As water rose this summer over homes and businesses in Louisiana, so did the desire of local Rotarians to honor their motto by placing Service Above Self
In mid-August, extended rain storms in southern Louisiana caused many rivers and waterways to flood, resulting in catastrophic damage to thousands of businesses and homes. The storm dumped three times as much rain on Louisiana as Hurricane Katrina, according to the Washington Post, about 7.1 trillion gallons. More than 31 inches of rain fell in just 15 hours in some parts of the state. The Red Cross called it the worst U.S. disaster since Hurricane Sandy.
The devastation was immediate, and so was the desire to help, especially within the Rotary Club of Lake Mary.
“We knew there were thousands of people in need, and we knew we wanted to help,” says Mike Vernon, a longtime member and former president of the club. “Doing something to help others makes us a much stronger society. I thought back to the devastation of Hurricane Katrina – I wanted to help and didn’t have the opportunity. This time, we had an opportunity to help directly, so we made plans.”
Established in 1905, Rotary is one of the world’s first service organizations. With the motto, “Service Above Self,” the organization has 1.2 million members all over the world. When there is a need, Rotarians fill it. The Louisiana flood was no different, and the Rotary Club of Lake Mary jumped into action to assist the Rotary Club of Livingston Parish, where some of the worst flooding occurred.
Mike and fellow Rotarian Brian Bacon joined Father Dan Smith and a team of volunteers from Holy Cross Episcopal Church in Sanford on a journey to help the flood victims. Local Publix and Home Depot stores generously equipped the team with bug spray, water, sunscreen, gloves, first aid kits, and other essential recovery supplies.
As the crew entered Louisiana, debris littered the roads, and one of the main highways was completely shut down due to bridge damage. Upon their arrival on August 23, the team met with Father Dan’s son, Father Mitchell Smith of Trinity Episcopal Church in New Orleans, to defrost 450 pounds of frozen chicken. The next day, the team took the hour-and-a-half drive to Livingston Parish to begin cooking the chicken and other dishes for the local flood victims.
They expected to serve 500 people, says Mike, but by the end of the day, they served more than 1,000.
Of the 130,000 Livingston Parish residents, 117,000 were directly affected by flooding, and 70 percent of homes and businesses were destroyed.
“Since 1983 was the last time that the nearby Amite River flooded, very few families and businesses carried flood insurance,” Mike explains.
The Lake Mary Rotarians met with Kay Landry, president of the Livingston Parish Rotary Club. Of that club’s 25 members, more than half suffered total or significant damage to their homes.
“The location where we meet every Friday is a total loss... When you’re driving through the neighborhoods, you see everyone’s belongings out on the street,” Kay reported in a video interview with Mike that was sent back to the Rotary Club of Lake Mary. “The flood came so quickly, people didn’t know it was coming. You could look out your door and see the water rising quickly. Many people had to be boated out of their subdivisions. People got in their boats to go rescue other people.”
After meeting with Kay, Brian and Mike also assisted a small business owner, Joann Shaw, to clean up some of the damage in her shop. Joann’s home and business were both destroyed by the flood. Brian and Mike helped her gut her shop up to its eight-foot water line. They installed new drywall, insulation, fixtures, and cabinets.
Aside from helping their fellow Rotarians directly, the members of the Rotary Club of Lake Mary pitched in with financial support to help the Livingston Parish Rotary Club purchase new school supplies for local children. The Rotary Club of Altamonte Springs also contributed toward this effort. In all, nearly $6,000 was donated.
“The trip to Louisiana was incredibly eye-opening and sometimes emotional,” Mike says. “The people there were so thankful and were brought to tears when we met with them. We went to Louisiana to help them, but we actually received so much more than what we gave.”
Father Dan agrees.
“I have been on many disaster scenes,” he says. “This was different and more shocking because you would walk by a house that looked perfectly normal – it still had flowers in the flower bed – but the inside was completely destroyed and everything had to be gutted. In fires, everything is gone. In hurricanes, buildings and trees are blown everywhere. To see the power of solely water was incredible. People were so grateful, and this was yet another reminder that we are all connected and that we must care for one another, even across long distances.”
While the residents of Livingston Parish still have a long road to full recovery, their resolve to stand united is unshakable.
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“Being able to help fellow Rotarians in need was extremely rewarding,” says Mike. “The Rotary Club of Lake Mary has found new Rotary friends in Livingston Parish, and we will continue to help them in any way we can.”