The forecast was ominous. The warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico provided the perfect conditions for a weather disturbance to explode from a tropical storm into a category 4 hurricane in just 48 hours. Predictions included a 20-foot storm surge that local officials described as “unsurvivable.” Coastal residents from Galveston, Texas to Gulfport, Mississippi braced for what may lie ahead, but ultimately it was southwest Louisiana that bore the brunt as Hurricane Laura made landfall at 1:00 am on Thursday, August 27, 2020. 

The images that emerged in the light of day were heart-wrenching. It was immediately evident that affected residents would need emergency aid for the foreseeable future. This same region was devastated 15 years earlier by Hurricane Rita, a storm that struck three short weeks after Hurricane Katrina ravaged New Orleans in 2005. With commemorations for the Crescent City’s recovery simultaneously overlapping with Laura’s landfall, it was impossible to ignore the similarities between our past and Lake Charles’ painful present. Cue the Junior League of New Orleans (JLNO).

“Our members are absolutely wonderful,” said Kristin Van Hook Moore, JLNO President. “There were a lot of people reaching out asking ‘What are we going to do?’” She explains how the Junior League rapidly mobilized its members and rallied their community partners to deliver as much aid as possible. Having experience with past natural disasters, League leadership knew the need for diapers would be immense, as would food, clothing and period products – all assets JLNO has ready access to. A clarion call was put out for donations citywide, and all hands were on deck as contributions began streaming into JLNO Headquarters, which was serving as a collection site for the City of New Orleans. 

Leila Darwish is the Community Engagement Coordinator at NOLA Ready, the New Orleans Office of Homeland Security & Emergency Preparedness. She explains how they contacted numerous voluntary organizations active in disasters (VOAD) in advance of the storms’ approach, but JLNO was the first to respond. Leila continues by saying, “JLNO was also the first organization to offer to serve as a donation drop off location for the City of New Orleans, first with diapers and feminine hygiene products, and then with clothing. This was incredibly helpful as many New Orleanians wanted to help evacuees with donations.” She was especially impressed by the Junior League’s ability to spring into action when  faced with specific needs, saying, “When I told Kristin Moore that strollers were in very high demand, JLNO mobilized to purchase and donate strollers rapidly. Every one of the strollers donated was greeted with such relief and joy from evacuees, and we cannot thank you all enough for filling that need for the mothers and little ones!” 

Hurricane Disaster Relief For Lake Charles
Hurricane Disaster Relief for Lake Charles

Rachel Stickney, JLNO Community Council Director, bore witness to this astonishing generosity. She spent the first several days after landfall diligently keeping members updated on how to participate in the recovery effort. She connected with the League’s partners at the Youth Empowerment Project who were happy to make a substantial clothing donation. Special requests were made for baby carriers, strollers and, not to be forgotten in the time of COVID-19, children’s facemasks. In 48 short hours, the hearts of New Orleanians were moved to donate enough to fill three cars with aid to help Hurricane Laura evacuees. She was uplifted by the amount of people, members and non-members alike, who recounted their personal experiences of needing help after Hurricane Katrina and how they now wanted to use this opportunity to give back. “I am so inspired by the New Orleans community who continue to show up, day in and day out, and give back.”

However, the need continued to grow. By Monday, August 31st, those seeking shelter at New Orleans hotels grew from 300 to close to 12,000 and her being housed at 35 hotels across the city. NOLA Ready consolidated their donation sites and centralized operations by moved their Evacuee Family Resource Center to the New Orleans Convention Center. Meanwhile, JLNO began applying its members’ unique skill set by sorting donated clothing into ready-to-wear, gently used, seasonally appropriate attire for the men, women and children who had lost everything other than what few items they could carry with them when they left home. Rachel states, “Junior League has a reputation for our thrift shop, and [the City] knew that we would be contentious about the donations that were sent.” This was an immense help to the City of New Orleans who had previously been allocating their employees to this task. 

Leila can attest to this fact wholeheartedly. “JLNO’s ability to run a clothing drive and serve as a clothing donation drop off site was invaluable to the City of New Orleans. Post-disaster, people always want to give clothes to those in need, but few organizations are willing to take the clothes and sort them due to the amount of labor and space that can require. This need may not have been met without JLNO’s hard work, as no other organizations offered to collect and sort clothing donations!” 

This filled a critical need, not only for the Resource Center logistically, but also for those displaced emotionally. Leila continues, “The generosity of their membership network in providing good quality donated items assisted Hurricane Laura evacuees, many of whom had arrived with only the clothing on their back and had not had the chance to access laundry services yet. It also gave evacuees a sense of comfort and choice, and we received a lot of positive feedback at the clothing donations table at the Convention Center as a result.”

Simultaneously, Junior League Community Partner, Second Harvest Food Bank, quickly recruited members to fill their volunteer shifts. “JLNO has always been a great supporter of Second Harvest’s volunteer needs, but we are especially grateful for their response over these past two weeks,” says Michelle Rosamond, Community Outreach Coordinator. She remarks how JLNO members stepped up in a variety of ways – sorting food donations, preparing meals in the kitchen and even directly distributing food as needed. Emily Salzer, Food Sourcing Manager, echoed Michelle’s appreciation of League members, saying “We’re so grateful for their continued volunteer contributions, diaper donations, and other forms of support following Hurricane Laura as we work to serve community members in need.”

With so many efforts overlapping, it was important for JLNO to address storm victims short- and long-term needs. Urgent necessities like diapers, period products and baby formula were a priority for those sheltering in New Orleans. Within seven days, JLNO distributed 53,878 diapers, 50,978 baby wipes, 19,444 period products and 2,353 adult incontinence products. Alternatively, cash donations combined with a generous $5,000 grant supplied by The Helis Foundation were used to fund a bulk shipment of 105,000 diapers that would be delivered to the Second Harvest Food Bank of Acadiana in mid-September. “This will allow Second Harvest to efficiently distribute diapers to families beginning to return home to the impacted areas,” notes Emily. This benefaction is made possible by the Junior League’s inclusion in the National Diaper Bank Network. Emily highlights the League’s extraordinary ability to organize this feat by adding, “JLNO has connected their existing partnerships with Kimberly-Clark and other organizations to secure a truck of Huggies diapers to deliver directly to our Lafayette warehouse.” 

Medline delivery. Photo by Kiki Brooks

One of those other organizations that made this possible is The Helis Foundation. JLNO Sustainer, Jessie Haynes, is Managing Director of The Helis Foundation and helped to facilitate this grant. She praises the League and its members, expressing how impressive their efficacy is, especially in times of crisis. She mentions how the two organizations previously collaborated when devastating floods hit Baton Rouge and Texas. When COVID-19 struck in early Spring, The Helis Foundation provided the financial aid JLNO needed to provide diapers to families in need at the outbreak of the pandemic. 

Similarly, the human toll of Hurricane Laura brought out the best in this partnership. “The Helis Foundation is keen to contribute to JLNO and the Diaper Bank because, through the hard work of volunteers, the funds go directly to the community, without a high percentage being allocated to additional operating expenses,” Jessie says. This confidence in the Junior League’s dedication to advancing the wellbeing of women, not just in Greater New Orleans but as an overarching principle, assures them the grant will be allocated wisely.

2020 has been a pernicious year, obstinately wreaking havoc at every turn. Nevertheless, the members of the Junior League of New Orleans have been unwavering in their humanitarian endeavors. Kristin sums up these efforts by driving home the point, “One of the strengths of the Junior League is that there’s a really strong community-minded component to it. We are an army of women who want to make the community better, and if they hear someone that needs something, their first thought is ‘How can I help?’”