Launch Louisiana Helps Rebuild Flood-Ravaged Homes

BATON ROUGE (AP) — "It may not be perfect, but it's home."

         With that in mind, Launch Louisiana volunteer Shanna Forrestall says the local grassroots flood recovery group's new campaign is "Let's Rock!" The focus: providing the Sheetrock — drywall — needed by affected residents to make their gutted homes livable again, six months after the August disaster.

         "They can live without fancy floors or painted walls, they just need walls," says Forrestall, an actress and Gonzales native. "I can't imagine being out of your neighborhood that long and trying to hold a family together."

         As flood recovery is a process, Let's Rock! joins the nonprofit's ongoing campaign, "Coats for Cajuns," which continues to provide winter clothing for residents who lost theirs when the waters inundated their homes. In the early post-flood days, Launch Louisiana canvassed neighborhoods handing out supplies and hugs and generally helping those in need.

         "We're trying to do what is relevant now, that's maybe getting missed," Forrestall says.

         In the midst of the presidential campaign, national media pretty much overlooked the "1,000-year flood event," she says.

         "What we see right now is families not getting insurance money. Either it's being delayed or it's not coming, and they've been gutted, they just need the money to get the Sheetrock up so they can get home, so it's that little step."

         Donors can sponsor one piece of the material, a wall, a room or a whole house with amounts of $20-$1,300.

         "Whatever you can do, it will go toward helping families, and you can help them right now, this week," she says.

         Launch Louisiana organizer Janet Rhodus, of Baton Rouge, says the campaign also is seeking donations for home insulation as well.

         "There is a great need remaining," says Rhodus, who's done volunteer relief work all her adult life.

         Rhodus says she formed LL because "there was a need beyond what was being provided by FEMA and the Red Cross."

         During this disaster, Forrestall explains, Rhodus has honed in on families of veterans, those with elderly or disabled members.

         "You know, people who just really need the help," Forrestall says.

         Rhodus says she's had only about 20 volunteers along the way, in addition to a few local individual and corporate sponsors. They've also worked in conjunction with the Cajun Navy, another volunteer group who headed out in their own fishing boats immediately after the floods to rescue people trapped in their homes.

         Forrestall, who now lives in Los Angeles, was out of the country when south Louisiana flooded. Returning to Los Angeles, she heard from family and friends back home about the devastation.

         "I flew home, and when I saw how bad it was I was like 'Oh my gosh, I've got to do something,' so I basically worked for free for the last three or four months to just try to help," she says.

         Longtime friend Melissa Arman connected Forrestall to Rhodus. The actress made the Los Angeles-to-Louisiana flight every two or three weeks during those months, assisting with all facets of Launch Louisiana's work, including becoming its unofficial spokeswoman. Back on the West Coast, she continued her work for the cause, soliciting individual and corporate donations of cash, supplies and coats.

         "At one point I brought in $50,000 worth of mosquito bands from a company called Bug Bam . and Shacklee (a health supplement manufacturer) has sent multiple shipments that are valued at $60,000 each — vitamins, healthy cleaning supplies, meal bars — and it was perfect to hand out to these families who were living in rough conditions and trying to rebuild," Forrestall says.

         Shacklee, through its nonprofit arm, has also given thousands of dollars in grant money to flood victims, Forrestall says.

         She collected 230 pounds of new and almost-new coats and shipped them to Louisiana via Greyhound for distribution, and produced online commercials for the Launch group, including one for Let's Rock!

         A group of Los Angeles-area autistic youth created the spot's animation at no charge.

         "The generosity has blown me away, but it's not enough. There are still people suffering," Forrestall says. "People living in sheds, no electricity. People living in tents; that's just not OK."

         Continuing to remind others elsewhere that 150,000 families were displaced and still need aid is crucial to getting them back under their own roofs, Forrestall stresses.

         "I know that everybody in Baton Rouge has been helping," she says. "I'm not even asking Baton Rouge for the money because I know these people have helped, they have given, they have sacrificed for their neighbors, and their family, and their friends. What I ask is that they share it (via social media, email, etc.) because I know I have friends in other states that have said, 'Wow, what can I do to help?'"

         By visiting, "anybody anywhere in the country or world can make a donation and help someone in Louisiana," she says.

         Unfortunately, Rhodus says she believes the relief organizations receiving the most money "are wasting it on overhead and ineffective projects."

         "If not for churches and individuals like myself, the relief needs would be much greater," she says. "Organizations such as LL are run by passion and volunteers. We get more done with fewer assets."

         "I just wish we could do more," Forrestall agrees. "I wish everybody could do more — the national government, the president — but I think it's going to come down to us, the citizens . we should know that when someone else needs a hand, you give it."

         – by AP/ Reporter Judy Bergeron with The Advocate


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