Hurricane Laura: My experience from two weeks on the ground in Louisiana

By: Sophie Kluthe

As I got on my flight to Louisiana on September 10, I knew I was one of thousands of Red Crossers from all over the country with hopes of making a difference on the ground this Hurricane Season. With wildfires raging in the West, and hurricanes and tropical storms still brewing in the Gulf of Mexico, I was heading to part of the country that had just been thrashed by one of the strongest hurricanes to ever hit the U.S. 

Hurricane Laura made landfall on August 27, causing widespread devastation across east Texas and Louisiana. After two weeks in emergency shelters, some evacuees still didn’t have power at their homes, and many still had not been able to find out whether they still had a home to return to at all.  

It is one thing to see heartbreak play out across a screen. It’s another thing to feel it radiating off a person as they relay the terror they felt riding out the storm and emerging with nothing but a few personal effects. The destruction I saw first-hand in Lake Charles was eye opening. In some places, it felt like whole neighborhoods had blue roofs because of the tarps covering up damage on every home. In other places, you might be lucky to find a few scraps of twisted metal on the side of the road, which indicated someone’s home had once stood there.  

The entrance to one neighborhood in Lake Charles, Louisiana.

Despite these challenges, I also experienced a sense of hope that somehow helped to balance out all the devastation. I spoke with dozens of people who had been displaced, their resiliency and optimism piercing through the cloud of uncertainty that so often hangs around after a disaster rolls through. One couple in particular exemplified this. They had evacuated their home before the hurricane, not willing to risk riding it out because they were expecting their first baby. A very pregnant Katie Gauthreaux and her significant other, Ezekiel Perkins, were staying in one of the shelters the Red Cross was operating at hotels in Baton Rouge. They said the hotel room plus three meals a day was “a blessing.”  

Katie Gauthreaux and Ezekiel Perkins pick up dinner from a Red Cross disaster worker.

Perkins added, “It takes a lot of weight off my shoulders because I know when he comes, my son will have a safe place to sleep. I don’t have to worry about that.”   

They had decided to start over in Baton Rouge. Perkins was using his days to job hunt and Gauthreaux got set up with a local doctor. Next, they planned to find a new place to live. They had a heathy baby boy in their arms during my second week there.  

Another sense of hopefulness came from meeting all the Red Cross workers, mostly volunteers, who had left home with two bags and a facemask to travel to Louisiana for two or more weeks. I met Nancy Jodoin at the Baton Rouge shelters. She’s a nurse from Massachusetts who took three weeks of her own vacation time to volunteer with the Red Cross. Not only did she tend to medical needs, but I also watched her deliver hope and a caring reassurance to so many people navigating the toughest days of their lives.  

Nancy Jodoin checks in on Lizzie Tyler at one of the Red Cross shelters.

Jodoin, like so many other Red Cross volunteers, went above and beyond to get to know the people she was serving and to form relationships so that she could help them on a deeper level. While she used her nursing skills, another Red Crosser I met was leaning on the skills he’d acquired in his 30-year career with the National Guard. Retiring as a colonel, Ed Bush had just left his old job with hopes of finding a new one that was also rewarding. Two months into his new role on the leadership team of the Louisiana Region of the Red Cross, he was in the thick of the recovery effort, acting as a liaison between the organization and local elected officials. He said he knew he made the right choice for this next phase of his career.  

Ed Bush kept an eye on developing storms as he worked out of the Red Cross command center in Lake Charles.

“You look to your left and to your right and the people you’re surrounded by are people of such character that you’re like, this is what I want to be a part of,” he said.  

While we’ve made a lot of progress in the Hurricane Laura relief effort, there’s still much more work to do. Today, some of those impacted are still in emergency lodgings, more than a month after Laura made landfall. On Thursday night, the Red Cross and our partners provided 11,700 people with safe refuge. Over the past several weeks in response to Hurricane Laura, the Red Cross and our partners have provided 595,800 total overnight stays in emergency lodgings, and 620 Red Crossers are still supporting disaster relief efforts on the ground or virtually.  

And that’s just the one disaster. When you look at the ongoing concurrent disaster response operations for Hurricane Laura, Hurricane Sally, and the Western Wildfires, the numbers are staggering. Over the past several weeks the Red Cross has provided 804,900 total overnight stays in emergency lodgings across multiple states: the most ever. We have served more than 2.1 million meals and snacks and distributed 279,100 relief items with the help of partners.  

I feel honored to have played a small role in it along with so many incredible colleagues and partners that help us deliver our mission. As I write this, more than 20 Red Cross workers form our Southeastern Pennsylvania region are supporting major recovery operations on the ground and virtually, with more people heading out next week. It’s been a challenging season so far, but it brings me comfort to know that the Red Cross is delivering real, tangible help to thousands of people displaced by disasters as well as the intangible aspects of hope and comfort that we bring to these communities, even if it’s from six feet of social distance.  

I was in awe of the generosity I saw from volunteers and donors. That included a Red Cross disaster vehicle donated by Louisiana native Britney Spears.

To learn more about the Red Cross, head to www.redcross.org

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