Baton Rouge’s historic floods, which this past August devastated hundreds of homes and businesses, has been named the worst natural disaster since Hurricane Katrina. Area interior designer Rachel Cannon Lewis mobilized during the floods to gather donations and support for her neighbors who lost homes and possessions in the disaster. She recently sat down with EAL to discuss the catastrophe and the design community’s response.
From left: Lewis delivering hot meals to first responders; the designer's mom distributes lunches with Baton Rouge City Police Officers Mark Carrie and Agolda Lovely.
What was your initial reaction to the flood? What moved you to take action?
I think everyone’s initial reaction was shock. We had heard that it was going to be a rainy weekend, but nobody had any warning of the flooding that took place. Nobody thought to prepare or evacuate ahead of time, like we do with hurricanes, and there was something like 7 trillion gallons of rain that came down in a matter of 24 hours.
When my home was spared, I knew I could not just take the week off while the city shut down to work to rescue people and then to start gutting and cleaning homes. A good friend of mine had just finished remodeling a house and had not even moved in yet. The water reached the ceiling, which caved in. The house is a total loss. And that’s just one story among 150,000 others.…
I felt like I had to do something, because I know how much home means to people. My business is about creating not just beautiful rooms, but a sense of belonging and comfort. With so many people displaced and in shelters, I reached out to my friends on Facebook for help. The stores had been wiped clean of all supplies almost immediately after the storm, and replenishments were delayed due to the closed interstate system. While I waited for the donations to arrive, I volunteered to help deliver meals to first responders. The thought of sitting at home just was not even an option.
Lewis with first responders from the East Baton Rouge Parish Sherriff's office
What has designer response been like so far?
The overwhelming number of people who answered the call for supplies were my friends in the design community. I think we all share the same deep feelings of hurt for people when homes are destroyed. We work so closely with people on a daily basis, helping them to create their sanctuaries, and within minutes, over 100,000 people had it all taken away from them.
We know how important the comforts of home are. People kept saying, “It’s just stuff,” but we know better. The donations that came in were also “just stuff,” but it was what that stuff represents, that was first lost and then replaced, that is so meaningful. The lost items represent memories, savings, work and love. The donations represent compassion, concern and humanity. I have been absolutely blown away by the willingness of the design community to step up and lend a hand to these families who have lost everything. Friends from as far away as California, Maryland, Virginia, Michigan...all immediately asked what was needed and what was the best way to get it to me.
What products and donations have designers and the community at large sent?
Within days, I was inundated with everything from basic necessities like toothbrushes, diapers and deodorant to blankets, pajamas, underwear, cleaning supplies, brooms, work gloves and heavy duty contractor trash bags. I literally cried when I opened the first wave of boxes.
The response was so genuine and overwhelming. I cried again when I opened a box and it had a little girl’s size 7 nightgown with Dory the fish on it. Other designers have sent money, gift cards, school supplies—the list just goes on and on. You can’t drive through a neighborhood without seeing some group that has driven a food truck in to feed the people ripping out flooring and sheetrock. Others are passing out water, volunteering their time to help the cleanup effort, and others have volunteered child care services while schools remained closed as they are gutted and cleaned up.
How did you distribute the goods?
I have literally been loading as much into my car as I can and taking it to shelters, churches or specific families I know who are in need. There have been days when I am pulling out of the driveway, and the UPS truck is pulling up with another huge delivery! I finally reached out to a friend who said she’d help me distribute the latest round of donations once my design firm reopened full time. I gave her the specific drop-off locations based on the needs of each shelter or church.
I know that when I get home this afternoon, there will be more donations to deliver, and I am so grateful to everyone, especially my network of design industry friends, who has rushed to help out their fellow citizens.
Rachel Cannon Lewis