Airbnb rescue: Flooded homes in Baton Rouge, open hearts in New Orleans

Efforts to help those displaced by the floods in Baton Rouge, La., include 180 homeowners offering their rental rooms for free. 

Winston Ross/Special to The Christian Science Monitor
Matt Hahne sits in his New Orleans home. He has offered free accommodation to victims of the Baton Rouge flood.

Emergency officials have pumped the floodwater out of Kim Stewart’s east Baton Rouge, La., home. But, at this point, that is only a slight improvement.

The floor is wet and reeks of sewage. There’s paper, debris, grass, and spiders everywhere. “You know how sometimes you get used to a smell and you can’t smell it anymore?” she says. “This is constant. It’s just disgusting.”

She, her 20-something son, and pregnant teenage daughter can’t live here, and not just because of the smell. Her landlord needs them out to fix the damaged floor and clear out the black mold.

For at least the next 90 days, they are homeless.

Or, they thought they were.

Beginning Friday, they have a place to stay for two weeks in nearby New Orleans. The offer comes from a homeowner offering free accommodation through the popular home-sharing site Airbnb.

With the Federal Emergency Management Agency yet to develop plans for transitional housing and a daughter about to give birth, Ms. Stewart says she is beyond grateful.

“The generosity, compassion and caring, to take from their own income and welcome strangers into their property. There are just no words for that. There are no words. I truly believe it’s a Southern thing.”

More than 180 Airbnb hosts from New Orleans to Alexandria, La., have opened their homes to victims of the some of the worst flooding in Louisiana history. Two feet of rain pummeled the Baton Rouge area over a two-day period last week. More than 40,000 homes are damaged, 11 people are dead, and more than 30,000 people have been rescued since Friday, according to the Associated Press.

Since the flooding began, offers of aid have come from far and near. The University of South Carolina football team took up donations in repayment for donations made by the Louisiana State University community last fall during flooding in Columbia, S.C.

In Louisiana, local do-gooders dubbing themselves the “Cajun Navy” combed Facebook accounts to see who needed help and set out in a fleet of boats to help those stranded by the floods.

The offers of Airbnb hosts are just part of the efforts. The idea originated in 2012 after hurricane Sandy struck the Northeast and a host here asked if she could offer her place for free. The company responded by developing a  “disaster response tool,” and the program has since been expanded to help victims of wildfires, floods, earthquakes, and terror attacks around the world, says Airbnb spokesman Nick Shapiro. Airbnb waives its fees and emails hosts in the affected areas when a disaster strikes.

Matt Hahne was one to respond.

The kindness of strangers

In 2005, he lost his job and his house to hurricane Katrina, displaced to Houston for six months and reliant on a kindness of strangers that “will bring a hardened, mean, tough son of a [expletive] to his knees. Because it’s incredible, really.”

Now, he has found an opportunity to return the favor.

The maritime consultant who specializes in emergency response has converted part of the downstairs level of his home to a small apartment that he lists on Airbnb. On Tuesday, he got the email asking if he’d like to help Louisiana flood victims by offering that apartment to them, for free.

Mr. Hahne didn’t hesitate.

“It was kind of a no-brainer,” he says. “It’s very easy to do, and it’s the right thing to do.”

The American Red Cross is now working with approximately 7,500 occupants of temporary housing shelters in the Baton Rouge area, said Jono Anzalone, a spokesman for the agency. Many of these residents are not in flood zones and were shocked to find themselves displaced.

“Our No. 1 focus is sheltering and feeding,” he says.

Efforts to move people from uncomfortable emergency shelters to more private housing are awaiting a decision by Louisiana on whether to participate in a federal transitional housing program.

“I don’t know if there’ll be an official request to turn that on,” Mr. Anzalone says.

In the meantime, the Red Cross has for the first time begun telling evacuees with smartphones about the free Airbnb listings.

Airbnb screenshot
The Airbnb website offers free accommodation to victims of the Baton Rouge flooding.

Most of the hosts contacted by the Monitor on Tuesday hadn’t received guests yet. And the host who accepted Stewart asked not to be named. Another host said she’d received booking requests but had to cancel them after the guests deemed travel to New Orleans too arduous.

But there’s no shortage of open doors.

'The least you can do'

Scott Graves is a Katrina survivor who has lived in New Orleans for 36 years. He fled to a friend’s place in Dallas when the hurricane hit in 2005, with little more than a couple of changes of clothing in a suitcase. As he backed out of the driveway, “I looked at my property and kissed it goodbye, envisioning a concrete slab,” he said.

In Dallas, “people took me out to lunch, to dinner, they went in their closets and dug out clothes. I had as many clothes as I had in my own closet here. It was just phenomenal.”

Mr. Graves returned to find his home remarkably unscathed.

“Having been treated just wonderfully by people elsewhere, it’s sort of like the least you can do is come back in and repay it, indirectly,” he says. “I was always taught as a child that whatever you do comes back to you.”

On Monday, the New Orleans Times-Picayune ran an editorial headlined “Dear Baton Rouge: New Orleans Has Your Back,” a piece that recalled Baton Rouge’s response to Katrina, taking in some 250,000 residents, which doubled the population. “Many of us brought little or nothing with us. We left our homes in a hurry, thinking we would be gone a few days, not weeks on end.”

New Orleanians are eager to help now. Local musician Kristin Diable posted her loft in New Orleans on her Facebook and Twitter pages, free for the next two weeks to anyone who’s lost their home in the floods. Ms. Diable grew up in Baton Rouge.

“I believe in times of violence, in times of madness, the ties that bind us, our common threads are more important to nurture and share than ever,” she wrote on Facebook.

Rachel Smith owns a tugboat company in New Orleans and remembers how crucial volunteer efforts were in the post-Katrina recovery, “which continued for several years after the storm, even when the media spotlight was long gone,” she said.

Eleven years later, city residents recall what a difference it made to rebuilding housing stock, providing morale, financial aid, and so much more.

Ms. Smith suspects it will take a little time before flood evacuees begin to look for extended lodging, as they’re now focused on emergency shelter and assessing damage to their local properties.

“It's especially sad to learn about people who lost a home to Katrina and relocated out of the area only to get hit again in their new home.”

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