How to help: Louisiana native spurs local effort to collect Hurricane Ida relief supplies

Sierra Rains
Northwest Florida Daily News

FORT WALTON BEACH — A local Realtor and Louisiana native has teamed up with the cities of Fort Walton Beach and Destin to collect donations of Hurricane Ida relief supplies for Louisiana residents affected by the storm. 

Damien Callais was born and raised in New Orleans, where most of his family evacuated from before Hurricane Ida slammed into southern Louisiana on Sunday. Millions of people were still without power Thursday, and Callais said the supply chain for several items like bottled water and canned food is “dire.” 

“They can’t get a lot of the stuff that we have right now,” Callais said. “It’s within miles and miles of the affected area. The supply chain is just dire right now.”

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Louisiana native and local Realtor Damien Callais talks Thursday about Operation Serve. Callais has partnered with the cities of Fort Walton Beach and Destin to help collect Hurricane Ida relief supplies for Louisiana residents affected by the storm. AA Transfer and Storage has donated two 53-foot-long moving trailers to be used as collection points at Fort Walton Beach City Hall and the Morgan Sports Center in Destin. Drop-off hours are 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday.

Callais was one of the founders of the Cajun Navy, an organization of volunteers that works with authorities to help perform water rescues and other citizen-led disaster relief missions. He has lived in the Florida Panhandle for three years, but normally heads out to Louisiana to help assist when storms roll through. 

With his family staying in condos in the Destin area this year, Callais said he decided to stay behind and help out in other ways. AA Transfer and Storage of Fort Walton Beach loaned two 53-foot moving trailers to Callais to use for the local effort he calls “Operation Serve.” 

Mark Zendler drops off Hurricane Ida relief supplies to volunteer Jeannie Aylsworth at Fort Walton Beach City Hall on Thursday morning. The cities of Fort Walton Beach and Destin are partnering with Louisiana native and Realtor Damien Callais for Operation Serve. People can drop off supplies at City Hall and the Morgan Sports Center in Destin from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday.

“The people of Louisiana are resilient people. They persevere, and I think it’s in our blood to serve,” Callais said. “That’s why this is called Operation Serve. It’s our opportunity to serve our neighbors.” 

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The moving trailers are stationed outside Fort Walton Beach City Hall at 107 Miracle Strip Parkway and at the Morgan Sports Center east parking lot behind Destin City Hall at 4100 Indian Bayou Trail. 

Donations can be dropped off at both locations from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and will be collected from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday. 

Callais said items needed include Gatorade, canned food, baby formula, pet food, towels, socks and underwear. A full list can be found on the City of Fort Walton Beach and City of Destin’s Facebook pages.

A huge need that hadn’t yet been filled Thursday was roofing supplies. 

Doug Rainer helps unload pallets at a Hurricane Ida relief supplies drop-off point at Fort Walton Beach City Hall on Thursday morning. The cities of Fort Walton Beach and Destin are partnering with Louisiana native and Realtor Damien Callais for Operation Serve. People can drop off supplies at City Hall and at the Morgan Sports Center in Destin from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday.

“We need a lot of blue tarps, roofing nails. Right now one of the biggest problems is when a storm comes in and does what it does, a lot of roofs blow off,” Callais said. “A lot of people don’t want to leave their house to go to a shelter. That’s all they have. They want to protect their stuff." 

Volunteers began collecting items Wednesday. Although the trailer in Fort Walton Beach was still a little sparse Thursday, Callais said several people have been helping out and he expects to have full truckloads by the end of the week. 

Damien Callais opens the door of a 53-foot moving trailer at Fort Walton Beach City Hall on Thursday afternoon. The Louisiana native and local Realtor is spearheading a drive to collect Hurricane Ida relief supplies, and has partnered with the cities of Fort Walton Beach and Destin to provide drop-off locations at City Hall and the Morgan Sports Center. Callais hopes to fill the two trailers donated by AA Transfer and Storage over the next few days and take them to Louisiana on Sunday evening.

One man came by with a trailer full of donations. Local businesses also have begun chipping in, with one donating more than 10,000 pounds of ice and several gallons of fuel for the trip to Louisiana. 

“There’s just a lot of people doing some really awesome stuff to help us out. It’s just about neighbors helping neighbors,” Callais said. “I have a feeling with the way that Destin is already looking, just with a few people that have dropped by, we’re going to have probably more than one truck.”

All donations will be taken to a distribution center in Amite City, Louisiana. Callais said about 2,000 elderly people from assisted living centers are taking shelter at a warehouse on the same property. 

Bottled water and other Hurricane Ida relief supplies sit in a storage trailer at Fort Walton Beach City Hall on Thursday morning. The cities of Fort Walton Beach and Destin are partnering with Louisiana native and Realtor Damien Callais for Operation Serve. Today through Sunday afternoon, people can drop off supplies at City Hall and the Morgan Sports Center.

The Fuller Center for Housing, a faith-based nonprofit that helps build affordable housing for people in Southeast Louisiana, helped take the people to the facility and will be using some of the donations to provide for them. 

The remaining supplies will be distributed to five parishes: Jefferson, Orleans, Lafourche, St. John the Baptist, and St. Bernard. 

Callais said he has helped assist after nine hurricanes in Louisiana. His family weathered Hurricane Katrina, which made landfall in Louisiana the same date as Hurricane Ida 16 years ago. 

The Aug. 29 landfall evoked many memories of Katrina, which demolished his mother's and grandmother’s homes. Although he hasn’t been to Louisiana yet, Callais said the damage from Hurricane Ida is “really bad.” 

“That area seems to get hit pretty hard real often. Last year there were two hurricanes that I responded to in boats. It was just terrible,” he said. “My family has a fishing camp down in Grand Isle, and that whole area is just not existent anymore. It’s gone. The whole area for miles and miles is just decimated.” 

Several organizations and volunteers throughout the nation have jumped to action to help provide relief items for the storm victims. Without people collecting donations, Callais said the residents of Louisiana would be in an even more dire situation. 

“It’s just all about doing what you can,” Callais said. “Every day when your feet hit the floor you can add positive energy to the world or you can add negative energy to the world. Only one person at a time, one kind act at a time, we can all literally change this world.”