The Catholic Commentator

Michael Acaldo’s indelible memory of this past summer’s historic flooding will not be that of surging waters crippling communities, nor will it be watching his St. Vincent de Paul Society staff scurry from shelter to shelter assisting thousands of displaced families.

Certainly those days and months will forever be a part of his own fabric, but time has a habit of diluting memories.

Rather, what Acaldo will remember is an intangible, the spirit of a community that refused to feel sorry for itself, refused to surrender to Mother Nature and a community that quickly began to rebuild, even before the waters had receded.

“I think the memory that is going to hit me is the amount of devastation but the thing that mashed it was the generosity of the community and the people coming out,” Acaldo said. “They have a spirit that is amazing, just uplifting and is a Louisiana ingredient to the gumbo of humanity.

“People were very resilient and they have such a good attitude.”

“It’s very real and it’s very intense,” he said. “People grounded in their faith. You can tell that’s how they got through those initial times when you lose everything. And you remember with your faith some of these materials things are not that all important.”

St. Vincent de Paul, as is its tradition, assumed the lead in the relief effort. Initially, those efforts were centered on distributing much needed supplies, such as blankets, toiletries and other items to the River Center and Celtic Center in Baton Rouge, which both served as temporary shelters.

Once the shelters began closing, the task was helping fund housing for the impacted families. Since August, Acaldo said his organization has assisted nearly 500 families or individuals, including some who were homeless even before the flood, find either emergency shelter or an apartment, not an easy task considering the area’s rising rents.

“We take (families) in here and try to figure out a housing solution,” Acaldo said.

“People have settled in, but it will be a long time before it gets back to anywhere near where it was,” he said. “We take (families) in here and try to figure out a housing solution.”

St. Vincent de Pau also provided more than 5,600 meals in flood affected communities to more than 1,500 people in the immediate aftermath of the flood. Although the demand has leveled off, Acaldo said he still expects the dining room in Baton Rouge to set a record in 2017 by serving more than 250,000 meals. And that is not including the homeless shelters.

Besides assisting in relocating families, the organization also distributed more than $34,000 worth of cleaning supplies and clothes in the first few weeks following the flood. Included in the distribution was a truckload of new apparel that came from New Jersey via a phone call to Bishop Robert W. Muench.

“We were glad to get it.” Acaldo said. “Some of it was like dress clothes, slacks, nice dresses for women.”

Additionally, the organization collaborated with the East Baton Rouge School Board to help secure uniforms for 1,242 students who had lost everything and teachers who were unable to return to the classroom because the flood waters had claimed their clothes.

St. Vincent also sent staff members to flooded areas to meet with families and determine their own needs, often helping to pay rent or utility bills.

“We felt that personal touch was real important,” Acaldo said.

One of its more successful relief offerings was a furniture and appliance replacement program that mirrored one started at St. Margaret, Queen of Scotland Church in Albany. The program, which was facilitated by the generosity of Olinde’s Furniture and Sherwood TV and Appliances, both in Baton Rouge, has already assisted 1,100 households for a combined total of $700,000 worth of merchandise.

The Diocese of Baton Rouge also contributed $300,000.

“It’s amazing the generosity of everyone that came together,” Acaldo said. “We just thank them for working with us and providing us the opportunity to help so many people.”

Turning toward the future, he said St. Vincent de Paul will continue its mission of reaching and serving the most vulnerable in the area, a ministry that has taken on increased importance in the past year. As part of that effort by the end of 2017, construction of an addition that will double the size of the Bishop Stanley J. Ott Sweet Dreams Shelter for Women and Children should be completed.

“Going from 36 to 72 beds will put us in a better position,” Acaldo said “There are some families still in hotels.

“I believe we are going to continue to see people who can’t pay rents end up being evicted and have to turn somewhere. For us, that’s either single men or moms with kids. Those extra 36 beds will fill up very quickly because of that.”

Even a year after the worst natural disaster in Baton Rouge history Acaldo remains awed by staff members and volunteers who were severely impacted leaving their own homes to reach out to others.