kids dry,” she said.

Through the fray of the rising water, Hughes and her family stayed focused and calm. After the tide receded, they returned home to evaluate the damage. The creek had risen five feet into the house, leaving a heavy brown line on the living room wall. Everything, even keepsakes stored on high shelves, was ruined.

Hughes is all too familiar with parting with her belongings. This is not the first time she has had to start from scratch. But for Hughes, coping with her family’s displacement is the most difficult aspect of the destruction.

“The hardest part for me is feeling like I’ve invaded other people’s space,” she said. Hughes says it is impossible to get settled now that she cannot go home, now that there is no longer any place that feels completely hers.

National guardsmen Murray and Hopson at the Livingston Parish Courthouse.
National guardsmen Murray and Hopson at the Livingston Parish Courthouse.

Since the flood ebbed, a swell of volunteers has come to the aid of Hughes’ family. Different relatives have taken turns housing them, the Holden basketball team initiated a cleanup effort, and despite their own personal losses, members of the Holden community have reached out to help.

In the wake of devastation, there has been no shortage of volunteers from different parts of the state arriving to help flood victims rebuild. The SLU tennis team came to Holden to assist with a cook off and clothing drive, and the UNO men’s basketball team lent a hand to the Hughes family, leading the effort to clean out their house.

It is impossible to overstate the important role fast-responding volunteer programs play immediately following a natural disaster. As soon as the floodwaters began rising, our Louisiana National Guardsmen began operating in affected areas. Our men and women in uniform are crucial to recovery initiatives, and they are always prepared to risk their lives for citizens in danger.

Immediately following the flood, I spoke with a national guardswoman stationed at the Livingston Parish Courthouse. Kalley Murray, a 19-year-old servicewoman, has been a part of the Louisiana National Guard for over a year. She and her commanding officer, Daniel Hopson of Delhi, La., sat down to discuss how the military was leading recovery efforts.

Murray is from Sulphur, La. Both she and Hopson have experienced many natural disasters, but they appeared particularly touched by the trials facing local flood victims. “It’s heartbreaking. People have lost everything. The damage is devastating,” said Murray.

She and her fellow guardsmen have actively worked to secure the battered communities of South Louisiana, patrolling ravaged neighborhoods and lending helping hands. Murray and Hopson both emphasized the importance of engaging in community outreach directly after a catastrophe.

Hughes' home during the flooding.
Hughes’ home during the flooding.

Hughes and her sisters have certainly done their part in contributing to disaster relief. “We went to some teachers’ houses to help them clean up,” she said. They have also been very active in helping their church, the First United Pentecostal Church of Denham Springs, rebuild.

Faith is the primary reason Hughes has not, through all the wreckage, lost hope. “My relationship with Jesus is a building process. Living for God isn’t easy. Our church leaders have taught us to dig deep. When you go deeper, that’s when you find the joy of the Lord,” she said.

The Hughes family is focusing on the future. Whether or not their home gets rebuilt is in the hands of an insurance adjuster. But in the meantime, they are sticking together as a family, remaining grateful for their many blessing and praying for a resolution.

Hughes insists on staying positive. “I keep thinking ‘You’re going to get to the other side.’ I’m just trying to have fun with it,” she said. “We’re going to talk about this experience forever. So, we’ve got to do the best we can with it.”

Even though we live in an imperfect world, the Lord is constantly working all things for good. It is impossible to control what crosses our paths, yet how we respond to tragedy is completely up to us. We can crumble beneath the weight of a setback and surrender to circumstance. Or, like Kaylee Hughes and Kalley Murray, we can tap into our faith and find joy in a crippling situation.

Traumatic experiences – like the recent flood – have the potential to define our character. Perseverance can grow out of pain. Determination can blossom from distress. It all depends on whether we have the spiritual strength to stand, facing the squall of disappointment, and press forward.