Food Bank in Eye of Hurricane Charley
Editor's note: Hawley Botchford, the executive director of the Harry Chapin Food Bank of Southwest Florida, was planning to write a story on the Chapin Family Weekend at Ovens Park. But Botchford returned home Aug. 16 to find wide devastation throughout the region served by the food bank. Below is a summary of emails written by Botchford that provide a glimpse into the determination, humor, compassion and, at times, frustration in dealing with the disaster.
Botchford will file his Ovens Park report in a later issue. In the meantime, we encourage you to support the food bank that has been financially strapped in its response to help others. Donations can be made online at www.harrychapinfoodbank.org.
At the time this summary was being prepared, Hurricane Frances, another major hurricane, was brewing off the coast of Florida.
Aug. 19: Hi all. We are surviving. But the challenges grow everyday. The devastation has been so massive that preparation and coordination among relief agencies has not worked well. We visited several agencies, but haven't found anyone in charge. It only appears that feeding sites are currently being hosted by churches and restaurants.
We visited a housing authority where 300 apartments have been condemned. The people had no place to go and were receiving no food or help except from one lady in the housing authority office. We have shipped her a truckload of supplies today.
We drove through block after block seeing houses without roofs, walls, doors, or windows but people are still living in them because there is no where to go and part of a roof is better than none. Mobile homes looked like a large bomb had taken them out.
We normally operate from two warehouses. We opened another today and will probably open two more next week. The space has been donated. America's Second Harvest (the national food bank network) is shipping about 14 truckloads of food by next Wednesday. One radio station brought 114 pallets of stuff P the result of a two-day donation drive.
The logistics of working from five warehouses will be a nightmare requiring patience. We are seeking local employees from companies that aren't operating to work with us "on loan" for a few days. We have eight loaners so far. The companies have said they'd rather see their employees doing something and are willing to pay them.
The Lee County (near Fort Myers and some distance from the major disaster) response is going great. Salvation Army makes two trips a day and Red Cross has been serving about 20,000 meals a day, mostly with food donated by Sam's Club until our supplies increase. Last night we visited the largest shelter in the area and found it well organized, well staffed, and the food looked great. We still have about 60,000 people without power. For those who know Sanibel Island, almost all the tall Australian pines are gone along with most of the other significant trees. Houses did better than low rise condos. Most resorts have suffered damage and it will be a long time cleaning up. The island will never look the same. Upper Captiva Island is now two islands.
Volunteers have been great and we are seeking out "team leaders" to give staff more of a break. Everyone is on overtime here (Budget, what budget?). The phone rang until 8 p.m. when we went home last night.
We've suspended all shared maintenance (the small fees the food bank charges to agencies that use products) until further notice to keep the large quantities moving to those in need. We just need to get the job done and we'll worry about the funds later. My Board is reading this also and that last comment probably gives everybody chills!
Aug. 23: After seven straight days of disaster operations we are getting a handle on our new "routine." We toured the beach area and you can smell the spoiled food in bags along the road, and the mold setting in. They had six feet of water over the island so any building that had a ground floor got very wet. Piles and piles of furniture, mattresses, carpets, etc. line the streets. There is a feeding site operated by the Baptists. The Presbyterian Church is offering AC and hot showers. It is strange to see a cottage we've rented for guests condemned with a big orange X painted on the door.
Charlotte County is settling down. We have an agency meeting in Charlotte on Wednesday to make sure we (various relief agencies) aren't duplicating services and that what is being done is helping! The Southern Baptist Convention Disaster Response Team seems to have taken the lead. They are picking up food here several times a day in a variety of vehicles. They have large kitchens set up and prepare for Red Cross and Salvation Army to deliver. They are a good group we should get to know better.
I saw at least two hundred utility trucks coming down the interstate to help get the power back on. They are basically rewiring Charlotte County and expect to have it done by next weekend. They hope to open the schools that are still standing on split shifts right after the power comes on and get the kids off the streets.
Aug. 24: This letter is going to a select group of friends of the Harry Chapin Food Bank in Southwest Florida. As you know, the food bank has been directly and deeply involved in the response to the devastation from hurricane Charley. Even though we have sent out multiple press releases we have unfortunately received no coverage to date. We feel it is important that our supporters understand the activity that the food bank has been involved in from the beginning, and that we will continue to be dedicated to this cause long after national attention subsides.
As you know we serve all five counties of southwest Florida. The track of the storm directly affected three of our counties, with Lee and certainly Charlotte taking the biggest hits. We adjusted our plan and did a "needs assessment" for each affected area. This information was communicated with America's Second Harvest that coordinates the national donations for our area.
Even before the storm hit, America's Second Harvest contacted all 223 affiliated food banks across the country and requested surplus inventory be held for our area. They also built a "reserve bank" of available trucks, equipment, and personnel that would be available to assist. They began contacting national donors for the usual products that are always needed in times of disaster along with transportation companies.
Once electricity was restored to our buildings, staff reported and emergency response began. Phone calls filled our four lines and we resorted to using our cell phones for outgoing calls. The first of the national donations began arriving on Monday and trucks have been coming several times a day since. Local donations also started pouring in. We had volunteers calling all of our 170 agencies to check on their condition and immediate needs. Several had no phone service and we sent staff to visit them personally.
In the first five days after the storm hit we distributed 145,000 pounds of food. Our normal is closer to 60,000 pounds for the same time period. Our entire staff is on overtime, working an average of 55 hours a week with activity occurring seven days a week. We put out the call for volunteers and rallied about a hundred on Friday and Saturday to help sort and organize product. Miracle baseball, H. J. Heinz, and Saks sent employees to assist and lead our volunteer teams.
We scheduled the twentieth tractor trailer for arrival later this week with more on the way. Product includes cereal from KelloggUs, water from McDonalds, breakfast bars and snacks from Keebler, canned chili from Hormel, lunch meat from Lykes, nutrition bars from Uncle BenUs, cleaning supplies (soap, bleach, disinfectant) from Proctor & Gamble, coffee and creamer from General Foods, plastic plates, cups, and utensils from Malto Meal, and PowerAde from Coca Cola, and more. Other donations included diapers, paper towels, flashlights and batteries, and insect repellent. Response will exceed one million pounds of food by the middle of next week and the commitment will continue as long as needed. All was coordinated and handled by our small staff.
Our organization recognizes this will be a long term response and we will continue the emergency and recovery response as long as necessary. Obviously our staff is getting tired. One of our drivers was called up to National Guard and is helping in the Wauchula area. We hired an additional driver to fill in for two months. We are trying not to bring in outside staff from other food banks but it may be unavoidable.
Financially, this response is costing us a significant amount of unbudgeted money. Overtime, additional staff, equipment purchases, packaging, fuel, and a myriad of miscellaneous expenses when combined with no financial help coming from the agencies we support gives us concern. Last week alone cost us nearly $25,000 from our reserves. We are applying for emergency funding where ever and whenever we can identify a potential source.
We feel the public will respond to our needs if we can get our story out, but so far we have not had much luck on publicity. Like 9/11, this will impact all the local service agencies for months to come.
I hope this gives you an update of where the Harry Chapin Food Bank organization fits in to disaster response for southwest Florida. We are proud of our staff and volunteers; they have been giving an outstanding effort. Those that have been sweating here daily since the storm hit work behind the scenes with little recognition. We have inherent abilities and expertise unduplicated in the community. I wanted to share with you our accomplishments, our dedication, and my belief that those working behind the scenes deserve our enormous praise and gratitude for helping meet this tremendous challenge.
Watch for the Next Issue of Circle! on December 7