Asheville helps hurricane victims

Lt. Walt Robertson of the Asheville Police Department never figured he’d be staying in the Edgecombe County jail. But that was only part of an experience the 27-year veteran says he’ll never forget. Robertson was one of 30 APD volunteers who pitched in with relief efforts, in the wake of Hurricane Floyd’s assault on the Carolina coast. The evacuated jail became a temporary home to officers giving storm victims a helping hand.

“It was unlike anything I’ve ever seen,” Robertson declared.

Even war hadn’t prepared him for what he saw in the aftermath of Floyd: “I’m a Vietnam veteran. I’ve seen man-made devastation; I’ve seen the destruction caused by bombs. But Mother Nature’s destruction was beyond any words in my vocabulary.”

Robertson spent his nights providing security to some of the hardest-hit areas on the coast. No power. No landmarks. A stranger in a distraught, unfamiliar wasteland. “You turn a corner, with nothing but the spotlights on your patrol car, and the first thing you see is a casket,” said Robertson, adding, “It was a grueling sight.”

And a heartbreaking one. “One morning, we were on patrol and saw a couple trying to return to what was left of their home,” Robertson recalled. “We turned our lights on them, and the woman was crying. You just look at them, and you don’t know what to say to them. I can’t believe how someone can get up in the morning and go to work and then come home to nothing.”

Officers from the Asheville Police worked with other public-safety personnel from across the state to provide much-needed aid in the disaster area. “One thing you have to think about,” said Asheville Police Chief Will Annarino, “are the officers who live in the area hit by the storm.” The Asheville Police Department provided homes in the Asheville area for the families of officers affected by the storm. “We recognize [that] when things like this happen, these officers still provide public-safety service, but they also have to think about their family’s well-being.”

The APD’s participation was part of a coordinated relief effort by the city of Asheville. Deann Lyda, events specialist with the city’s Parks and Recreation Department, spearheaded the relief campaign.

“We worked closely with Manna Food Bank to provide donation barrels at certain [designated sites] throughout the city,” Lyda explained. Barrels were placed on every floor of City Hall and throughout the other city-owned buildings. Drop-off sites were also provided at Mission St. Joseph’s Hospital, the county’s largest employer, and at special events such as the Elton John concert and the Ingles Showcase at the Civic Center.

City employees raised nearly $3,000. Four truckloads of goods such as toilet paper, diapers, bottled water, nonperishable food and other items were shipped to the East Coast.

The hurricane didn’t directly impact Lyda. But it did hit close to home. Her parents live in Franklin, Va., which was hit hard by Hurricane Dennis earlier this year. “My father is a preacher; they lost the entire first floor of their church. This was a way for me to give back, and it was very rewarding,” said Lyda.

For Manna Food Bank, the scale of the Hurricane Floyd relief efforts was an unprecedented challenge.

“We served as a collection mechanism for the city,” said Operations Manager Rudi Sommer. Manna, part of a national food-bank network called Second Harvest, serves a 17-county area in Western North Carolina. “This is probably the biggest disaster relief we have been involved in. We have shipped eight truckloads and are working on the ninth,” reported Sommer.

Manna coordinated the pickup of food barrels and the transport of donated items to a central warehouse in Raleigh. Ingles Markets provided free transportation.

“A lot of people responded when they saw the city setting up a food drive,” noted Sommer, adding, “It was a big effort.”

With Hurricane Irene adding insult to injury, the people of eastern North Carolina will probably be experiencing the wrath of nature for some time to come. But the impact of such devastation will be felt by more than just the victims.

“Some people just couldn’t believe we came all the way from Asheville to help,” said Robertson: “I used to just feel sorry for those people. Now, I pay close attention. There’s no way humanly possible to not be affected by such devastation. We gave from our hearts, and if I’m needed, I’ll go again.”

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