Louisiana Flood Victims Become Helpers
Catholic Charities of Baton Rouge is lending a hand, even as its own staff are affected by the disaster.
BATON ROUGE, La. — In southern Louisiana, the flooding is perhaps unprecedented. And the local Catholic Charities is stepping up to help, even as its own staff are affected by the disaster.
“This is something that we’ve never experienced before,” David Aguillard, executive director of Catholic Charities of Baton Rouge, told CNA.
“We’re the disaster capital of the world down here. We’ve had oil spills, rig fires, tornados, ice storms, hurricanes, floods,” he said Aug. 15. “The thing about this is it’s such a widespread area. This is basically all of south Louisiana, from the Mississippi border to Texas. Everything south of I-10 is flooded.”
More than 30 inches of rain fell in southern Louisiana beginning on Friday, flooding rivers and waterways. Some rivers won’t recede for days, and any additional rain would risk more flash floods.
At least seven people have died because of the storms.
More than 20,000 people had to be evacuated from their homes, and 12,000 were staying in shelters, ABC News reports. Some shelters were over capacity and lacked sufficient beds, and expanding floodwaters caused evacuations at some shelters that were supposed to be safe havens. Some people still need to be evacuated from their homes.
President Barack Obama has declared a federal emergency in the affected areas.
Over 40,000 homes are without power, hundreds of roads are closed, and 1,400 bridges need safety inspections before being reopened.
“Riding Interstate 10 was like riding an elevated causeway through a waterway. It was water on both sides of the interstate,” Aguillard told CNA.
The impact is so broad that many of Catholic Charities staff are affected, too. They and their families are seeking shelter or trying to leave their neighborhoods.
“The water backed up, and nothing was draining. In neighborhoods that have never been flooded, people have four, six, 12 inches of water in their houses,” Aguillard said. “We were not spared ourselves.”
Some agency staff feel the same emotions as other victims: shock, trauma, sadness and a feeling of loss; but also a realization that, in Aguillard’s words, “it’s time to get to work and help people.”
“I’ve had staff in here who had to evacuate their homes. They’re feeling sad, you can tell, but at the same time, they’re here today,” he added. “We’re going to do everything we possibly can to help people.”
Some shelters are inaccessible from Baton Rouge, and relief workers come in from New Orleans. Catholic Charities is now aiding parishes that need toiletries, food and even coffee. Case managers and mental-health professionals are going to the shelters, which are “full to the brim.”
Cash, though, is the most useful asset in such a situation, as well as for Catholic Charities’ long-term relief work.
“In the weeks and days immediately after a disaster, there’s a tremendous rush of goodwill and high energy and compassion. And that is desperately needed,” Aguillard explained. “That is very valuable. But the fact is, there are people who might take years to recover.”
“Their workplaces might close down. They might be one or two paychecks away from losing their houses or their leases. That’s where we come in. We’re here for the long term: to help with that recovery process that can take two to five years, sometimes longer.”
There are still some people who have yet to recover from Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
“Not everybody has a savings account. Not everybody has family with resources to help. That’s what we’re here for,” said Aguillard.
“We go out and we do the work immediately, when it is needed. We just pray and we trust and have faith that the resources are going to come. And we’ve never been let down,” he said.
“The generosity of people around the country is just overwhelming. It’s phenomenal. It’s very touching when we start getting donations from the state of Washington or Alaska, not only from within our diocese.”
Baton Rouge Catholic Charities is asking for donations to help flood-relief work through its website, CCDIOBR.org.