Riegel: How entrepreneurial know-how turned Celtic into a community of caring

AUGUST 31, 2016 

Some of the biggest movies ever filmed in Louisiana were shot at Celtic Media Centre. Perhaps, one day, producers will again flock to Baton Rouge and use the cavernous sound stages on Airline Highway to make blockbuster hits.

But for a long time to come, the state-of-the-art movie studio will best be remembered around here for the starring role it played in the early days of the historic flood of 2016.

Today Celtic is dark. After serving as a temporary home for nearly two weeks to some of the area’s hardest hit flood victims, it was shuttered. Those who still need a place to stay have been consolidated with other displaced flood victims in the Baton Rouge River Center downtown, which is now a Red Cross-run shelter.

But before the Red Cross arrived, before state social service agencies mobilized, Celtic opened its doors to the neediest in Baton Rouge, and a staff of makeshift responders made up of many of the city’s bright young entrepreneurs used their quick wits and leadership skills to transform 150,000 square feet of empty space into a community of caring.

It’s an amazing story, one of many to emerge from the recent disaster. It began around 3 a.m. on Sunday, Aug. 14, when Celtic Executive Director Patrick Mulhearn got the call to open the studio. He’d previously offered the building as an option to city and state officials, but no one had really planned for it because no one expected the flooding to be so epic.

Mulhearn and his director of studio operations, Aaron Bayham, scrambled to get to the studio, arriving at 4 a.m. They turned on the lights, powered up the AC and waited. At 5 a.m. people started coming.

“Elderly people, people in wheelchairs, babies,” Mulhearn recalls. “They walked into an empty sound stage and there was nothing there. They just kept coming and there was nobody there but us.”

Mulhearn initially tried to register his guests, but long lines began to form. He abandoned the idea and let them all in.

That’s when reality hit. He had no furniture. He had no food. And he didn’t have any help from government officials. He’s not sure where they were, but they weren’t there—and wouldn’t be for many more hours.

He began scavenging for supplies. He found a few dozen folding chairs so people could sit and some Ritz crackers from the kitchen so the hungriest could snack. He tried calling for help, but AT&T cellular service was down.

So Mulhearn jumped on the studio’s Wi-Fi and took to social media, posting for help on Facebook and Twitter. The response was overwhelming.

“It was unreal how fast it went viral,” he says. “Word spread and people just started showing up.”

The nearby Costco opened early in response to his posts, and volunteers began emptying its shelves of water to bring to the studio. Others came bearing food, blankets, first-aid supplies and clothes. By midmorning, the parking lot was as full of volunteers as it was evacuees.

Jared Loftus, who owns several small businesses and is COO at MasteryPrep, showed up about that time. He was one of several young entrepreneurs who’d seen Mulhearn’s posts. Entering one of the sound stages, he spotted others he knows from around town—Tommy’s TV owner Tommy Talley, Covalent Logic owner Stafford Wood.

Together, they got busy. Over the next several hours, they would organize themselves and the countless other volunteers who came to help, bringing order to the chaos at Celtic.

They divided and conquered, each taking over a different area. Fresh Junkie owner Pat Fellows ran the shelter in Stage Five. THRIVE charter school founder Sarah Broome took over in Stage Six. Talley and Wood sorted the mounds of donated clothing that kept arriving by the boxful.

Loftus coordinated the overall efforts with help from others—Logan Leger of NewAperio, Gabby and Walker Higgins of Brew Ha-Ha, personal injury attorney Chad Dudley and many more.

Together, they made signs and organized the ever-growing mounds of donated items. They secured tables and chairs. They ordered 150 portable toilets and two large dumpsters. They put volunteers to work guarding bathroom doors and comforting evacuees.

“Everybody used their networks and connections to see who they could reach out to, to get what we needed, and it all came together,” Loftus says. “By the end of the night it was in a very good position to be handed off to the authorities.”

Looking back on it, what impresses Loftus and Mulhearn about the experience is the can-do spirit of those who showed up to help that day, and how they improvised without a playbook.

“That is what is so great about the spirit of this group,” Loftus says. “They don’t wait around for assistance. It’s not that they can’t take orders, but if no one is giving orders they’re going to do it themselves.”

There have been many heartrending, dramatic, touching stories to come out of this tragedy. Each is moving in its own way. The story of how Celtic became a disaster shelter in the space of a few hours is not among the tearjerkers. But it is illustrative of the rich human capital that exists in this community and a reminder of how raw talent can be harnessed for good—with the prompt of merely a Facebook post and a few tweets.

It’s such a good story maybe one day they’ll make a movie about it.