How a Jersey Girl Fell in Love With Louisiana
In case you missed the memo (and don't worry it seems most people have), Louisiana is currently dealing with the aftermath of what some are calling the worst natural disaster since Hurricane Sandy. (If that doesn't give you a sense of the tragedy, nothing will.)
13 people have died. Tens of thousands have been displaced. People have lost everything. We all know what that kind of devastation looks like, but for me, it's two-fold.
The flooding in the Baton Rouge area is reminiscent of what we have seen here in New Jersey from Irene and Sandy, but it also brings me right back to one truly memorable and emotional week I spent in the Gulf Coast Region.
Let's start with how I got there.
It was actually on this day, August 23rd, in 2005 that Hurricane Katrina developed over the Bahamas, and over the next nine days caused complete and utter chaos around the Gulf Coast. More than 1,200 people died, with property damage estimates at over $100 billion. I was a junior at Penn State, and in my apartment in State College, Pennsylvania, was sort of shocked by the news, but didn't really quite understand the extent of it.
Just a couple of weeks earlier, I had wrapped up my summer internship with our sister station, New Jersey 101.5. Luckily, they realized the enormity of the storm in Louisiana, and took things one step further: my co-workers mobilized to help.
Spearheaded by my friend, Big Joe Henry, the station had a plan to help families down there who had lost everything...and I was lucky enough to be asked to be a part of it.
Collecting donated toys at malls across New Jersey over the next several months, we had a plan to bring some holiday spirit to the South.
In mid-December 2005, I turned in assignments early, left school just at the start of Finals Week, and headed home to pack for what I can only describe as an adventure.
Granted, nearly 11 years later, a lot of it is a blur, but I know this much, a handful of us, including Big Joe, a couple of his friends, and Joe's producer/my buddy Cyndi, got on a tour bus. My friend Tyrone and his brother TJ followed behind us in the station van, towing a trailer full of equipment, and a couple of tractor-trailers stuffed with toys all headed towards New Orleans.
Our bus driver, a man named Boo, somehow got us there in just about 24 hours. We rarely stopped. I still don't know how he did it.
I was in for a week of the highest highs and the lowest lows, starting with that bus trip. We had a great time, all talking, listening to music, and I know I learned about a new cocktail called the Hula Hoop. We forgot for a while what we were heading into.
Once we got to New Orleans, it was dark out, but you could still see the devastation. I got emotional (par for the course with me, really.) What would happen over the following days would be why Louisiana will always hold a special place in my heart.
What We Did
Over the course of that week, I would be in several different area towns, setting up winter wonderland-style Santa's Workshop scenes, and helping out with live broadcasts from our various locations. The awesome volunteers from Holiday Express arrived to put on concerts, and kids who lost literally everything to Katrina were able to get new toys in time for Christmas.
I got to experience the unique nightlife of Bourbon Street, the historic Jackson Square and the French Quarter, and legendary foodie destinations like Cafe du Monde and Emeril's. I told you, the highest of highs.
But then there were the lows.
Utter devastation, four months after the storm disappeared. That unique smell of mold and mildew in the air. Learning that the symbols I saw on destroyed houses meant that they had been inspected by search crews...and if they contained a certain number or letter, it meant they found a dead body inside.
And the one story I have never been able to forget after all this time.
We were at a military base in Gulfport, Mississippi, near the end of the trip. We had set up our toy drive as usual, with Santa (played by Big Joe) arriving for the kids via firetruck. One little boy made his way through the display, and up to Santa to make his Christmas wish, and when Santa asked, "And what do you want for Christmas this year?" The little boy just looked at him and said, "All I want is a home."
I lost it. I had to go behind our bus and call my mom. If that's not something to make you grateful for every last thing you have, I don't know what is.
Another stop on our tour was a school in Luling, Louisiana -- where at some point we were treated to a giant pot of the most amazing homemade gumbo I've ever had, by a lady I swear could have been all of our grandmothers! (Another high!)
And now, 11 years later, another low. Luling was hit by the recent floods.
It is unbelievable to me that it has happened to them again. It is heartbreaking that not too many people seem to have noticed, now 11 days later. And I hate that I don't know how to help.
And I'm saddened and scared by the fact that if it could happen to them twice, it could happen to us too. It's even more reason why we should have their backs through this. They are the rare group of people who know exactly what we've gone through.
Donate to the Salvation Army's Gulf Coast fund. If you can spare the time, and are able, volunteer to help on the ground in Louisiana through the Red Cross or Operation Blessing International. Samaritan's Purse is another amazing charity that is helping flood victims in Louisiana.
We've been where these people are. We know what it's like to be desperate for help, to just need the basics of food, shelter, and clothing for your family. I can't imagine going through that and feeling like the rest of the country doesn't even notice. Let's show them we're paying attention.