Cover Story

No Greater Gift

The destruction and despair wreaked by hurricanes Katrina and Rita were unprecedented. So was the generous response of the residents of south Louisiana.

They came from all walks of life. Mechanics, sales clerks, bus drivers, business owners, college students, schoolchildren. They came from every neighborhood, some alone and some with family. In many cases, Katrina's wild winds still churned as people poured into the Cajundome, into Acadiana's shelters and churches, into our streets and our homes. They came because life in Louisiana had changed in those unthinkable moments when the levees burst. And then, even more came when, inconceivably, a second storm worked its wrath on the tiny towns of southwest Louisiana just a few short weeks later. They came because there was simply no place else to go. They came because they wanted to help.

In the wake of Hurricane Katrina's Aug. 29 landfall and Hurricane Rita's subsequent arrival on Sept. 24, local businesses, organizations, individuals and families responded immediately. Rarely has this region been more mobilized, more unified, more sure of what needed to be done. This was a chance to put that much-talked-about and often-practiced Cajun hospitality into high gear. What took place, on every level, was extraordinary ' enough to make Acadiana volunteers The Independent Weekly's Persons of the Year.

There are simply not enough words to write all of the stories. For one thing, it seems as though literally everyone did something. Some hardy souls hitched up their boats and headed to devastated areas to assist in rescue efforts. Others opened their homes to family members and friends, and in some cases friends they just hadn't met yet. Donations of clothes and food and water, all the immediate necessities of life, rolled in by the carload and the truckload; volunteers stood ready to sort and distribute these gifts. Businesses made financial contributions and freed employees to give of their time. Local universities and schools threw open their doors to displaced students, collecting supplies for them and cutting the red tape of enrollment to get them into classrooms as quickly as possible. Neighbors cooked and cleaned, walked dogs, did laundry, helped distract small armies of children with Crayons and storytimes. Most simply and most sympathetically, people just listened. They heard, really heard, the stories of evacuation and devastation, of fear and finality; they offered a handshake, a hug, whatever help they could conjure up. They are still doing all of this and more.

Here are some of those Acadiana stories. None of these volunteers seems to think their actions are out of the ordinary. Many decline to speak about what they have done; those who do are often hesitant, self-effacing. Each was just at home one day, watching the numbing news unfold on television, when the thought occurred to them to pick up the phone or get in their car. They sit down to interviews with index cards and dog-eared pieces of paper listing the names and numbers of five or 10 of their fellow volunteers whose efforts, they are convinced, are more worthy than their own. Sometimes, it's just a first name. "Have you heard about Lee?" "You've got to find Lloyd." But once they begin to tell their own experiences, the words come quickly, the memories bright and urgent, small pieces of a community's kaleidoscope of compassion.

When the call went out for boat owners to meet in the parking lot of the Mall of Acadiana in the predawn hours, an impressive flotilla assembled. Acadiana residents who spend their lives ' or at least their weekends ' on the water were ready to go into the submerged streets of New Orleans to rescue people from roofs, bridges, railroad tracks, wherever. Francois Ancelet was among those determined to get into the city. A first-year medical student at Louisiana State University Medical School in downtown New Orleans, Francois had evacuated home in the days before the storm hit. But he grabbed a friend and headed east on I-10 as soon as he heard of the boat operation. Like so many others who tried to venture into the devastated area, the pair was nearly turned away by a cast of overwhelmed and perhaps under-informed authorities on the ground. And also like so many others, Francois and his friend just kept trying to get in until they succeeded.

"You can see where you want to go, but every step takes forever and all your strength,'" he told his father, folklorist and UL professor Barry Ancelet. "Then we realized we could just drive by the authorities. After that, everything got easier. â?¦ The only question was right or left to get around them. It was the only way we could get anything done."

"Francois and his buddy were able to pull hundreds of people out," says the elder Ancelet. "They were lucky; they found a flat bottom floating loose and filled it with people and were towing it behind them and what people they had [in their boat]." It was not to be Francois' only foray. "When Rita hit, the little crawler hadn't finished going across the screen that Vermilion Parish was looking for help to get people off their roofs than he was off again," his father recalls.

Other Acadiana residents embarked for the disaster areas with different goals. Oil and gas executive Tim Supple and his brother, Robert, also went into New Orleans, with a trailer of food and water purchased at Sam's. They first headed for family in Cut Off, but received word that their cousins were OK so detoured toward the Crescent City instead. "We figured more people in New Orleans needed help at that point," says Tim. After a few fits and starts and a short foray into St. Bernard Parish with a group of EMS workers from Arkansas "who just came down on their own to see what they could do," the Supples were becoming frustrated with the lack of communication and coordination on the ground. But they were determined not to leave without delivering their supplies to someone in need. At a time when emergency responders and relief agencies still hadn't arrived in the city, the Supples crossed the Crescent City Connection and drove directly up to the interstate bridge right at the Superdome where evacuees were gathered. "We were scared and all that stupid stuff, but we were not leaving with that food," says Tim. A police officer at the scene gave them permission to distribute what they had in the trailer after assuring them that the crowd would be calm. "'These guys are so beat up,'" he told the Supples. "'They are going to be so grateful. I know I am; I haven't eaten in 24 hours.'" The two brothers handed out all the food on the bridge before leaving the city.

Back in Lafayette, a massive shelter effort for the displaced was in the works. The biggest effort was housed in the Cajundome, which took in several thousand individuals. "I was watching [all the stuff on TV], trying to figure out what the heck was going on and why all that happened," says Jim Crumling. "I felt like I had to do something." Crumling, a retired GE medical systems service engineer who runs three small businesses from his Lafayette home, put all of his work on hold and was soon helping at the dome six to eight hours every day; he was eventually added to the Cajundome payroll, helping to keep the meals operation up and running. "What really happened," he says, "was that I let my businesses go. But you know what? I never worried about that. I was on a mission. This took a hold of me."

Crumling is at first reluctant to talk about his work. "I really don't want to do this," he says. "Because it wasn't about me. It was about those people, and it was about the volunteers that came there that just gave of their time and couldn't do enough for the people."

As he talks about his time, though, it becomes apparent that Crumling did far more than just prepare and serve meals, often staying past his shifts to visit with volunteers and the families staying at the dome. "In between meals, I decided that I was going to go meet people; I was going to hear their stories," says the jovial Pennsylvania native who has lived in Lafayette for more than 20 years. "Over the two month period, what I really found out about the people was that they just wanted somebody to listen and not to talk. And if you know me, I'm a talker, OK? But I caught that right away. I talked to people who came off the bridge. I talked to people who came out of the Superdome and the Convention Center. And then eventually, I talked to people who came from Lake Charles and those areas."

During all those hours that Crumling spent making coffee, replenishing food supplies, cracking jokes and playing with kids, a worry of his own worked on his brain. His son was in the National Guard, serving in Iraq with the 256th Infantry Brigade and nearing the end of his yearlong deployment. "It was a rough year for me," he says. "You wake up every day. You turn the corner coming down the block, and you don't know. I didn't want to answer the phone half the time. I didn't focus. Probably the most focused thing was when I was at the Cajundome."

Crumling's son has since returned home, and the now-former Cajundome employee often sits on his back patio and contemplates what he saw and did after the storms. "I can still sit here," he says, "and close my eyes and see it as clear as day. That Saturday morning, the first time I went to do breakfast, and all the lights were out in the Cajundome. I'll never be able to go to a Cajun basketball game again and not envision all those beds. You just felt like you could never do enough."

UL nursing instructor Jill Laroussini, a New Orleans native, knows that feeling well. Laroussini called friends at the local Red Cross chapter as soon as she heard the Cajundome was opening as a shelter. The Lafayette Parish Medical Society set up the dome's clinic and took charge of collecting supplies and medicines. Laroussini offered up the 12 student nurses assigned to her, including junior Renata Hebert of Houma, who assisted with creating a pharmacy, filling out paperwork and helping individuals assess their prescription needs. "We walked out on the dome floor," says Laroussini, "and I brought my knapsack with my blood pressure cuff, just checking people's blood pressure, anybody that had that kind of dazed look, anybody elderly, anybody with a cane or a crutch or a wheelchair, just trying to seek them out, find out if they had family or someone with them. 'Are you on medicines regularly? Do you have enough? Can we call in a refill?' We were kind of helping people identify what resources they had, what was available here."

Hebert and her fellow students also brought their cell phones out into the crowd to try to help people reach family and friends. "That was really nice," says Hebert. "To get them on the other end of the line and let them talk or just leave a message." The nursing students gave evacuees hand massages using lavender and lemon balm for stress relief and wiped down every imaginable surface, an essential task in a space serving as home and office to so many people. "We would walk and clean the hand rails as we went," says Laroussini.

The students would come and go, depending on their class schedules, but Laroussini estimates a total of 600-plus hours of volunteer work. She declines to estimate her own. "But I have to tell you, it's not all altruistic," she says. "I have a disabled brother-in-law who refused to leave the city and was sent to the Superdome. So I'd be getting ready to wrap up a shift, and I'd realize, 'Wait, these buses are coming in from the Superdome. Let me stay; let me see if he's on this bus.'" She would call home to a house filled with evacuated family to make sure the cooking and cleaning and kids' bathtimes were covered. "And my family would say, 'Stay.' So while I was there, I would do the nursing work and try to help people."

Laroussini's family eventually located her brother-in-law, who had been airlifted to Fort Chaffee, Ark., but Laroussini stayed on, as she and her medical colleagues dealt with evacuees' medical situations and helped special needs patients and their families find local programs and facilities that could help them. "I think I'm really proficient, if not an expert, at being a beginner," says Laroussini. "I'm just so willing to go into â?¦ I used to say any room with a sink, but now that we have instant handwash, I say any room. Any tent. Any situation. Nurses are resourceful people."

So are pastors. In fact, local organization the United Clergy Coalition was birthed in response to the crisis of Katrina and Rita. Bobby Richard, a Eunice native and pastor of Hope Alive Community Worship Center in Broussard, serves as president of the regional network of churches that includes more than 40 religious institutions from across the denominational and cultural spectrum. Like so many others, Richard watched the images on television of what was happening in New Orleans ' and how people were responding. Richard's friend, Pastor Jay Mills of Family Life Worship Center, was one of the first to open the doors of his church in an attempt to alleviate the gridlock of I-10. That started Richard thinking.

The next day, as he walked into his church office housed in a refurbished school building just off Broussard's main drag, Richard overheard a nearby conversation. "There was a nightclub owner from just down the road, Club Delicious, in the hallway talking to my wife and one of our staff members," says Richard. "And I could hear the distress in his voice. He had, like, 40 people that he had housed in his club. He just had a big heart. He was finding people camped out on the side of the road, in Broussard, at gas stations. But he needed help, and that's when we kicked in here as a shelter."

The church hosts regular weekend retreats and was already equipped with cots and a kitchen facility, so Richard says the transition was fairly easy. But he realized that not all churches would be able to do the same ' and that maybe not all churches should. Richard wanted a streamlined, structured way for leaders in the faith community to communicate their needs and abilities to each other, so he delved into his past experience as a drill instructor in the Marine Corps and wrote a strategic action plan for a task force. Friends in New York who had formed a similar program in New York City after 9/11 came down in the days after Hurricane Katrina to help Richard create the United Clergy Coalition. What resulted was a means of coordinating coalition member efforts with each other and with organizations such as the United Way and the Federal Emergency Management Agency. "Really, the whole thing was built on the principle of multiplication versus duplication," he explains. For example, Hope Alive served as a shelter and was provided meals on a regular basis by First Baptist Church of Opelousas, which didn't have the facilities to house people on its own but wanted to participate in the relief effort.

"This is not just church as usual," says Richard. "You know what I'm saying? Most pastors pastor their congregation. But the coalition has said, 'No, man, we are going to pastor the city. We are going to pastor a region. We can't do it alone, but together, we are going to pastor.' Instead of just meeting the needs of our own congregations, this way we address the needs of an entire community."

Lay leaders basically ran Hope Alive, says Richard, while he and his staff focused on the coalition and the sheltering operation. "We called it 'refuge,' not 'shelter,' because the church is God's refuge," says Richard. "We kept the housing open to our honored guests for three months." At times, Richard admits, keeping track of numbers took second place to meeting needs, but he estimates that his church alone cared for more than 270 people.

As president of the coalition, Richard is involved in long-term recovery efforts, focusing on how many evacuees still need housing. He also plans to implement something called the Isaiah Project, which hopes to launch resource centers at area churches for crisis management coaching. "Really, it's case work," he says. "We're equipping each church that wants to be a resource center to do case work [with those who have relocated to our area] that includes stress management coaching, financial coaching, all of those things."

One of the agencies that the United Clergy Coalition worked with in response to the storms was Volunteer Organizations Active in Disaster, an association of local government officials, churches and nonprofits that usually meets once a year in May. "We reaffirm our commitment, update our contact information and then hope that we don't ever have to meet again until the next May," says Margaret Trahan, executive director of United Way of Acadiana, which convenes the VOAD meetings along with the local chapter of the Red Cross. In 2002, Hurricane Lili was VOAD's first experience. "It worked very well. We learned some things about what we could do better next time, and then the next time came, and it was Hurricane Katrina."

Because the Red Cross was in charge of the Cajundome efforts, the United Way of Acadiana offered to assume organizational responsibility for VOAD and held regular meetings to monitor needs throughout the area and make sure relief kept flowing into south Louisiana. United Way agencies such as Food Net and the YMCA expanded their services to meet the new demand. United Way itself became the supplier for 60 area shelters. "We ended up mobilizing a million pounds of donated goods, and that went to church shelters, it went to the Cajundome, and later it began flowing into Vermilion Parish after Hurricane Rita," says Trahan. "And it is still flowing into Vermilion Parish. We are still helping the distribution centers there because the people in the lower parts of Vermilion Parish are still very much in that early relief stage where they still need somebody to give them the very basics because they have no way of getting them otherwise."

All of this activity was possible because of one group of people. "Volunteers did everything," Trahan says. "They rocked babies; they served meals; they gave out water; they unloaded trucks; they organized and sorted tons of clothing and toiletries, blankets, toys; they answered phones; they were a shoulder to cry on." Trahan estimates that the United Way's volunteer center filled more than 4,000 volunteer positions for a total of 18,000 service hours.

Trahan volunteered on more than one occasion. She remembers getting a call from Cajundome Director Greg Davis right after Hurricane Rita hit; roof leaks had damaged the bedding in the dome. Katrina evacuees were on their way back from Shreveport, and Rita evacuees were starting to come in as well. So late that Sunday afternoon, Trahan rounded up five volunteers "who just happened to be here." The team started to pull bedding out of the warehouse. "It was literally the miracle of the loaves and the fishes because not only could we fill up his truck to the brim ' he sent a 23-foot truck ' but I said if you send the truck back, we can fill it up again."

The United Way supply operation was staged out of the warehouse behind the agency's Pinhook office. Today, there are still bags of clothing and bedding to be sorted, an operation that in these past few weeks has included everyone from individual workers to Boy Scout troops. Trahan remembers one afternoon when close to 100 Boy Scouts were wrapping up a long day of sorting and organizing goods. "I go outside, and [the scoutmaster]'s got them assembled in formation, right up by the warehouse doors. And so he proceeds to talk to them and calls them to attention, and then he has one of the little scouts come forward and lead them in prayer. So here it is twilight, and this child is praying in my parking lot. I'll never forget that.

"I was just so moved," she continues, "by their example, by their compassion and just by their heart. That was just so obvious as you saw them bow their heads for this fabulous, spontaneous prayer that was led by a child. It was one of the truly moving experiences of the storm, seeing the heart of our community. I saw it in those children that day and in what they wanted to do."

The storms have passed, and the pain they brought is fading only slightly as people all over south Louisiana turn to the overwhelming task of reinventing their lives. But in the midst of all that has been lost, something important has been found.

"Lafayette just stopped what it was doing and showed up to help," says Laroussini.

It would be quite a grand romantic notion to believe that Acadiana responded the way it did because we are uniquely situated to understand unexpected exile. We live with the everyday echoes of Acadie, the constant awareness that our vibrant culture was born out of a historical diaspora. But perhaps this response of ours is grounded in something else. "This thing keeps getting reinforced because we keep responding the same way," Barry Ancelet says. "A roof blows off in the neighborhood, and you go to help put it back on. That's what we've always done."

And that's what we will continue to do. "It's just the kind of community we have here in Acadiana, and I mean community in the biggest sense of the word," says Trahan, who is in the process of transitioning the United Way from relief to long-term recovery operations. "We're just kind of can-do people. We're not going to wait to be rescued by somebody else. We're going to get in there and do what it takes to take care of our own."

The story of Acadiana in these waning months of 2005 has been the story of how it took a village to save a suddenly scattered city, the story of how individuals just helping in their own simple ways can change the currents of catastrophe and bring hope into the midst of despair.

"It's a wonderful story," says Trahan. "It's a story that's still being written."