It was Thursday, August 11th, when the usual afternoon South Louisiana rains began to fall in and around our home town of Baton Rouge. By Sunday morning, 25-30 inches of rain, more than has fallen in four years in Los Angeles had inundated the area thanks to a low pressure system that pulled in tropical moisture and dumped for hours and hours. This caused a flash flood that covered nearly 60% of East Baton Rouge Parish and 90% of Denham Springs with up to 10 ft of water. I was 120 miles away in sunny South Mississippi, where perhaps 1-2 inches fell.
Jonathan Dziuba and I were in Mississippi wrapping up 3 days of planning for our inaugural Mississippi Gulf Coast Marathon. At around 1 pm on Saturday the 13th, we figured out that interstates were flooded and that we couldn’t likely get home. We stayed one more night, and then on Sunday drove through New Orleans and beat the I-10 closure that essentially locked off all exits.
We went home, changed and started gathering up our kids, and a plan to go get all the old Louisiana Marathon T-shirts and go drop them off at shelters. We figured it would take a couple hours. We were wrong. After our first stop at a small shelter, we headed to Celtic Studios, a movie soundstage in the center of the city. They were accepting donations so we headed there.
I had seen a post from Patrick Mulhearn, Executive Director of Celtic saying that they had 500-1000 people at the shelter and only 2 toilets. 2. Juba got on the horn and got our friends at Workbox in motion. Pulling in we saw a half dozen or so port o let’s heading in. We felt good to have helped, thought we’d drop our T’s and head on. That wasn’t to be.
As we pulled up, the gravity of the situation became pretty evident. In Sound Stage 6, there were about 1000 evacuees. Stage 7 was a whirl with accepting donations, but it was clear that this was just the beginning. We saw a lot of familiar faces and members of our TLAM team, Damian and Rebecca Burdette, were already deep into things. We jumped in.
The first goal was helping organize Stage 7. There were so many donations coming in that it was getting clogged at the entrance a little spreading out and things smoothed out quickly. Now we were about to begin preparing for more people. Tons of long time friends were there. Jared Loftus, Merle Francis, Tommy Talley…more than I can remember and name.
Volunteers were in charge. No Red Cross, no FEMA, no police. Volunteers. There was one guy from Homeland Security. One. This threatened to become a shit show, and fast. We did our best to keep moving and keep on point. After a quick meeting with Homeland Guy, Juba, Damian and I went into race director mode. Our first task was to stock stage 5 and get it ready for some 300 cots that were on the way from North Louisiana. We also put a plan together or re-routing some of the supplies that were coming in to go straight to Stage 5. We took our kids and got after it.
After 20-30 minutes of prepping for people, we got an unexpected surprise. More people were evacuating, and all of them were being sent to us. Juba and I had a quick pow wow. He and I had the only communication devices and decided we were not giving those up to anyone. He and I would take tasks and communicate to each other.
The cots never had a chance to get to the studio before hundreds of evacuees did. We all did our best to maintain order. Get people blankets and seats when we could as well as talk, give hugs and help any way we could. We only said it once to each other, but though 10 years removed, the thoughts of the Morial Convention Center and Superdome were in our minds. We would not let this thing get out of control. I am happy to say that there was not one incident that I am aware of.
After a couple hours, Jared Loftus and I had a pow wow on how we could utilize the Celtic Wifi system to help people get the word out to someone, anyone, and tell them where they were. We didn’t know or realize at the time that other shelters were flooding and the OEP’s of several jurisdictions were sending their evacuees to Celtic. People would show up not knowing where they were nor knowing how to get in touch with anyone. Jared and I agreed that the system couldn’t handle 2000+ people on one signal at once, so he and Logan Leger got a secure wifi signal set up and then we decided that 4-6 volunteers would go group to group and ask people if they needed to contact someone. It worked smoothly and we were able to maximize our sparse wifi resources.
As there are so many things that can happen in this situation, I’ll list them bullet style as they are all kind of anecdotal.
- Early in the day a volunteer brought me to a man in his early 70’s. He was 3 months post stroke, and had left his wallet on his bed when he was rescued. I talked to him for 30 mins or so trying to figure out the name of his kids or someone. I thought that if he could just relax, some of his synapses would connect. After a bit, we figured out we knew a guy who is one of the owners of a restaurant next door to mine. We got him to medical to see if they could find out next of kin information from his records. I checked with the mutual acquaintance later that night and found out we got him home.
- You need a lot of mundane things to make an operation go smoothly. Things like folding tables, chairs, wheel chairs, blankets, trash cans, dumpsters and short term plans. Thanks to Chad Dudley who went to Costco and bought like 30 chairs (perhaps more) and distributed to those that needed.
- An evacuee who had hip surgery earlier that week was in a bad spot. They couldn’t get out of their wheel chair onto one of the cots we had because it was too low nor could they sit in their chair due to pain. These are things you don’t think about. We got them to our medical area and hopefully they ended up comfortable.
- A lady walks up to me with 7 Syrian refugees that spoke no English. We made them comfortable. 3 hours later an Arab family walked in. We connected the two and they all went to the second families friends home.
- I saw no less than 20 mutual restauranteurs who came and set up to bring hot meals to people.
- Over and over people came up to me and asked what to do. Often the answer was, “Please take trash bags and let’s stay ahead of keeping this place clean.” Not one eye roll, or question.
- I have a friend that will go un named who works in the governors office. At one point as there was no one yet in charge, I texted him and let him know, that “We were making decisions, but I promise we will do our best.” His vote of confidence was welcomed.
- Putting on marathons and events in general makes one adept at the same sort of problem solving needed to set up a shelter apparently.
- I have heard that the powers that be (General Honore etc.) were impressed by how smoothly things were going. That’ll make you feel good.
I’ll end with this. There are thousands of great, hard working people that work in government, but some of the trappings of government policy and procedure left me believing that smart people with common sense and a strong desire to help, are just as capable if not more so in the fine art of disaster/emergency management.
Per the usual, DOERS>SAYERS