On the Sunday of last year's flood — the day when the choked waterways backflowed into people's homes and AT&T service cut out — Jill Miller got a call from one of her employees.
The National Guard was getting ready to break down the door of her business, she was told.
Miller is the vice president of the Central Drug Store. She remembered thinking, "What is the Guard going to do with all those pills? Hand them out like candy?"
She hopped in a boat with her husband, then a Jeep with a friend and made it to the still-dry pharmacy to open shop herself.
While many have remarked on the heroics of first responders, the Cajun Navy and others involved in last year's flood response, local pharmacists were also hard at work, putting in long days to make sure people got the medicine they needed to control seizures, diabetes and HIV.
As Miller arrived at the drug store, the nearby schools were filling with flood victims. She and her team started pushing out needed prescriptions for people who had fled their homes without their medicine. They threw open the doors so volunteers could deliver first aid supplies to the shelters.
"Whatever you can put in a bag and carry, take it," she recalled telling them.
Eventually, many of the displaced residents wound up at the River Center.
Pharmacist T.J. Woodard, who owns Prescriptions to Geaux in downtown Baton Rouge, said his staff filled about 750 prescriptions — on the first day. In a normal day, he may fill 100 to 150.
"It was really chaos. No one had their medications, their lists of medications, their insurance, anything. … Nobody was really prepared for the amount of people who literally had nothing," he recalled.
For about a week and a half, days would start at 6 a.m. when his team picked up the first batch of prescriptions left overnight, then they'd carefully dispense medication until 8 or 10 p.m., couriering drugs on a three-wheeled bike from their shop on Third Street down to the River Center, Woodard recalled.
Those who stayed in the Celtic Studios likely got their medication from Aaron Daniel, who owns Daniel Pharmacy in Brusly. His wife along with his staff delivered the medicines to the shelter. Once the governor declared the flooding an official emergency, it granted pharmacists extra authority to dispense medicine, he said.
Daniel and Woodard both praised the doctors who volunteered their time at the shelters, but it was also a boost for them to be able to fill out basic prescriptions or help a doctor figure out the right dose, such as when working with a pediatrician to determine how much medicine an adult should receive.
Psychiatric drugs were tricky, though, Daniel noted. He said he personally just didn't have as much experience with those, and many of the people in the shelters needed their mental health medicines, especially in the midst of all the chaos.
"It doesn't matter how well you cope with things, that is a recipe for disaster," he said. "Oh my God, the day we had a psychiatrist there? That was a good day."
Most of the medicine went toward treating existing conditions, from high blood pressure to chemotherapy drugs. But some people also got checked out for bacterial and fungal infections from the flood itself after they presented skin conditions thought to be caused by contact with contaminated water, Daniel said.
He said that some people seemed eager to get their hands on narcotics who didn't seem to need them, so they limited their availability at the shelter. It wasn't a problem at the River Center, Woodard said.
Small, locally-owned drug stores are essential in a crisis, said Randal Johnson, president of the Louisiana Independent Pharmacies Association.
Because they don't have to answer to shareholders or a bureaucratic corporate structure, they can quickly get medicine to people in a crisis, he said. Many folks with health problems are able to remain in stable condition as long as they take their prescriptions, but without them, they can go into crisis. That's bad not only for the individual, but it also stresses out others at the shelters and further burdens the hospitals and ambulance crews.
The pharmacists also wound up losing money for their efforts. LIPA took on some of the cost which will likely get reimbursed — eventually — by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and many patients had Medicare, Medicaid or private insurance, but overall there were losses.
Tens of thousands of dollars worth of insulin was donated by manufacturers, and the leftovers largely went to the St. Vincent de Paul charity pharmacy, Daniel said.
But elsewhere, Miller is just writing off that Sunday rush at her drug store as a donation. She figures the medicine went to her staff's friends, families and customers.
"That's what a community does," she said. "It's not what you can get out of it, it's about what you can give back."