Blowing town

It was the first week of September—the worst time for hurricanes—and like a human barometer, Aaron Funk was feeling the pressure. His disaster-relief organization, American Rainbow Rapid Response, was all packed and ready to go feed storm victims. The trouble was, he wasn’t sure yet where those services were needed.

Hurricane Gustav had washed ashore in Louisiana only days before, and though it hadn’t brought the Katrina-level destruction many had feared, it still left evacuated cities, power outages and flooding in its wake. Meanwhile, Hanna was moving around off the Florida coast, with landfall predicted for anywhere between Miami and Kitty Hawk, N.C. Ike was out there too, gaining strength in the Caribbean. And the Weather Channel was just getting ready to introduce us to Josephine.

As American Rainbow volunteers loaded up mobile kitchen equipment from a supply-and-repair company in Asheville’s River District, Funk was fielding phone calls from contacts in Louisiana where, despite worldwide attention focused on Gustav’s arrival, no official information was available concerning the level of damage.

“At this time, there’s no info coming out of southern Louisiana. Nobody knows anything about the southern parishes. There are no statistics—none,” said Funk, obviously trying to temper his frustration. “There is not one scrap of info coming out of that zone.” But Funk and his volunteers are both positive and driven, and the team continued to get ready to go wherever a food kitchen was most needed.

“We’re pretty much obligated to be on call for this event,” he explained. “We’re trying to figure out where we’re sending our main team. But we’re working without info.”

Closing his cell phone, Funk turned his attention from Gustav to Hanna and considers sending an advance team to Charleston.

With its strategic location and supportive volunteer base, Asheville is home to a number of mobile relief organizations. The end of the summer is the worst time for hurricanes off the Southeast coast, and for these groups, that means kicking into high gear even when you don’t know yet where the need will be the greatest. It’s the very definition of “hurry up and wait.”

“When it gets into late August, that’s when we start getting antsy. It’s early yet, but we gotta be ready for the worst,” says Bill Bradley, executive director of Hearts With Hands. “We’re ready. We’re like a German shepherd waiting for you to throw the Frisbee: Where’s it going to go?”

The Asheville-Mountain Area Red Cross has also been trying to cover all the bases, sending a team member to Alexandria, La., after Gustav; administrative personnel to Greensboro and Raleigh to handle the office work during Hanna; and then dispatching four shelter volunteers to Orlando, Fla., to prepare for Ike.

“I don’t know when we’ve had a season like this,” says Emergency Services Director Debra Collington. “It’s literally back-to-back.”

By Sept. 12, Funk and his crew would be in Homa, La., distributing food to 2,000 people. After an invitation from the governor’s office to set up in Baton Rouge, ARRR ran into some logistical obstacles. Funk contacted the Louisiana Legislative Black caucus, and after a trip to the state Capitol, wound up setting up a kitchen in a low-income section of Homa, where power was predicted to be out for two weeks.

A few days later, the group had fed every shelter in Terrebonne Parish as well as the Homa Police Department, and Funk was considering moving the operation into Texas.

To know which way the wind blows

Katrina was a pivotal event for Asheville-based relief organizations. American Rainbow was born in response to that 2005 disaster—a loose-knit group of Asheville and Western North Carolina residents who were just trying to lend a hand.

“We were one of the first feeding operations on the ground,” Funk recalls; they landed in New Orleans eight days after the storm hit. Eventually, the group was approached by a volunteer coordinator for the Federal Emergency Management Agency who asked them to stay awhile, and suddenly a three-week operation turned into three months.

These days, American Rainbow is set up to provide 15,000 meals per day—almost entirely organic, adds Funk—using two mobile kitchens.

Asheville, he says, makes a good deployment area, and not just because it’s 12 hours or less from anywhere in the Southeast that hurricanes are likely to strike. Across the political and philosophical spectrum, he says, many area residents want to help and are ready to jump when the time comes.

“There’s a large network of friends here who are very good under pressure,” notes Funk. “Gustav has brought assets out of the woodwork that are ready to move.” The group relies heavily on volunteers and the generosity of donors for both food and deployment costs.

The group keeps in close touch with FEMA and is a member of both the N.C. and S.C. VOADs (Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster), which coordinate the efforts of member groups. Those relationships enhance communication and avoid duplication of services.

But the volunteers, says Funk, also go the extra mile in trying to break down the barriers that can come between people and government agencies. As Katrina showed, disaster can spark distrust of authority, and American Rainbow volunteers take pride in being “just folks.” Group members sleep in tents alongside displaced locals, wear their everyday clothing and try to set up extracurricular activities such as music performances to help break the spell a disaster can cast.

“The important thing is getting people back to normalcy—getting back to where everything is OK,” he observes. “It helps them switch from victim to survivor.”

The group’s performance under fire prompted an invitation from the White House Office of Faith-based and Community Initiatives last May to attend a roundtable there (Asheville Mayor Terry Bellamy also went). Surprised by the invitation, Funk says he actually waited till the second one came before responding. But attending that gathering of municipal leaders and community activists from across the country taught Funk a few things.

“Our efforts are appreciated in ways I didn’t know,” he says. He was also impressed by the federal office’s level of commitment. “The environment seems very urgent there,” he notes. “They are very serious and are very concerned for the general public.”

Band of gypsies

Hearts With Hands predates Katrina—the 15-year-old organization provided food for rescue and salvage workers at Ground Zero after Sept. 11, among other missions. But the group’s experience with the massive hurricane forged relationships that pay dividends whenever storms strike the Southeast.

After Katrina, the Hearts With Hands convoy brought food kitchens to Ocean Springs, Miss., to feed other volunteers there. The group simply showed up, without notifying any local authorities. Eventually, however, the city’s mayor got them on the phone.

“She called and said, “Why are you doing this?’” Bradley recalls. He told her that the Christian-based group saw it as its mission. A few weeks later, Bradley and other Hearts With Hands members met with city officials, representatives of the National Guard and FEMA, and entered into an agreement to provide assistance when needed.

As a result, Hearts With Hands is now on FEMA’s radar—but not under its supervision. “We work with FEMA but not for FEMA,” Bradley explains. “They never bother us as far as what we are doing.”

Ocean Springs got off light during Gustav, however, and Hearts with Hands was relying on an advance team in Pascagoula, Miss., to figure out whether they should set up a more ambitious operation in the area—and if so, where. Like American Rainbow, Hearts with Hands was running into roadblocks in Louisiana, where they were being denied entry into the hardest-hit areas.

“We can’t get into New Orleans—they got it totally locked down,” Bradley reported in early September.

That left Bradley, too, scrambling to figure out his group’s next move, pulling his advance team out of the Deep South and trying to decide whether to send them to South Carolina in anticipation of Hanna. Once the team identifies a suitable site, Hearts With Hands dispatches trucks carrying food, water and blankets. “We look like a bunch of gypsies,” he says.

The group has signed up 35 retired truck drivers who are available on short notice to transport supplies, piloting trucks leased when disaster strikes. Recently, American Rainbow has also been partnering with Hearts With Hands, storing food and kitchen equipment in its warehouse till they’re needed.

“We got the food; we know where to get the food. They got the trucks,” Funk says simply.

Bradley, who first crossed paths with American Rainbow during the Katrina disaster, calls them a “super bunch of guys.” But everywhere Hearts With Hands has been, he adds, he’s run into other relief efforts deployed from the Asheville area.

“Anywhere you go, you’re going to find Western North Carolina well-represented,” notes Bradley.

On Sept. 14, Bradley headed to Port Arthur, Texas, to survey possible sites to set up operations. With a couple of months left in hurricane season, it is hoped that the worst was over with Ike.

“Everything’s busy until Christmas; then we get a little break,” he says. “Then in early spring, you start getting the floods.”

 

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