Louisiana volleyball community deals with devastating flooding

1
The Gold Dome at St. Amant HS

Water and volleyball don’t mix. You see it every time a match stops so a wet spot can get wiped. You see the setters smoothing their hands on their shorts before they touch the ball.

And where we live in Louisiana, water is simply kicking our ass, and that includes the volleyball community.

But in Louisiana we’re getting pretty good at pulling together after tragedies and natural disasters and our volleyball world is no exception.

First, let me tell you that we had, in essence, a hurricane that gave no warning and had no wind. Because of that, especially the part about no warning, it was worse than a hurricane. Starting last Friday, we had rain. And more rain. And more rain, a mind-boggling amount — more than 30 inches in some places — that has flooded our area beyond belief.

If you haven’t seen it on the news, well, the numbers are staggering. According to the State of Louisiana Emergency Operations Center:

— About 30,000 people had to be rescued by boat from their flooded homes

— More than 40,000 houses were affected

— About 8,000 people are in shelters

— Countless pets are in shelters or abandoned

— And the worst, 13 people have died as a result of the storm.

It might be hard in that context to think about volleyball, but this is VolleyballMag.com and volleyball is what we do.

So …

The warped floor in one of the Denham Springs High gyms
The warped floor in one of the Denham Springs High gyms

One of the hardest-hit areas, the eastern suburb of Denham Springs, can’t even think about volleyball. That’s a picture of the Denham Springs High School “Jacket” gym floor atop this story. First-year head coach Pamela Dubuy likened it to a skate-board park “with big ramps.”

“Our gym is destroyed. It got about six inches of water in it,” Dubuy said.

Dubuy, who lives in nearby Walker, said her home was spared but barely. Most of her team of 27 players was not so lucky.

“I’ve only heard from about half the girls,” said Dubuy, a special-education teacher. “I just talked to one of them today and the mom told me their house was destroyed, they have no flood insurance, they have no vehicles because their cars were lost in it. They’re devastated and they’re talking about what they’re going to do, if they’re going to stay in Denham or move. It’s sad.”

Dubuy said they got a laugh when they finally got to walk into the main “Hornsby” gym and sitting in the midst of the mess was a volleyball.

A volleyball sits alone on the wet floor of the gym at Denham Springs HS
A volleyball sits alone on the wet floor of the gym at Denham Springs HS

“I texted that to my girls to hopefully lighten the moment,” she said.

Dubuy said she was able to save the team’s new uniforms, but they will likely need all new equipment.

“The stress of wondering if your house is going to flood is unbelievable,” said Denham Springs’ Dubuy, who is from Collinsville, Ill., and moved here from West Monroe in northeast Louisiana where she’d never seen flooding. “Watching the water rise at the end of the street was awful and we don’t have flood insurance, either. The stress of that was terrible. All you can do is look out the window and hope. It’s scary.

“Now that it’s subsided I want to help people. We wanted to help before this but you couldn’t get anywhere.”

You couldn’t get anywhere in Denham Springs. But Baton Rouge was more navigable and while campus was flooded in many places, the LSU volleyball team got proactive.

The LSU volleyball team outside the Celtic movie studios.
The LSU volleyball team outside the Celtic movie studios.

Coach Fran Flory and the Tigers went to the Celtic Center, a huge movie studio that has been converted into a shelter. Instead of A-listers making a film — Baton Rouge is a hot spot for movie making — the cavernous structure is home to way too many evacuees.

“It was a wonderful thing to do but I was so overwhelmed at the task at hand,” Flory said. Her players were given different assignments, from working with displaced pets and walking dogs to helping sort the mountains of donated clothing or simply being runners.

“And (sophomore middle) Olivia Beyer, whose dad is a minister, just went through and asked people ‘Could I pray with you?’ and she was amazed by their religion and trust in the good Lord above and she was pretty touched by that.”

Flory is no stranger to helping out during a hurricane. During Katrina, two former LSU players, Julie Ibieta Stempel and Dana Castillo Launey, now very succesful high school and club coaches, and their families came to Baton Rouge and stayed with the Florys. The Launeys actually stayed for months.

One current LSU player, sophomore Katie Kampen, herself was a young girl when her family evacuated New Orleans when Katrina hit in 2005. Working at the shelter, she said, “Was very humbling … People we talked to told us how they lost everything and they were so appreciative of what they could get.”

LSU, by the way, is in the process of converting the former tennis facility on campus into a beach volleyball venue, but it was hit hard by flooding. Flory said the main damage was the locker rooms, but that won’t be a major setback before play begins in the spring.

Other nearby college volleyball programs had to deal with the storm, too.

In Lafayette, La., an area hit particularly hard, Louisiana-Lafayette coach Heather Mazeitas said one of her players’ families was greatly affected, both of her managers who happened to have gone to St. Amant High, are dealing with their family homes being flooded, and three of her current players who room together had to evacuate their house in Lafayette as it flooded.

Jim Smoot, the coach at Southeastern Louisiana University in Hammond, was stranded at home but finally got out and things have been relatively normal. And, luckily, Southern University of Baton Rouge coach Venessa Jacobs said it had no impact on her program or anyone in it.

Other local high schools have lost more than just their gyms. One of those is St. Amant, located about 27 miles southeast of Baton Rouge. The family of one of the LSU players, sophomore Toni Rodriguez, was affected by the storm.

St. Amant coach Allison Leake, whose home near the school was barely spared, sent the picture at the top of this story where they play sports at the high school, the Gold Dome. St. Amant High School took on plenty of water.

“It’s the highest place on campus and it looked like it took on a foot, a foot and a half of water,” Leake said. Area coaches have called or texted, she said, and asked what they can do and offered gym time and whatever they need.

She said she hopes sometime next week they can get back to volleyball.

Aerial shot of Central, LA, this past weekend
Aerial shot of Central, LA, this past weekend

That was the same thing Central coach Michele LeBeouf said. Her house in Central, a northern suburb, took on a foot and half of water. That’s an aerial shot of her area above.

“From the street to our house, we have an eight-foot incline,” said LeBoeuf, who as a player at Baton Rouge’s St. Joseph Academy won four Louisiana high school titles. “It went from water in the street to water in our house in two hours. It was so scary.”

LeBouef, her husband and small daughter were rescued by boat and taken to dry ground.

She was thrilled to say that Central High School did OK.

“I’m texting all my kids and checking in with all of them and trying to get help where it’s needed,” LeBouef said. She laughed at the girls whose homes were ruined but told her they are ready to play volleyball.

“I feel so bad for them. I don’t know what we’re going to do, but they all want to get back into the gym. I think they’re all wanting to do something normal and get out of the nastiness.”

Another school affected is Episcopal, and coach Brigit Melancon’s house was flooded. Her high school team and other athletes from the school came to her house to rip out flooring and sheetrock, an all-too-familiar scene throughout the area.

Some of the donated clothing items at Team Sportsplex
Some of the donated clothing items at Team Sportsplex

Donna Pixley is the coach at the Dunham School in Baton Rouge and club director of Red Storm, which trains at a large, modern facility called Team Sportsplex.

“We were just tired of sitting around and knowing that we were high and dry but we don’t know how to help because we can’t get to anybody,” Pixley said. “What we can do? And if you could see this room right now it’s unbelievable.”

Pixley has the rare distinction of having won a national championship as a player for Tampa Juniors and as a coach a Louisiana state high school title with Dunham and the 2002 USA Volleyball national 15s club national championship. LeBoeuf was a player on that team, by the way.

Plenty of toiletries were donated at Team Sportsplex.
Plenty of toiletries were donated at Team Sportsplex.

Pixley put the word out to her high school and club programs and suddenly the Sportsplex filled up with donations.

“It’s beyond my wildest dreams the way people responded,” Pixley said. “It’s just insane. Amazing.”

That’s as good a word as any.

I’ve personally heard from so many volleyball people from around the country, but I figure most of the NCAA coaches don’t even know about it because once they start their seasons, like they did last week, all they know what’s happening in their respective programs.

One who knew is Alabama State coach Penny Lucas, the Baton Rouge native and former national-team player whose previous coaching stops included Memphis and Air Force.

Last weekend we were watching the local CBS affiliate and they were live from a small boat that was picking up people. The man whose boat it was wore a T-shirt that made me laugh.

I texted Penny.

Me: “Guy named Willie being interviewed on WAFB right now. Probably 65. Rescuing people with his boat. Wearing an Air Force Volleyball shirt. Gotta be a relative of yours.”

Penny: “You got it. That’s my Uncle!!!”

Those kind of laughs have been few and far between. If you were a reader of the former DestinationVolleyball.com you might recall the story last March 17 about the Mirandas, who run Louisiana Volleyball, a large club, and also a number of tournaments in the south. Their home in Covington, La., last spring was made unlivable by five feet of water. They are in the process of repairing and raising their living area and then this past weekend they were flooded again.

Make no mistake, that while we keep our senses of humor, this is bad. Really bad. Areas like Denham Springs won’t recover for a really long time. But Louisiana will bounce back, just as it always does.

And volleyball?

We know how we are always a microcosm of the real world. And we will be again.

How can you help?

Well, on Tuesday singer Taylor Swift announced she was sending $1 million to Louisiana. If you have an extra million, we’ll take it.

A personal preference would be that you help out the Greater Baton Rouge Food Bank, which took on four feet of water in an important community operation that works on pretty slim margins.

The hit the Food Bank took was devastating, losing more than a half a million pounds of food worth more than $800,000. I cannot tell you how important the Food Bank is to Baton Rouge and the surrounding areas and couldn’t imagine a worse time for this to happen.

What’s more, the director, Mike Manning, is the dad of two former club and high school volleyball players, including Jessica Manning, who is one of our Volleyball Baton Rouge coaches.

To help, go to http://brfoodbank.org/2016flood/

Another place to give is our local parks and recreation, which goes by BREC. Its facilities have been a refuge in the storm and the programs are invaluable.

The BREC Foundation is a 501C3 and you can donate at http://brecfoundation.org/

Donations are tax deductible and you can specify whether you are donating to employees, parks or even a specific park or facility.

Thanks on behalf of everyone here, including the volleyball community.