Power Outages, Wildfires Evoke Response
July 5, 2012 Mark Hrywna
The 12 employees and five refrigerated trucks at the Huntington Area Food Bank have been working overtime, expecting to distribute nearly 200,000 pounds of food, water and supplies by the end of this week — 20 times the amount they move in a typical week.
“The stuff we had on hand was long gone on Monday, and so Monday afternoon/Tuesday morning, we didn’t have anything here,” said Scott Frasure, director of development at the food bank in Huntington, W. Va., an affiliate of Feeding America. Donations were coming in almost as fast as they were going out, not sitting for more than hour, or the time it took to inventory them.
In the 12-county service area of the Huntington Area Food Bank, there are at least 80,000 people still without power, according Frasure. Violent thunderstorms that struck Friday have knocked out power to large swaths of the East, stretching from southern Virginia, Washington, D.C. and Maryland, to parts of West Virginia, Ohio and New Jersey.
The Mountaineer Food Bank in Gassaway, W.Va., has about 500,000 people in its service area without power, according to Ross Fraser, a spokesman for the national headquarters in Chicago, Ill. They’ve opened congregant feeding sites, like school lunch rooms, to feed residents with an emphasis on “handheld food” like beef jerky, or items you can peel and eat, like applesauce. “One of the problems they have is getting enough ice to people without power,” he said.
Huntington’s Frasure estimated the food bank distributed about 26,000 pounds of food, water and ice between Friday’s storm and Tuesday, with another 69,000 pounds accepted and distributed early this morning. He estimated about 96,000 pounds will have been distributed in less than a week; the food bank distributes about 10,000 pounds in a typical week. “We’ve been working around the clock. If food’s coming in, we’re here to receive it,” he said.
The biggest challenge has been getting enough supplies into the area, arguably the 12 poorest counties in the state, where many are on low or fixed incomes. For those on the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), some of their perishable food in refrigerators and freezers may be restored through a special program, said Frasure, but many who don’t qualify for this assistance will need help. “If they’re just above the threshold, or the working poor, what they have is gone. They’re left out on a limb right now,” he said.
In addition to power outages throughout the east, Feeding America and its affiliates has been active in responding to wildfires in Colorado and floods in Minnesota and Wisconsin.
“One of the things we do, which we learned in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, is to stage disaster relief supplies all over the country,” said Fraser. For example, food, water, diapers and MREs (Meals Ready to Eat) are within 100 miles of areas that are prone to hurricanes. Feeding America also prepares staff, said Fraser, with some people from the San Antonio food bank in Colorado Springs to help with sourcing and moving food, as well as finding and structuring volunteers, in response to wildfires.
The Community Food Bank of New Jersey is one of the half-dozen food banks that serve as a staging point for Feeding America. The Hillside, N.J.-based food bank sent a truckload of disaster food boxes (almost 30,000 pounds) to Gassaway, W. Va. today and expects to ship out another to Huntington, W. Va., on Friday, according to Cathy McCann, vice president of operations.
In New Jersey, the food bank has been working with state representatives and sending water and food to its South Jersey location, where The Salvation Army will prepare it for people still without power there, McCann said.
The American Red Cross Muskingum Valley Chapter has been operating three shelters in the five counties it serves since Friday night. Each 50-cot shelter has seen between 40 and 45 overnight stays per night, and Red Cross staffers have served about 500 meals. More than 25,000 people are still without power in the counties served by the Zanesville, Ohio-based chapter.
“We’ve never seen a response in our area this widespread,” said Support Specialist Susan Hoskinson. “It’s pretty unusual to have all five counties down at the same time.”
Aside from problems related to the 110-degree heat index, water access in the Muskingum Valley has been a challenge, especially since many residents use wells for their water. “We have a lot of farmers trying to figure out how to get bulk water to feed livestock,” said Hoskinson.
Nationwide, the American Red Cross has opened 38 shelters in eight states, with about 1,000 disaster workers staffing them, due to the power outages. The organization has had 3,700 overnight stays and has served 60,000 meals since Friday.
The Red Cross’s response to the power outages has been greater than both Tropical Storm Debby in Florida and the wildfires in Colorado. In response to the fires, the Red Cross has opened seven shelters staffed by 600 workers providing about 45,000 meals, with 1,600 overnight stays. In Florida, there are 12 shelters and 650 workers, with 44,000 meals and nearly 1,000 overnight stays.
The power outages have also forced the cancellation of dozens of blood drives, and as a result the Red Cross is down nearly 2,000 units of blood and platelets. “The blood supply was already at emergency levels, with June blood donations down 50,000 fewer than expected,” said Attie Poirier, media relations specialist at the Washington, D.C., headquarters of the American Red Cross.
The American Red Cross West Virginia Region reported almost 1,000 overnight stays in Red Cross or Red Cross supported shelters since Friday’s storms and distributed thousands of bottles of water.