This “One-Woman FEMA” Is Changing Lives Amid Disaster in Baton Rouge

Baton Rouge, Louisiana was thrown into chaos last month following the shooting death of Alton Sterling, a 37-year old black man who appeared to have been shot at close range by police officers while he was pinned to the ground. This past week, the city has been thrown into a whole different kind of chaos. Only this time, the national news media has been largely absent.

It’s been called the flood of the century — technically, a 1,000-year flood. Unlike the disaster that overtook its sister city New Orleans with Hurricane Katrina, the catastrophe came without warning. Last week, it started as a rainstorm. Today, more than 110,000 homes have been damaged and tens of thousands totally destroyed.

Baton Rouge native Sarah Joy Hays moved back home last year and became a homeowner. She moved into a quaint home with her toddler son and works from home for a D.C.-based nonprofit doing event planning. Last Friday, Hays was frustrated to learn that her son’s preschool had been canceled due to a storm that started the previous morning. Her first Facebook posts about the rain were humorous takes on working from home alone with a toddler, joking about single motherhood and rain days. By Sunday, already sheltering several friends who were cut off by flooded highways and roads, Hays realized this was no ordinary storm. Soon, she took action.

An event planner at heart, as soon as it became apparent that damage was widespread and information at a premium — especially with widespread damage to cell phone towers — Hays set up a public Google document for residents to share vital information on shelters, damage reports, and the status of essential businesses like Walmart and local grocers. As a devoted Christian, Hays also found herself wanting to donate to fill the immediate needs of her neighbors and friends. Finding no organizations doing immediate fundraising, Hays decided to set up aGoFundMe and do it herself.

Hays footed the first $1,500 and friends from her coffee shop in Washington D.C. donated another $1,250. Soon, money was rolling in and Hays was buying diapers, wipes, specialty formula and more for neighbors in need.

You never picture yourself buying underwear for your friends, neighbors and even your mail carrier, but that’s exactly what Hays did.

Others began contacting her asking if they could donate tangible items. Hays and her friends set up an Amazon wishlist so people could know exactly where their money was going. While she was accepting some donations of other goods at her home, she has mostly kept her operation, working out of her own living room, on a needs-only basis.

“People treat disasters like garage sales and want to get rid of their old clothes,” Hays toldOpportunity Lives. “I knew that wasn’t going to work. There were immediate needs that had to be met.”

Hays has become a point person in the entire city and now finds herself the point of contact for the mail carriers’ union and Trader Joe’s Community Outreach. The former contacted her because Hays home has become somewhat notorious among mail carriers both for the volume of mail being delivered daily — multiple truck loads arrive with just items from her Amazon wishlist several times daily — and for her generosity. Hays’ own mail carrier lost her home, and goes “shopping” in Hays’ living room for essentials such as underwear, undershirts, diapers and wipes. Word spread among other mail carriers, and now the union president has Hays’ personal cell phone number. Early this week Trader Joe’s contacted Hays to ask where food deliveries could be made.

Less than 10 days ago Hays’ living room was filled with her son’s laundry, toys and various work projects. Since the rain started, more than $40,000 of merchandise has passed through her home (not including over $14,000 donated via her GoFundMe), with 30 volunteers working to help open boxes, sort and deliver items.

When a carload of sorority sisters arrived, Hays sent them out in Ubers — with fares generously covered by the company — to make deliveries. Hays is also a liaison for a nursing home, a single mothers’ charity and several shelters that share their immediate needs for displaced residents in their care.

Late one night, a woman called Hays’ personal cell phone, which she had received through the grapevine, and apologetically asked “Is your organization closed? My aunt just came home and realized she lost everything. Can she come by?” Hays replied: “I’m not an organization, yes I would be happy to deliver whatever you need.”

“This is bigger than I ever intended but the storm is bigger than I ever thought,” Hays said.

Hays realizes that the work she’s doing has only just begun. First, immediate needs have to be met. Then demolition begins (and has just now started) on homes destroyed by rising floodwaters. Next comes rebuilding, which as Hays learned post-Katrina, can take years. Hays has earmarked some of the money donated to her GoFundMe for those post-cleanup efforts.

Hays tells Opportunity Lives the city has been brought together in ways no Twitter activism or protest could accomplish. Working in the same area where Sterling was shot, people are coming together and helping recapture the city from the brink of a very different kind of disaster.

“People are working alongside each other who never would’ve known each other previously,” Hays said. “It’s hard but uplifting. At the end of the day it’s sad that it took this for the community to realize that we love each other. But we very clearly do.”