DENHAM SPRINGS, La. (The Livingston Parish News) — Standing a few feet from where flames engulfed his home in the early morning hours Easter Sunday, Aaron Ott turned the old compass over in his hand.
For many years, the dark green compass had belonged to his own father, who used it to navigate during their hunting trips. It was eventually handed over to Aaron Ott, who later passed it down to his grandson.
The family feared the compass was forever lost when flames swarmed the house a little after midnight on Sunday, April 4.
But three days after the fire, Aaron’s daughter Lacey was walking through the rummage, ash crushing beneath her feet, when she spotted a charred jewelry box on a table. Though fire had scorched the outside of the box, water had filled the inside, leaving it mostly intact. When Lacey opened it, she saw the compass.
Lacey brought the compass to her father, who turned it over a couple of times in his hand as he stood near the charred remains of his home, the same one his parents had lived in before him.
“This is just a bad chapter,” Aaron said, tears in his eyes. “But you just turn the page, look up to God, and you move forward.”
Moving forward hasn’t been easy, but it has been made easier thanks to the “overwhelming” outpouring of support from a community that has reached out in many ways to the longtime Denham Springs couple.
A GoFundMe account (which can be found by clicking here) was set up for Aaron and Jolene, with family members, friends, and others donating thousands of dollars in the last week.
The Easter fire marked the second calamity to strike Aaron and Jolene, who Lacey described as “the most caring and selfless people I know.” The couple’s house — the same one that flames torched one week ago — flooded in August 2016, with nearly 5 feet of water ravaging their “dream home.”
The Otts were forced to start over in 2016. Now, they’ll have to start over again in 2021.
But despite the two life-altering events, Jolene said she considers herself “blessed.”
“I just feel so blessed right now,” Jolene said. “The community has pulled through for us.”
‘It was everything I ever wanted’
For more than 100 years, Aaron Ott’s family has owned the plot of land off Highway 16 less than two miles north of Denham Springs High.
In 1965, his parents built the home that he and Jolene would eventually move into. It took the family two years to build it, with multiple family members lending a hand in the effort. Aaron, now 67, was 13 years old when his family finally settled in the home.
After Aaron’s mother passed in 2010, the house sat mostly vacant until 2015, when Aaron and Jolene acquired full ownership. Wanting to make it feel like “their own,” they began a full remodel of the 50-year-old home that hadn’t been upgraded in years.
They changed the walls and the floors; they tore down a wall between the den and kitchen to “open the room up”; they installed new cabinets and added granite countertops; they put an island in the kitchen.
The final product — the result of close to $100,000 in upgrades — was even better than they had hoped.
“It was beautiful,” Jolene recalled. “Absolutely gorgeous. It was everything I ever wanted.”
They didn’t get to live long in their dream home.
In August 2016 — barely five months after the Otts moved in — floodwaters ravaged Livingston Parish, and they weren’t spared. Their house took in 58 inches of water, washing away most of their possessions and destroying the home they had spent months turning into their own.
“It was a brand-new house,” their daughter Lacey said. “And then they got 5 feet of water.”
Without flood insurance — “It had never flooded here in 100 years” — they had to take out a Small Business Administration (SBA) loan and rebuild again. Only this time, the rebuild started nearly from scratch.
Everything below the ceiling had to be gutted and rebuilt, down to the shell of the home. Before the walls were added, the family wrote scriptures on the studs of each bedroom.
Once the house was rebuilt, the Otts slowly started filling it in with furniture and appliances until it eventually became a home again. Even with the SBA loan, the Otts spent $30,000 out of pocket on the rebuild.
“But we had our home back,” Jolene said.
Less than five years later, disaster struck again.
‘We just watched our lives burn’
Aaron and Jolene returned home around 7 p.m. Saturday, April 3, following a family crawfish boil at their daughter’s house.
After watching a college baseball game, Aaron was sitting in the den enjoying the 1956 film “The Ten Commandments” when the lights began flickering. Soon after, the television went off. It was around that time when Aaron started to smell something burning.
He hollered at Jolene and asked if she had lit a candle, to which she said, “No.” Confused, Aaron said he “followed my nose” to where the smell was coming from, which led him to the carport door.
When he opened the door, he saw nothing but smoke.
“I couldn’t see anything inside,” he said. “It was totally black.”
Aaron quickly slammed the door and grabbed two fire extinguishers in the kitchen. When Jolene opened the carport door, Aaron “pointed and sprayed” until the extinguisher was out. He quickly used the other one until it was too spent.
As the smoke alarm and doorbells blared, Aaron ran outside to grab the garden hose as Jolene dialed 9-1-1. Hoping to contain the fire, Aaron tried opening the garage door to spray inside, but it stopped after going up about six inches.
“I could see the fire in the top crack of the garage door, so I just started spraying there with my garden hose,” he recalled.
Firefighters arrived on scene around 12:20 a.m., just as flames started to reach the roof. When Aaron saw the trucks pull up, he recalled saying to himself, “Thank God. They’ll be able to contain it to the garage.”
“It just didn’t work that way,” he said.
Without a fire hydrant nearby, first responders had to be judicious with where they sprayed, with one telling Aaron, “This truck holds 1,000 gallons of water, and we could use that in five minutes.”
More firefighters and trucks arrived on the scene to fight the blaze. But even as more help came, the flames eventually reached the highly-flammable insulation, and there was no stopping the spread.
“Once it got up in the roof and attic, it just spread,” Jolene said. “They couldn’t stop it. You could see the glow of the fire through the windows. We just watched our lives burn.”
Added Aaron: “It was just heartbreaking to see, and all you could do was just sit there and watch it.”
Firefighters battled the blaze for around six hours. At one point, flames reached the trees that towered above the home. The family watched the fire spread from room to room, mentally marking what family heirlooms were being consumed.
Lacey arrived shortly after getting a phone call from her mother and stood with her parents as the fire raged into the night. A few other family members eventually came, and they huddled next to each other watching the flames. At one point, firefighters fetched blankets and other garments from inside the home to keep everyone warm on the cool night.
The flames eventually died down, and firefighters began rolling up their hoses around 6:20 a.m. At 6:47 a.m., Lacey, Jolene, and Aaron got in their car and left.
“We saw the sunrise on Easter morning as we were leaving the house,” Lacey said.
‘We have great, wonderful friends’
Last Sunday evening, hours after the last of the flames had been put out, Lacey took to social media to ask the community for help on her parents’ behalf.
Lacey said her parents dedicated their lives to helping others, and she told them it was time for others to return the favor.
“They are so adamant about not having help,” Lacey said of her parents. “They keep saying they have savings, but I told them they have worked your butts off their whole lives for that savings. My goal is to get them through this without touching it.”
“They’ve done so much for the community,” Lacey said later, “and I said, ‘Let your community help you. Every benefit we’ve done for other people, let others do something for you.’ They’ve helped so many people. They’re just not used to being on this end of it.”
Lacey set up a GoFundMe account, with a goal of $10,000. In it, Lacey wrote, “The people who would give you the shirt off their backs literally walked out their burning house with only the clothes they had on.”
The community quickly rallied behind the Otts: The GoFundMe reached $9,000 in less than three days and is now at $10,505 from 85 donors — and counting.
Others have started their own fundraisers, while others have reached out in different ways.
Hancock Whitney, where Jolene worked for many years and served as a vice president, set up their own benefit for the Otts for people to make donations. Some of Lacey’s co-workers organized a “meal train” and have traded off nights either cooking or paying for meals. Some people have sent gift cards, and some of Jolene’s friends have sent her a “trunk load” of clothes.
Aaron said a lifelong friend who lives nearby even offered his rent house for the Otts to stay in as they determine the next step.
“He said, ‘I’m not taking no for an answer,’” Aaron said, choking up.
Jolene and Aaron said they have been “blown away” by the outpouring of support, saying they have “few words” to describe the gratitude they have for the people who have reached out.
“I’m just so humbled and so grateful,” Jolene said. “I felt this way after the flood. We have great, wonderful friends and people in this community.”
To donate to the GoFundMe for Aaron and Jolene Ott, click here.