Disaster response

Victims themselves, Louisiana Kiwanians help others recover from devastating hurricanes.

Story by Julie Saetre • Photos by Kathy Anderson

The state of Louisiana is no stranger to hurricanes. Since the mid-1800s, more than 50 of the powerful storms have lashed its shores and deluged its land. And because of the state’s low elevation, combined with a lack of natural defenses like barrier islands and wetlands, it’s especially vulnerable to damage when hurricanes bear down on its coast.

The monstrous Hurricane Katrina that devastated New Orleans is arguably the best known, generating a flood of round-the-clock news coverage and harrowing images. So it might be surprising to learn that on August 27, 2020, a hurricane with winds more powerful than Katrina barreled into the state as a Category 4 storm, with sustained winds of 150 miles per hour. That kind of wind power hadn’t been seen in Louisiana since 1856, when a hurricane dubbed Last Island made landfall. (Hurricane Katrina’s winds clocked in at 125 mph.)

A structure slide into the water off of Parish Road 507 in Carlyle, Louisiana when Hurricane Laura slammed into Louisiana. Tuesday, September 1, 2020. Photo by Kathy Anderson.

Why, then, didn’t Laura demand the kinds of headlines and long-term coverage of her 2005 predecessor? It comes down to the combination that determines so much in life: time and place.

During August 2020, COVID-19 — the positive cases, the deaths, the race for a vaccine or treatment, social distancing and masking mandate controversies — had the world’s attention. Any other news paled in comparison, making temporary headlines and then disappearing with the latest virus update.

As for place: The eye of Hurricane Laura came ashore in Cameron Parish, then passed over the Lake Charles metropolitan area in Calcasieu Parish, all in the southwestern part of Louisiana. While Cameron Parish is the largest parish in the state geographically, its population is the state’s second smallest. Lake Charles has a population of almost 85,000, paling in comparison with New Orleans (nearly 384,000) and Baton Rouge (over 227,000).

Malissa Sweeny, a Kiwanian and law enforcement officer from Leesville, Louisiana, summarizes: “Pretty much anything that is not in Baton Rouge or New Orleans gets overlooked.”

So Sweeny and many other Kiwanis members in Louisiana did what they do best: jumped into action and (literally) came to the rescue. 

Like the state she’s called home for 40 years, Eva Abate — the 2018-19 governor of Kiwanis’ Louisiana-Mississippi-West Tennessee District and a longtime member of the Southwest Contraband, Lake Charles Kiwanis Club — has weathered quite a few storms. Until Laura blew onto the scene, Hurricane Rita was one of the most memorable. Rita followed on the heels of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, making landfall on the western side of Cameron Parish as a strong Category 3 storm with sustained winds of 115 miles per hour. Rita flooded 250 miles of Louisiana’s coastline and left behind some US$25.2 billion in damage.

“Hurricane Rita destroyed a lot,” Abate says, “but not like Laura. Laura was a beast all its own. Rita took down an enormous amount of trees, but when Laura came through, the winds were just so much stronger. Laura took down probably three times the amount of trees.”

Between Laura’s intense winds and brutal storm surge of over 15 feet, the destruction was catastrophic. Those living on or near the shoreline in Cameron Parish, 25 miles south of the Lake Charles area, saw homes heavily damaged or destroyed — and some swept away by the surging water.

Ken Poullard, 20, and his brother David Stevens, Jr.. 9, stand in front of part of their damaged home in the aftermath of Hurricane Laura in Lake Charles, Louisiana on Thursday, August 27, 2020. Photo by Kathy Anderson

“I think about 90% was gone,” Abate says. “Whatever they had. ‘Barndominiums,’ homes, whatever, went out with the hurricane. They just get sucked out into the Gulf of Mexico.”

Some homes remained standing — or partially so — but were left uninhabitable. Others needed a long list of repairs, from ripped-off roofs to flooded interiors. The U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration would eventually list damage at US$19 billion, with NBC News and the Federal Emergency Management Agency reporting that the storm destroyed more than 10,000 Louisiana homes and damaged more than 130,000 others.

Bruce Hammatt, the 2019-20 governor of the Kiwanis Louisiana-Mississippi-West Tennessee District and its current governor-elect, lives in Baton Rouge with his wife, Joy, immediate past president of the Baton Rouge Kiwanis Club. At one point, Laura had been predicted to hit the Baton Rouge area. When it shifted course, the Hammatts immediately decided to help where they could.

The couple loaded their truck with relief supplies, including food, water, tarps, gasoline and chainsaws for clearing trees, then headed toward Lake Charles. It wasn’t an easy drive.

“It’s not like driving to Lake Charles (on a normal day),” Bruce explains. “It may take you half a day to get there for a drive that used to normally take an hour and a half, two hours. Even though we left before daylight, we didn’t get down there until probably noon.”

“The Kiwanis club is our students’ biggest supporter and encourager. I truly don’t know what we would do without them.”

— Jill Deason

Before leaving, the Hammatts had been able to reach Eva Abate — a stroke of luck because many phone lines and cell towers had been destroyed. Abate and her husband had phone service, but her 40-year-old home didn’t escape unscathed. 

The roof was damaged. The home’s interior had water damage. The structure that sheltered the couple’s motorhome was destroyed. And the Abates’ 2-acre property was covered in rubble.

“It took me two weeks to pick up the debris in my yard, in extreme heat,” Abate recalls.

Still, they had electricity thanks to a generator, and they could bunk for a while in the motorhome. So when the Hammatts made that phone call, Abate volunteered to become command central for area rescue efforts.

She directed the Hammatts to drop off their supplies at an area church that had set up an emergency distribution center, then advised them on residents who needed assistance with fallen trees and other debris. The Hammatts then headed to clear properties where they could.

While the Hammatts had to return to Baton Rouge at the end of the day to comply with Lake Charles’ emergency curfew, their relief work with Abate was just beginning. The Baton Rouge Kiwanis Club applied for an emergency relief grant from the Louisiana-Mississippi-West Tennessee District, and Abate recommended Iowa, Louisiana, as a community in need.

Located some 20 miles east of Lake Charles, the small community took one of the hurricane’s hardest hits. The city’s mayor told a reporter from KPLC-TV in Lake Charles that more than 80% of the town’s homes and structures had sustained damage.

The Baton Rouge club used the relief grant to purchase hot dogs, hamburgers, chips, cookies and bottled water and provided drive-thru meals to an estimated 750-1,000 people in Iowa, including residents, line workers, first responders and anyone else in need. They gave the leftover food and drinks to Abate, who donated the supplies to M.J. Kaufman Elementary School in Lake Charles so the students could take meals home with them. The Southwest Contraband club also purchased backpacks for the children, filled with school supplies, hygiene items, a flashlight and a stuffed animal.

“Most of our students lost everything in the storm, so this truly meant so much to them and their families,” says Jill Deason, Kaufman’s assistant principal. “The Kiwanis club is our students’ biggest supporter and encourager. I truly don’t know what we would do without them.”

Kiwanian Malissa Sweeney in Leesville, Louisiana. Photo by Kathy Anderson

Sweeny, the Kiwanian from Lees, was busy organizing her own relief efforts in the meantime — both as a DARE (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) officer for the Vernon Parish Sheriff Department and as a member of three Kiwanis clubs — Vernon, Natchitoches and an e-club. (The Vernon club has since closed.)

Like the Hammatts, Sweeny coordinated obtaining emergency relief funds from the Louisiana-Mississippi-West Tennessee District to purchase water, nonperishable food, socks, underwear, backpacks full of school supplies and other necessities. Kiwanians brought them in “truckloads” to Grand Lake Community Church in Lake Charles for distribution, she says. Club members also prepared and served hundreds of hot meals from the church parking lot.

Almost six weeks after Laura hit, Sweeny was coordinating service with church representative Annette Norman when a weather report arrived for the Lake Charles area.

“I was there, feeding them a meal,” she says, “when we got the weather alert that they were getting ready to get hit by Hurricane Delta. And I watched Miss Annette and the church ladies who had just gotten the church organized with supplies, and all I could do was hug them. I was like, ‘There are no words. We can’t control the weather. But we can say we’re going to get through this next one.’”

On October 6, 2020, Hurricane Delta went ashore 12 miles east of Laura’s landfall. A Category 2 storm with sustained winds of 100 mph, Delta didn’t equal Laura’s fury, but she wreaked her own havoc. Structures damaged by the first storm had protective tarping and other ongoing repairs ripped away (Eva Abate, for example, lost her home’s newly installed replacement roof), and the 12 to 18 inches of water dumped by Delta caused significant flood damage.

And so the relief cycle began anew. And Kiwanians led the way.

“You just do what you’ve got to do,” Sweeny says. 

In all, Kiwanians from throughout the district (and outside the state) served several Louisiana communities through emergency grants, donations of money and supplies, making meals, clearing roads and properties and more.

They would do so again in February 2021, when an ice storm — part of Winter Storm Viola — caused the loss of electricity and water for up to a week in some areas. And again in May 2021, after the third-heaviest rainfall in Lake Charles’ history knocked out electricity for thousands and flooded hundreds of buildings.

Abate’s home was one of those buildings. While yet more repairs were made, she and her husband lived in their motorhome for months. Abate took it in stride.

“We just move forward,” she says.

For Sweeny, service in the storms’ aftermath cemented the reason she joined Kiwanis in 2004.

 “It’s a good fit,” she says. “I didn’t do it to get a gold star. I did it because that’s who I am. Kiwanis is a huge part of who I am.”

Kiwanians from Louisiana and beyond provided help after a series of storms rocked the state in 2020-21

By Eva Abate, 2018-19 governor of the Louisiana-Mississippi-West Tennessee District and longtime member of the Southwest Contraband, Lake Charles Kiwanis Club

In 2020, the state of Louisiana was hit by Hurricane Laura in August and Hurricane Delta in October, causing billions of dollars in damage and destroying or damaging thousands of homes and other buildings. Then, in February 2021, an ice storm knocked out power in some places for up to a week, and in May, torrential rains caused flash flooding and more lost and damaged homes and structures.

Although impacted herself by the series of storms, Eva Abate still took on the role of coordinating disaster relief efforts by assisting the many Kiwanians who wanted to help the recovery efforts.

My journey started with many phone calls from fellow Kiwanians from the Louisiana-Mississippi-West Tennessee and Texas-Oklahoma districts. I had to write them all down so that I wouldn’t forget. Here is how these Kiwanians came together to help:

  • The Texas-Oklahoma District donated about 130 backpacks filled with hygiene items and personal items. These backpacks were given to the cleanup volunteers at Trinity Baptist Church in Lake Charles, Families Helping Families (a nonprofit that assists those with disabilities and their families), Room at the Inn – Lake Charles (a nonprofit helping those experiencing homelessness), and City of Refuge (a shelter for veterans). 
  • The Orange (Texas) Kiwanis Club gave away hamburger meals, diapers and wipes in Vinton, Louisiana.
  • The Cortana, Baton Rouge Kiwanis Club made and served jambalaya in the Louisiana cities of Lake Charles, Sulphur and Jennings. Teams visited on multiple occasions, each time also bringing a trailer loaded with supplies for distribution.
  • The Paris (Texas) Kiwanis Club donated about 1,800 pounds of pancake mix and syrup. With the help of Bruce Hammatt (the 2019-20 governor of the Louisiana-Mississippi-West Tennessee District and its current governor-elect) and Gary Graham (the 2015-16 governor of the Louisiana-Mississippi-West Tennessee District), we were able to deliver to Catholic Charities of Southwest Louisiana in Lake Charles.
  • Joe Shumate, the city marshal of Denham Springs, Louisiana, drove to Welsh, Louisiana, a small community of about 3,200, to cook two large pots of pasta jambalaya.  I recruited family and friends to help, and city council members joined us. John Hall, the Welsh fire chief, had us set up inside the truck bays, and it was a blessing. Right around noon the rain came pouring down, but we were dry. 
  • Baton Rouge Kiwanis Club members cooked hamburgers and hot dogs for the residents of Iowa, Louisiana. I recruited local volunteers who did a great job with distribution. 
  • The Town of Lake Arthur, Louisiana, was a recipient of jambalaya provided by the New Iberia Kiwanis Club. We had a beautiful day to hand out the meals, cleaning products and candy.
  • The Dawn Busters, Metairie, Kiwanis Club members cooked red beans and rice for the residents of Westlake, Louisiana. They also donated to the local food pantry, using Items collected by Key Club members. They delivered 12 cases of T-shirts to me from the Crescent City Classic, one of the oldest 10K races in the country. I spread the wealth by donating the shirts to the Texas-Oklahoma District, the City of Refuge in Vinton, Louisiana; Trinity Baptist Church in Lake Charles,  Care Help of Sulphur (a ministry providing short-term assistance), CARC Lake Charles (a nonprofit helping those with developmental disabilities) and Monsignor Daniel Torres for his mission trip to Puerto Rico.
  • I also assisted a north Florida Kiwanis club that had collected items to deliver to Lake Charles, but Hurricane Zeta hit the Mississippi Gulf Coast before they made it to Lake Charles. Dennis Oliver, member of the Gulfport Kiwanis Club in Mississippi and former Kiwanis International trustee (2012-2015) was gracious enough to accept the items to help his community.

I know that several other clubs came over to help, and I want to say thank you. Also, thank you to all the volunteers who made every event a success. I know that many of you have experienced disasters, but I have to say that there is nothing like the love of our Kiwanis family.

Even after the unimaginable destruction of Hurricanes Laura and Delta, I still had a great time serving with my fellow Kiwanians. I did my best to help as many residents of southwest Louisiana as possible. I stayed very busy helping others, which helped me get beyond my own destruction. (I put on one new roof before Delta and another new roof after Delta. My motorhome garage was blown away by Hurricane Laura. I had some water damage in my home. It took me two weeks to pick up the debris in my yard in the extreme heat.) 

This story originally appeared in the December 2021 issue of Kiwanis magazine.

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