Neighbors Helping Their Neighbors: Volunteers, Agencies, and People Help After Ida Passed Through Southern Louisiana | Ascension
When a tropical storm hits the Gulf, Volunteer Ascension CEO Sherry Denig goes into disaster preparedness and relief mode.
Around the time Ida was circling in the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico, the storm hit some runways around Ascension Parish and later, as the storm intensified into a hurricane, a target was placed on much of the area.
Denig began to gather resources for shelters and to help people evacuate. It was not his first rodeo. She has lists of resources residents need before and after a disaster.
“We learned so much from the 2016 floods, but it was different,” Denig said on Friday. “We thought this was coming our way for a long time… and then it changed.”
After the shift, Denig began planning for the consequences here and in neighboring parishes. Since Ida’s coup, impacting areas to the south and east, Denig has been “the right kind of busy”.
From working to set up shelters to organizing teams from across the country who have come down to the parish to help, Denig said she has seen the best in people.
For Sheriff Bobby Webre, after 36 years in law enforcement during which he had to deal with numerous hurricanes, it was a different experience. It was his first hurricane to hit the region since taking office in 2020 and the pandemic has added special challenges.
Calling Friday from his out-of-state vacation, Webre said his membership was down by a dozen MPs recovering from COVID-19. MPs have also had to face and follow pandemic guidelines to prevent the spread of the virus. He sent MPs to the hardest hit areas so officers could help with recovery efforts.
It was also the first time he had faced a fuel shortage. He worried about having fuel to keep his patrol units on the road after the agency’s fuel distributor said “this is the last truck.” He called a press conference to ask why the region was experiencing a fuel shortage. In less than 15 minutes, he received calls promising him fuel.
Many current disaster guidelines were written after the 2016 floods, Denig said. Denig and Webre said they are developing best practices through collaborations forged during emergencies.
Denig said his agency has worked for 20 years to build relationships that have resulted in trust between his agency and the public and the business community. It’s rare that a company turns down Denig’s request for assistance because “we’ve built that trust over the year.”
After Ida’s coup, Denig was busy on the phone with groups across the country to find local partners to help with relief efforts. An Alabama group set up at Fellowship Church and Ascension Baptist hosted a group of volunteers from Alabama.
She also helps individuals and other groups who want to help. One of those groups she helped was from Orange Beach, Alabama. It was led by former Gonzales resident Rhett Bourgeois, who worked with an Orange Beach church to collect and distribute supplies throughout the hurricane-ravaged area. Bourgeois knew he wanted to help his home state and contacted Denig to facilitate the distribution.
Denig has partnered with the Lamar-Dixon Center to set up a shelter and help with supplies distribution efforts.
The Lamar-Dixon Expo Center served as a base camp in southern Louisiana for utility crews in an effort to restore public services and provide medical care to areas devastated by Hurricane Ida, said Kyle Roger , general manager of the center.
Ward President Clint Cointment said he was “delighted that in the ward and all of the departments we were able to help so many people. Not just locally but across the state. . “
Webre praised local mayors, the school board and other local leaders for “coming to the table in real time of need.”
This week, Denig, Webre, and other ward leaders will review their disaster plans and talk about changes that could be made before net disaster strikes. Webre is considering the need for more bulk fuel tanks, among other things.
After the 2016 floods, long-term relief efforts were needed and local agencies adopted best practices that will help Ida’s recovery.
Looking back, Denig said that one thing showed the generous spirit of the people of Ascension Ward. After Ida moved out and the utility crews moved in, local cooks in the jambalaya began lighting their large black pots to cook for the linemen. Local volunteers collected the meals and delivered them to the workers. A Facebook page has been set up to connect hungry linemen with local cooks. “This just made my day reading the answers on this page,” Denig said. Some of the wives of the out-of-state linemen even left messages thanking the local cooks.
“Everything here loves to cook and since so many people couldn’t get back to work right after the storm, they cooked,” Denig said. “This is something we can count on in every disaster, someone is always ready to cook for those who need it.”
Relief efforts are not over, Denig said, adding that teams are still helping install the blue tarps to prevent the roofs from leaking.
“This one is going to take a while to come back,” Webre said. “But Ascension Parish hasn’t finished helping. That’s what we’re doing.”