(09/14/20) BATON ROUGE, La. — Louisiana 4-H members and LSU AgCenter agents have been offering hope, help and supplies to communities recovering from Hurricane Laura’s statewide trail of devastation.
Former Cameron Parish 4-H’er Maeleigh Conner has seen it all. When she was 5, Hurricane Rita destroyed everything her family owned. Now, Hurricane Laura has torn out shingles, siding and vents, causing significant water and structural damage to their home on Big Lake.
“It was scary,” Conner said. “We prepared ourselves to come back to nothing at all.”
“We have structures left, but none of the houses are livable right now,” she added. “It looks like a war zone out here, and people are living off of generators and ice chests.”
The Conners’ cattle herd fared better through this storm than in Rita. This time, they were able to move the animals to higher ground.
As a 4-H member, Conner showed livestock and was president of the organization’s state Food and Fitness Board. Her connections with 4-H youth and agents across Louisiana meant friends and their families were quick to provide support.
When Jason Holmes, an LSU AgCenter livestock specialist in Union Parish, heard about the situation, he decided to purchase tarps and tar paper and drove south to drop them off with Vincent Deshotel, an AgCenter agent in St. Landry Parish.
After the exchange, Deshotel took the supplies to Cameron Parish, where he and other agents joined 4-H junior leaders from St. Martin and Vermilion parishes to help the Conners and other families tarp roofs, wrap buildings and remove items from water-soaked rooms.
“Mr. Vincent and his wife Stacie have taken us into their home and fed us,” Conner said. “They lined us up with generators, gas and tires for our truck, and water for our livestock.”
Brittany Lea — who, like Conner, is a past 4-H Food and Fitness Board president — worked with other 4-H’ers to gather supplies as well as $500 for the Conner family that she personally delivered to Conner. Lea, who is from Bienville Parish, is planning a benefit concert to collect more money and supplies.
“4-H has made this easier for us,” Conner said. “If it weren’t for 4-H, we’d still be at our house confused and not knowing where to go next.”
After the hurricane passed, 4-H agent Brooke LaFargue sprang into action by providing meals for those in her Allen Parish community — an area hit hard by extreme winds, downed trees and no electricity.
“We helped out at the fire station, serving meals to those who were struggling,” LaFargue said. “When my children and I arrived, I discovered all the other children helping there were 4-H members too.”
While LaFargue and her husband were dealing with their own property damage and helping people in Allen Parish, they had other concerns. LaFargue’s extended family lives in Cameron Parish — the site of some of the worst destruction.
“Right now, our house is a revolving door because we have family members from Cameron who had their houses devastated. We also have five local 4-H’ers staying with us too since their houses are very badly damaged,” she said.
During these hectic moments, LaFargue was constantly thinking of ways to serve others — even organizing 4-H activities for the children at her house to keep them occupied.
But AgCenter co-workers and friends throughout the state were thinking about LaFargue and stepped up to help her family and others in need.
Esther Boe, while helping her son clean up his destroyed college housing in Lake Charles, coordinated staff assistance to people in the hardest hit areas of Vernon, Beauregard and Allen parishes. AgCenter agents delivered crucial contributions like generators, air conditioning units, bedding, paper goods, toiletries, cleaning supplies and livestock feed.
“I’m so proud of our agents who stepped in with money and heavy lifting skills,” said Boe, the AgCenter Central Region 4-H coordinator. “And some 4-H’ers have helped gather and deliver necessary items to the Red Cross and churches.”
“The Central Region has been awesome bringing my family stuff,” LaFargue said. “They got us a generator and A/C — and the paper plates. With so many people in the house, that was a really big deal.”
Ashley Powell, Northeast Region 4-H coordinator, and Betsy Crigler, 4-H agent in Tensas Parish, drove across the state to deliver items collected from 4-H clubs in Franklin, Morehouse and Tensas parishes. The supplies, ranging from water, snacks, canned goods and pet food to tarps and cleaning products, were delivered to Allen and Calcasieu parishes. Another delivery is scheduled for the end of September.
For Charles Hebert, a Lafayette Parish 4-H Agent, this is not a new experience. He has helped with hurricane recovery in the past.
Hebert grew up in Cameron Parish, which has been hit by three powerful hurricanes in the last 16 years: Rita in 2005, Ike in 2008 and now Laura.
“This is way worse than Rita because all of southwest Louisiana looks like a tornado came through,” said Hebert, whose parents are living with him and his family in Lafayette. His mother and father were displaced from their now-intact Lake Charles home, which still doesn’t have electricity — and probably won’t for weeks or even months.
“Some co-workers have completely lost their homes,” Hebert said. “Work is happening, but there’s an enormous amount of work to do — many months of work.”
Regularly, Hebert and a group of 20 or more AgCenter agents and staff from the Southwest Region drive to help employees in devastated Calcasieu Parish clean and repair their homes and yards.
“We just spent two days cutting up trees, and we also put tar paper and siding on houses,” Hebert said.
4-H’ers from less-affected parishes are helping 4-H’ers in Calcasieu and Cameron parishes with their recovery efforts as well.
Little more than a slab is left where Hebert’s sister’s Cameron Parish house once stood. Hebert will continue helping her with cleanup and salvage of furniture and other items while assisting her as she moves to another location.
“We tell those in need, ‘We’re here for you,’ ” Hebert said. “We’re a big family. And whatever it takes, we’re going to help.”
4-H agents Margo Castro in Assumption Parish and Cherie Aucoin Roger in Terrebonne Parish drove across the state to deliver donations from their local 4-H clubs — contributions of money, food, water and cleaning supplies.
Avoiding the many muddy, seaweed-choked roads in Cameron Parish that were still closed, their drop-off spot was Canik’s Feed & Grocery in the town of Creole.
“We met Mrs. Mary (Canik), the owner, who literally lost everything,” Castro said. “She not only lost her business, but she returned home to a cement slab.”
“All Mrs. Mary and her family were worried about was helping others that were in need,” Castro added. “As we stood there in disbelief, they continued to thank us and couldn’t believe we had come from so far away. We plan on coming back weekly with supplies.”
Nan Arthur, Sabine Parish 4-H agent, also felt the need to pledge her “hands to greater service.” 4-H families in her community donated supplies like food, water, hygiene baskets and cleaning supplies — as well as money — and she traveled to Cameron Parish’s Grand Lake to deliver them.
“Many 4-H’ers and their families promised they will also go down to Cameron and Calcasieu to help,” Arthur said. “4-H’ers just stick together.”
“We want to provide a friendly face and a smile. You want to be there for people. That’s what we do,” she added
There is much more work to be done, but 4-H families are continuing to uplift each other and the impacted communities.
The 4-H motto is “to make the best better.” During times like these, Louisiana 4-H is proving it can also make “the worst better” by assisting people in rebuilding their lives.
“We’ll get over it,” Conner said. “We’re strong and we’ll build back.”
“It’s been tough, but we’re trying our best,” LaFargue said.
This selfie was taken moments before the Conner family, of Cameron Parish, evacuated their house in the face of approaching Hurricane Laura on Aug. 26, 2020. Pictured from left are Harleigh Trahan, Maeleigh Conner, Angelia Conner and Blaine Conner, Maeleigh’s parents. Photo by Maeleigh Conner
LSU AgCenter agents help the Blaine Conner family, of Cameron Parish, put tar paper around their damaged house during Hurricane Laura recovery efforts in August 2020. Pictured from left are Hannah Devall, St. Martin Parish 4-H agent; Maeleigh Conner, on ladder; Brittany Zaunbrecher, Cameron Parish 4-H agent, holding ladder; and Hilton Waits, Vermilion Parish 4-H agent. Photo by Shannan Waits/LSU AgCenter
Allen Parish 4-H agent Brooke LaFargue, in backgkround, looks on as her 4-H members prepare to serve food in a local fire station to those affected by Hurricane Laura. Photo provided by Brooke LaFargue/LSU AgCenter
4-H’ers Lisa and Victoria Wiggins, of Natchitoches Parish, are one of the many 4-H families who collected and prepared supplies for deliveries to Cameron and Calcasieu Parishes, which suffered some of the worst damage from Hurricane Laura. Photo provided by Pam Pearce/LSU AgCenter
Caden Catron, a 4-H’er from Leesville in Vernon Parish, collects supplies for people affected by Hurricane Laura. Photo provided by Vernon Parish 4-H/LSU AgCenter