NEW ORLEANS - Storm-weary Louisianans braced for Hurricane Delta on Friday even as extraordinary volunteer and sheltering efforts continued in the state to care for victims of the last major hurricane.
Among those who have stepped up is Anthony Cruz, founder of New Orleans pop-up restaurant Southerns. When hurricanes aren’t barreling down on the city, customers can find Southerns selling fried chicken sandwiches from a food truck, at breweries and — before the coronavirus pandemic — local festivals.
Weeks ago, Cruz received a call to serve food at a different kind of function.
“One of our customers wanted to make a donation to send sandwiches to a hotel downtown,” Cruz told VOA. “He said there were evacuees from Hurricane Laura still there and he wanted to make sure they were eating well.”
Laura hit southwestern Louisiana in late August with top winds above 240 kph, making it the most powerful hurricane to hit the state since 1856. The Category 4 storm toppled trees, leveled neighborhoods, shattered buildings and left more than 875,000 people in Louisiana and Texas without power.
In the days following the storm, refugees dispersed across the region seeking temporary housing. But Cruz was surprised to learn how many evacuees were still in New Orleans.
“[The customer] said he wanted to donate 120 sandwiches, sides and drinks to this one hotel, and I was like, ‘I think that’s too much food, right?’ ”
When Cruz brought the sandwiches to the Marriott Hotel downtown, he said he was surprised to learn it was still housing more than a thousand evacuees — with another wave expected in the coming days.
The American Red Cross reported it had provided more than 584,000 emergency overnight stays to victims of Hurricane Laura. On a recent Wednesday night, the organization said it was still providing housing to more than 12,000 evacuees — many of which were in New Orleans-area hotels.
“It’s a crazy situation,” Cruz said, “I couldn’t believe how many people still haven’t gotten home.”
A wild first night
The Red Cross reported that the scope of the damage and the ongoing coronavirus pandemic made for a unique and challenging situation. By the night of Aug. 28, tens of thousands of evacuees were finding their way to hotels and shelters in Louisiana’s largest cities.
“Check-ins began around 11:30 p.m. on Friday night and went through 4:00 a.m. Saturday morning,” remembered Travis Tague, general manager of the Hyatt Centric in New Orleans’ famed French Quarter. “Between us and our sister hotel, The Eliza Jane, there were about 900 people needing 300 rooms.”
Tague said many staff members of the hotel offered to stay for double shifts, recognizing how urgent the situation was for so many fellow Louisianians who now found themselves homeless.
“I couldn’t be more proud of our staff,” Tague said, “for coming through the way they did with such care and concern.”
Tague said he wasn’t surprised at how selflessly the team responded.
“I think as a group we felt some humility when we found out hurricane evacuees would be staying with us,” he said. “We live in New Orleans, and many of our staff know what it’s like to go through this and how important some support could be.”
Tague said his staff lived up to Hyatt’s philosophy of “caring for people so they can be their best” as guests descended on the hotel in numbers unmatched during the worst days of the coronavirus pandemic, when many hotels closed.
One employee in particular stands out.
“The morning after everyone checked in, I started a donation pool,” said Steffanie Arnold, associate sales director for two Hyatt hotels in the French Quarter. “I had a feeling there was going to be a need.”
It started out with staff members donating cash and items such as food, hairbrushes, toys, clothing, diapers, high chairs and anything else they thought would help guests. Then, Arnold posted a call on social media — and the trickle of items turned into a torrent. Thirty local stores donated entire bins of new items, and the hotel began receiving Amazon packages sent by people across the country.
When the Red Cross shared a list of specific needs from guests, Arnold used donated cash to buy those items.
“One gentleman needed a walking cane, a family with a newborn didn’t have a stroller, and then there were a lot of guests who needed shoes and fresh clothes,” she said. “It was truly a collective effort and amazing to see people come together and provide support during this time of need.”
Even before Hurricane Delta’s arrival, thousands of Laura evacuees remained, unable to return home. While some volunteer efforts may be put on hold during the current storm, those taking part know what needs to be done when the wind dies down and the sky clears.
“I talked with some evacuees while we were serving our sandwiches,” Cruz said, “and I think if more people understood the hardships they were going through, they’d want to help, too.”
Cruz said he planned to hold a fundraiser on social media to raise money so they can feed more evacuees. He also encouraged people to donate to the Red Cross, which remains hard at work in Louisiana’s many hurricane-ravaged regions.
Tague said that with Red Cross help, for example, the Hyatt Centric was able to convert one of its meeting spaces into a kids’ play area so they could safely socialize with other children and watch movies.
Caring for evacuees during a pandemic is no easy feat, but it’s made easier with hotels opening their doors, according to Jessica Debalski, a Red Cross regional manager for community preparedness.
“Placing evacuees in hotels has allowed us to provide a safe space that adheres to social distancing guidelines from the CDC [U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] during the current pandemic,” she said. “And it also helps contribute to the local economy as hotels have been financially devastated by a lack of tourism.”
The Red Cross continues to accept donations and has a webpage for those seeking assistance.
“It’s such a crazy time with the pandemic affecting so many of us,” Cruz said, “but for those who are able, I know donations would mean a lot to people still trying to get back home.”