How One Shoe Store Owner Brought Relief to Thousands of Flood Victims

Louisiana in August suffered the largest single natural disaster since Hurricane Katrina. A storm system dropped so much rain that it caused flooding in much of the southern and central part of the state. Among the hardest hit areas was the state capital of Baton Rouge and surrounding communities.

Over a span a few days, flooding left thousands of people homeless. These people were forced into churches, community centers and other places that became temporary shelters. Most of them lost everything they had.

Many storm victims literally showed up barefoot. Fleet Feet Baton Rouge owner Michelle Forte took notice. Forte’s business has been open for almost 10 years and she had seen nothing like the disruption caused by the storm. Although her store had not suffered any damage, her business was at a stand still due to the damage throughout the city and state.

Forte opened her store because of her love of running. She gathered old race shirts and sent out an email to her customers asking them to donate whatever they can. She collected two boxes full of items and she delivered them to nearby shelters.

But the real demand was for shoes. Forte asked her customers to donate what she described to Opportunity Lives as “gently used shoes.” Meanwhile, she contacted vendors and other Fleet Feet franchisees for any shoes they could spare. According to SGB Media, shoe manufacturers from Asics to New Balance stepped up and delivered. Skechers Performance delivered a carload of shoes from Austin and Pearl Izumi donated 4,000 shoes to Forte’s efforts. Fleet Feet Memphis stepped up and donated 800 pairs of shoes. Sock manufacturers also pitched in.

shoe manufacturers from Asics to New Balance stepped up and delivered

Forte had her employees sort through the items and make deliveries. She had experience planning endurance events so she was able to carefully organize the shipments.

The flood occurred at one of the busiest times of the year for Fleet Feet Baton Rouge. Normally at the time, the store would be having its back-to-school sale and customers would be coming to buy new shoes for the school year.

Forte’s relief efforts expanded after she met an exhausted Dr. Ashley Saucier, who is the director of pediatrics at Our Lady of the Lake hospital in Baton Rouge.

She needed a break from the Rivercenter (a major storm shelter).” Saucier described to Forte that the relief effort had become bogged down through bureaucratic red tape and a lack of resources. Many shelters had turned away relief supplies because they did not have the personnel to sort and distribute them.

Forte volunteered her store as a central hub to gather and distribute supplies. Her employees and volunteers gathered not just the shoes but everything diapers to food and sorted them out. They would then run deliveries to storm shelters with the items already sorted out and were filling the requests of the shelters. Forte was one of the few people who could deliver items to the Red Cross shelters.

Many of the volunteers helping out at the store were not even from the metro Baton Rouge area. Forte, who was born in nearby Plaquemine, but has lived in Baton Rouge since she graduated high school at 17, was instrumental in providing a local perspective to help navigate the difficulties of delivering supplies.

she and her team delivered more than 10,000 pairs of shoes to needy flood victims.

Forte told Opportunity Lives that she and her team delivered more than 10,000 pairs of shoes to needy flood victims. Not only does that bring some dignity to those who had lost everything, but those shoes would minimize injuries during the cleanup. Flood waters often leave behind sharp objects such as broken glass that could be harmful to bare feet.

The need is still great in the Baton Rouge area five months after the floodwaters have receded. Forte is still collecting money and supplies for flood victims through a nonprofit she founded after the flood called the Baton Rouge Emergency Aid Coalition. The organization is accepting donations.

As for Michelle Forte herself, she didn’t suffer any losses in the flood nor did her immediate family. But her business has taken a hit. “Fleet Feet has suffered from the lack of people wanting to buy shoes,” she said. “People are buying house items, etc.”

Surely as the Baton Rouge area recovers, so will Fleet Feet Baton Rouge.

Kevin Boyd is a contributor for Opportunity Lives. You can follow him on Twitter @thekevinboyd.