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Quit Helping or Go to Jail

This article, "Quit Helping or Go To Jail," was written by our volunteer David Day.

Living in south Louisiana was difficult in 2005, specifically because of two names: Katrina and Rita. These two hurricanes have had lasting effects that no one could have ever imagined.

If you wind back the clock a little bit, in 2005 the invasion of Iraq by the United States was still in full swing, and many of the engineers with the Louisiana National Guard were deployed oversees. So, when Hurricane Katrina made landfall and decades of corruption and mismanagement surrounding the government’s levee systems came crashing down, many people died and many more lost all their worldly possessions. Louisianans were left with nowhere to go, and with no timeline as to when things would be “fixed.”

I witnessed friends and family volunteering 12-to-16-hour days doing things like cooking, cleaning, and providing essentials.

At the time I was a freshman in high school living in a little town outside of Lake Charles, LA. While I did not personally know anyone who was affected from Katrina, I knew that I needed to help. My family and I decided to volunteer at the Lake Charles Civic Center which was the primary hub where the city was taking in those affected by the storm. In some sense it was a typical setup: there were rooms with cots lined up in rows, making a grid that spanned the entire Civic Center, but in another sense the Lake Charles Civic Center was atypical because of how much the volunteers cared for our brothers and sisters from the eastern side of the state. Something that I am proud of to this day is that we would serve Louisiana staples like gumbo, jambalaya, and pasta while other places would serve bread with spam—or worse—and call it a meal.

I witnessed friends and family volunteering 12-to-16-hour days doing things like cooking, cleaning, and providing essentials. Because of the increase in phone traffic, it was very difficult to make or receive phone calls, so I taught some of the volunteers how to use text messaging. They in turn reached out and taught people displaced from the hurricane how to text. Some people had loved ones that they were not able to reach out to and let them know that they were safe until we showed them how to use text messaging.

Then the unthinkable happened: while still serving the victims of Katrina, we discovered that an even stronger storm was in the Gulf of Mexico, only this time it was headed straight towards Lake Charles. Because of the tremendous loss of life resulting from government’s failures surrounding Hurricane Katrina, it seemed like the state was going to overcompensate by issuing a mandatory evacuation much earlier and enforcing the evacuation order with much more intensity.

The deputies said that if we tried to continue helping people, we would be taken to jail.

While some volunteers evacuated on their own, many of us, including me, wanted to stay to help until the very last minute. Unfortunately, the Sheriff’s office unilaterally decided that the remaining volunteers did not need our help anymore. I will never forget deputies coming into the Civic Center kitchen and ordering me and the other volunteers to leave. The deputies said that if we tried to continue helping people, we would be taken to jail.

As a young teenager, this was a critical moment in my life. I remember evacuating to Pont Breaux shortly afterward and thinking to myself: “Why would they want us to stop helping?” We understood the risk. We understood the timeline. We remembered what happened from Katrina—this was why we wanted to stay as long as we could to help the remaining people. But none of that mattered to the deputies. The state could not make a risk assessment or value judgement for those volunteers who wanted to wait until the last possible minute. Unfortunately, what happened was that the help I could have provided was forcibly prevented by a top-down “solution” that was driven by the desire of politicians to save face from their failures with Katrina. This taught me a valuable lesson that the state, while sometimes well intentioned, is not the best way to help individuals.

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