AFL-CIO National Media Manager Carolyn Bobb was given access to see how a multifaceted union disaster response comes together. What follows is her experience documenting a four-day period of Hurricane Michael relief efforts in the Florida Panhandle.
The Florida AFL-CIO, Florida Education Association (FEA), Teamsters and other labor organizations are a formidable team as Hurricane Michael relief plans come together. The state federation office in Tallahassee is the command center. Over an intense short period of time, Florida AFL-CIO President Mike Williams coordinates relief efforts with both seasoned experts and eager volunteers. The experts are led by Teamsters National Disaster Relief Coordinator Roy Gillespie who, along with Teamsters Local 991 Secretary-Treasurer Jim Gookins and Teamsters Local 769 Business Agent David Renshaw, will bring together hundreds of people in person, on the phone and over email and text to prepare for the difficult job ahead.
You’re probably wondering where all the supplies for distribution come from. For this first round of distribution, most of the supplies are purchased at Costco, with money donated through the Florida Workers Relief Fund. We hit the Costco in Tallahassee about 10 a.m., with our own personal shopper. For the next five hours, he takes us around the store and we load six pallets of nonperishable food, paper products, batteries, flashlights, gas cans and other necessities.
Donations also are secured. Nine thousand loaves of bread are donated by Bimbo Bakeries, Kroger throws in 60 pallets of water and Borden donates tea. Over the next several days, the donations and purchases are loaded into a 28-foot Ryder truck and a 24-foot refrigerator or "reefer" truck, and team members volunteer their time driving around the Panhandle bringing relief to hundreds.
Meet up time is 6 a.m., but hundreds of hours have gone into planning a four-stop distribution of food and supplies that spans some 350 miles and 16 hours. Before heading to the first of three stops organized and staffed by teachers from FEA, we make a new, quickly organized cold stop to pick up 300 20-pound bags of ice.
We’re now heading to Eastpoint and are pretty sure the road conditions won’t be a problem. The energy at the first stop is amazing. We’re at the K-12 Franklin County School, where we’re met by more than 40 teachers, students and volunteers who’ve come out to help their community even though many have damage to their own homes.
"This is about everybody coming together and trying to do their part to ensure that these families get back on their feet, to get our kids back in school and to get our teachers and educational support professionals back to work," said FEA President Fedrick Ingram.
Our next stop is at a school in Altha, where numerous people are still without power and our wish for the sun to stay behind the clouds is not granted. Word has made it to some that there will be supplies available, but since the location is a bit off the main road, a lady hops in her car and drives around town directing people to us. It works, and there is soon a steady stream of cars lining up for supplies. We continue to be amazed by all the volunteers.
We notice a couple of guys doing a lot of unloading. They’re not with the team, so we ask how they knew about this. They say they didn’t, they were just heading out to cut up some more trees and saw we could use the help, so they stopped by and did just that. The other stand-out volunteer is a six-year-old boy. He lifts boxes as heavy as his little arms can carry and makes trip after trip to hand out the supplies, all with a huge smile on his face. We learn that he even volunteered on his birthday, and we all agree that he should have two parties to celebrate when things get a little more back to normal.
Our third stop is at a Communications Workers of America (CWA) hall in Chipley. There, the hall is set up to store and distribute items. We need to improvise a bit on ice distribution and leave this site early to make a pickup. No worries though, teachers think fast on their feet, and within about 20 minutes, several coolers are at the location to hold the ice before it’s handed out.
We keep trudging ahead. While in Altha, we learned we will add a stop at a church that one of Gookins' stewards had been contacted from earlier that day. We are able to deliver some much-needed water. Seeing the grateful looks on all the faces when we arrive is heartwarming. We are able to leave some nonperishable food and paper products, too. One of the best helpers is a kid nicknamed "Hot Rod."
Another thing really sticks with us from this site. As we’re getting ready to drive off, a man taps on the window. He wants to make sure we have a place to stay and offers his house. That selfless spirit is what we observed all day from countless people. It is a long, rewarding day.
We get back to Tallahassee a few minutes before 9 p.m., just in time to make it to the Costco for the truck to be loaded with the supplies for the next two days.
Today, we head to Panama City and Port St. Joe—two cities that received different types of severe damage from the storm. As we go through Blountstown on the way to Panama City, we see trees, roofs and entire buildings destroyed by the nearly 150 mph winds that Michael packed. Once in the city, it’s eerie to see boats turned over and department stores destroyed. We see the air conditioning unit of the Sears building completely exposed.
But, when we arrive at our distribution site, the same resiliency and energy rises up from the teacher volunteers. In addition to the supplies we’ve secured, this is where we learn what 9,000 loaves of bread looks like. It’s massive! And it’s all needed. Roy learns of a neighborhood a couple miles away that was hit really hard where many residents don’t have transportation to come to the distribution site. No problem. He grabs a truck and a driver and heads over to the neighborhood to drop off some bread. A crowd soon gathers—not to grab the bread—but to help unload it. Panhandle spirit.
As we near the drop off site in Port St. Joe, we see the remnants of what a 14-foot storm surge looks like. Rooms full of furniture and drywall are out on the streets after flood waters ravaged the homes. However, we are pleasantly surprised by the distribution site itself. It is a large building where numerous groups have come together to store and hand out supplies. The back of our truck is opened and, immediately, members of the National Guard are there to quickly unload it.
I’ve mentioned Gillespie and his connections. Well, he starts talking to the folks from Billy Graham Evangelistic Association and they agree to discuss a partnership. More resources are always needed.
After seeing so much devastation, Saturday ended in the best way possible. One of Gillespie's numerous connections had emailed him about a cousin he hadn’t been able to reach more than a week after the storm hit. He heard Gillespie's team was heading to Port St. Joe and asked if he could swing by his house and check on him.
We went by the house and nobody was home. The next door neighbor said he’d seen him since the storm and that he may have left with a relative. Feeling hopeful, Gillespie leaves his card and asks him to call him when he returns home. About a hour into the trip back to Tallahassee, Gillespie's phone rings, and he gives a thumbs up. It was the man calling to say he’s fine and had lost his phone. Like most of us, he doesn’t know people’s numbers by heart so he couldn’t contact anyone. Gillespie connects a three-way call and the cousins are able to have a special reunion. This is truly one of the best phone calls we’ve ever heard.
We saw only one distribution event on Sunday, but major excitement was packed into that 45 minutes. As we drove with Gillespie over the past couple days, he tells us to be ready for the unexpected, that sometimes we are going to have to improvise. Today is that day.
At the previous events, tables were set up and we were able to unload the supplies in an orderly fashion. This time, there are no tables. What that means is people can come right up to the truck, so we have to switch up our method. That means Williams hops into the truck and starts the frantic unloading of supplies as people are yelling out their needs. It is intense, and by the end of the event, we have helped more than 100 people in less than an hour.
We make two more stops that day—the first at a local church in need of bread. The second is at the Florida People's Advocacy Center—a group that increases social and economic justice throughout Florida by facilitating and providing training in civic engagement at the state Capitol. Disaster relief is not part of their normal activities, but there was nothing normal about Hurricane Michael, so they’re stepping up to help with distribution. While at this site, we are able to schedule a delivery for Monday morning of 150 bags of ice to Second Harvest Food Bank in Tallahassee.
Over the previous four days, we heard from numerous people we met about how difficult the long-term recovery from Hurricane Michael will be. We don’t know exactly what the months and years have in store, but we know we have the support of thousands of union brothers and sisters who are stepping up to help. We are back to work this week planning more events, and you can help by donating to the Florida Workers Relief Fund.