The images are unsettling: communities at the mercy of nature, cars and school buses submerged, houses flooded, families displaced. Ten years removed from the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, Louisiana once again is faced with a natural disaster that tests the resolve and resiliency of its citizens.
But another familiar image has emerged: people within and beyond the community banding together in a show of care and compassion. They represent a wholly different kind of deluge —an outpouring of neighborly love that promises to buoy the spirits of those affected by the floods and begin the process of rebuilding.
Even before the waters began to subside, neighbor was helping neighbor. Kevin Lejeune, Louis LeBlanc, Todd Vicknair, Ronnie Loftus, Richard “Red” Schaefer and Ryan Evans, all ExxonMobil employees at the company’s Baton Rouge Complex, were just a few of the thousands of Louisianans that heard and answered the desperate calls for help.
By water, land and kitchen
Lejeune and Vicknair conducted rescue efforts by boat as part of a fleet known as the “Cajun Navy,” a volunteer group born during Hurricane Katrina that mobilized to help stranded citizens cut off from the safety of higher ground. Over the course of three harrowing days they rescued as many as 60 people, including a woman who was eight months pregnant and a woman with seven-month-old twins.
“At night we turned off the engine and listened for people calling out for help or signaling with flashlights,” Lejeune said. “It was all pretty amazing, and helping these people in need really touched your heart.”
Vicknair and LeBlanc used their high-water-capable vehicles to take people to shelters and provide vital amenities such as water, food and medicine. After checking on family and friends, LeBlanc got into his Ford F250 pickup to see where else he could be of use. What he saw, he will never forget.
“It was nonstop,” LeBlanc said. “You couldn’t drive 50 feet without coming up on someone who needed help. They were confused and in a state of shock from the devastation taking place. Getting them to shelter safely was our highest priority.”
Vicknair took his Jeep to a hard-hit parish east of Baton Rouge. There he found many in need of rescue from the rising waters, among them many elderly people who needed basic staples of survival, including their prescriptions.
Later, Vicknair switched to his boat to access areas impassable by truck. He ferried neighbors to a waiting National Guard trailer and even rescued a fawn as well as a 100-pound deer that was minutes away from drowning.
“You can’t normally catch a deer and get it into a boat, so it shows how exhausted they were from the floodwaters and how close they were to perishing,” Vicknair said.
Vicknair didn’t let exhaustion slow him down. Even after the immediate danger of the floods had passed, he began working to feed both rescues and rescuers, making many large pots of jambalaya—Cajun comfort food. He drove around offering the nourishing meal to anyone he met, dropping off several pots at local churches.
After the flood
The overall rescue efforts, of which the ExxonMobil employees were a critical part, enabled 30,000 people and thousands of pets to reach safety.
Yet, there is still work to be done. At last count, flooding caused 13 deaths and damaged over 50,000 homes in 20 parishes, with recovery costs estimated in the tens of billions of dollars.
As the waters subside, the communities in and around Baton Rouge will need the assistance of “neighbors” from around the country. ExxonMobil has donated $500,000 to the American Red Cross and the Greater Baton Rouge Food Bank. Meanwhile, the efforts of the rescue volunteers have inspired others in the company to mobilize as well.
Greg Devine has teamed up with other supervisors in the company to organize volunteering opportunities at local schools and the food bank, freeing his coworkers so they can participate fully in the recovery efforts. To him, the stories of his colleagues’ heroics are incredible, but not surprising.
“One of the main things was the commitment of our employees. Regardless of their own problems in dealing with the flood, they still took the time to go out in their boats and high-rise trucks repeatedly, day after day,” Devine said. “My role was to make sure they had whatever they needed to continue their volunteer efforts.”
The ExxonMobil Baton Rouge Complex remains operational. After more than 100 years in operation in the area, ExxonMobil remains committed to helping the community through this difficult time.