It's often music or booze that brings the Louisiana State Society together.
Each May, they boil thousands of pounds of crawfish, potatoes, corn and sausage to serve with cold Abita beer. D.C. Jazz Fest makes it onto the group's calendar, and any music venue hosting bands with Bayou roots becomes a featured destination.
But the lively crew of Louisiana natives and Creole-culture aficionados plan to mark the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina differently — by lending a helping hand to others hit by disaster.
On Saturday, one decade after Katrina made landfall in the Pelican State, 100 members will spend their morning at the American Red Cross headquarters in Northwest D.C. They will assemble "comfort kits" of soap, shampoo, razors and other essentials to be distributed to local families who have been displaced from their homes due to emergency.
"In the midst of all the stories we heard, a lot of it spoke to negative actions. But there was a great deal of kindness and generosity, often from people who had no ties to the community," said Nicole Morales, philanthropy chairwoman for the LSS and organizer of the event. For Morales, it's about "paying it forward."
Katrina roared into Louisiana when Morales was 17, she said, destroying the all-girls Catholic high school she attended. Her father, a homicide detective, stayed behind during the storm to contribute to the the police's search and rescue efforts.
Morales said her mother wanted the rest of the family to stay, hoping they could help others. She pushed back, arguing that without first responder skills such an effort would be futile. "We were the last family in the neighborhood to leave," she recalled.
With the family's two dogs in the car, they embarked on an "emotionally wrought" drive to Memphis, Tenn. As traffic streamed out of New Orleans, Morales remembers the haunting images of people who tried to "pack their life into their car," cramming paintings, bird cages and other belongings into their vehicles.
"Refugee" is a word Morales hesitates to use, but it defines how she and other LSS members spent the rest of 2005. She said memories of the storm make Louisiana and Mississippi transplants in D.C. feel "very connected," including those from the outlying communities who absorbed some of the refugees.
"It's hard not to be touched — hard not to be impacted — by the disaster," Morales said.
The two-hour Red Cross volunteer event marks the second philanthropic effort that Morales has organized since she joined the LSS board in March. Members prepared jambalaya, sweet tea, pecan pie and other Louisiana delicacies for the Ronald McDonald House Charities of Greater Washington, D.C.
Giving back is not a new concept for the LSS. In 2006, when the organizers of Washington Mardi Gras canceled their annual event due to Katrina's devastation, the LSS decided to throw its own black-tie masquerade ball with proceeds benefiting the Louisiana Disaster Recovery Foundation.
Morales said the group, which includes Capitol Hill denizens, plans to add more charity events to the social calendar that includes Mardi Gras king cake celebrations and Saints football watch parties.
"It's fitting a desire that our members have," she said. "They want to give back, be part of the community."
10 Years After Katrina, Two Lawmakers Look Back
American Refugees: Hill Staffers Tell Their Katrina Stories
Scalise, Richmond: Two Takes on Post-Katrina New Orleans
For D.C., a Scaled-Back Mardi Gras ’06
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