By 3 p.m. Thursday, August 27, the day Hurricane Laura barreled through Southwest Louisiana, Care Help Director Jody Farnum was already back at the non-profit's thrift store on Huntington Street.
She joined four employees, who'd sheltered through the storm at the store and they began to access the damage. The cinderblock building fared well and any minor damage was put on a back burner while Farnum contemplated how she and her staff were going to serve in the aftermath of this disaster. “There were just five of us,” she said. So the five slept on it, hoping the next day would bring answers.
The next morning Farnum found five National Guardsmen sitting in front of the store, who said they'd been dropped off the night before. Farnum and her staff did what they do for their community members every day.
They took them in and fed them and arranged shelter for them in the store. The whole 28-man platoon ended up using the store as their base. Care Help's previous administrator had a natural-gas generator installed just after Hurricane Rita ripped through Sulphur 15 years ago. It had not been started since then, but it kicked in when Laura knocked down power lines.
After breakfast that Friday morning, Farnum began casting out lines to all her resources. The store's parking lot quickly became the nexus of support for storm victims of what would become the worst natural disaster to hit the city.
Calls were made and donations of water arrived that afternoon. Food donations took a little longer to secure due to communication lines being out. “So, we went and robbed our own food pantry,” said Farnum.
They were able to get snacks and ready to eat items from Backpack Blessing donations — which are distributed to students in need to feed them during school-year weekends. “Within 48 hours, we were up and running,” said Farnum.
Food donations began rolling in by that Saturday, and people from around the state and country began calling and requests for help were posted to Care Help's Facebook page. “We were all in a state of needing help,” said Farnum of the immediate aftermath. “But we were safe enough to where we could do something.”
By the end of that Saturday, the parking lot of the thrift store was completely full with drive-thru resource stations of water, non perishable food items, first aid kits, diapers, formula and other necessities.
Drivers received hot meals at the last station.
In the first several days, meals were prepared by local caterer and restaurant owner Richard Cole. When other volunteer organizations began arriving, Cole moved on to feeding emergency response workers. Food came from a variety of places, including Popeye's restaurants, from which Farnum said they were able to “rescue” raw chicken.
There were 3,000 meals served the first day. The drive-thru distribution and hot meals continued from 9 a.m. until 4 p.m. for three weeks, arguably the hottest of the year with the heat index reaching 112 degrees.
Farnum said the sun reflecting off the parking lot combined with the exhaust from 18-wheelers dropping off donations was brutal. Employees and volunteers unloaded as many as 20 palletes of water a day and 8,000 pounds of bagged ice. There was 37,000 pounds of food in one Second Harvest truck alone. The effort was assisted with the temporary loan of a forklift by David Misse of Misse's Grocery and later by Ken Mangrum of Mangrum's Air Conditioning.
When Entergy had to shut Huntington down to work, RVs, trailers and 18-wheelers delivering supplies snaked along the side roads surrounding the store. All told, Care Help distributed more than 300,000 pounds of food and supplies.
Over the course of nearly two weeks, Sulphur High students, community volunteers, local and state elected officials, and celebrities from near and far cycled in and out of the thrift store parking lot to help in any way they could.
Farnum said God, through His children, provided what was needed before she even knew there was a need. Members of the Judson Baptist Church in Walker, Louisiana, arrived with a converted FEMA trailer that had multiple showers in it. The National Guard was able to shower on site for the first time since deployment.
Local Cajun musician Jo-El Sonnier showed up with his friend, actor and singer John Schneider, known primarily for his role as one of the Duke boys in the long-running television series Dukes of Hazzard.
A family from Georgia dropped off life-saving asthma medication that provided much needed relief to two families unable to refill their prescriptions. A latino family arrived one day, just as food ran out, with sack lunches. Utility crews, working in the area, dropped off a donation of $250. Donations came in from as far away as Tennessee.
The much needed generator gave up the ghost 20 days into the relief effort. With a donated generator the organization was able to save their deep freezer food but lost the cooler food. Electricity was restored the next day.
“God always provided,” said Farnum. At this point staff went home to begin assessing the damage to their own homes. Farnum and her husband remain at the store. Tragically, their home was destroyed.
Farnum said early on, she began to feel out of her depth as help began pouring in from the highest levels of state government.
But a seemingly out-of-the-blue conversation with Jo-El Sonnier gave her the confidence she needed to be herself. In a moving Facebook post she said, “In the early stages of our distribution site, I was feeling the pressure of insecurities and measuring up with so many professional, high ranking people contacting me.”
While eating breakfast with Sonner in the store one morning, Sonnier said, “You know Jody, in the music business the 6th octave is the highest music range you can reach. Hitting it is extremely rare. People may want me to hit the 6th octave but I can’t, the 5th is what God gifted me with ... and He gifted you. You have to embrace what He gave you.”
Farnum said, “I left the kitchen bawling. I knew right then and there God gave me a word through Jo-El, God confirmed He saw my heart and my self doubt and told me to be me; to trust Him and all would be well.
“I never looked back,” she continued. “We all stepped forward trusting and believing God would lead the way ... and did He ever. Even the Governor’s Office was called on our behalf. The 5th octave is where God met me and our crew — we operated like the 6th octave and found strength among the many peers God sent our way.”