It wasn’t supposed to be much of a storm. By the time Hurricane Igor rolled past Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island on September 21, 2010, the Canadian Hurricane Centre had downgraded it to a tropical depression. To the relief of many, it damaged little. Then it regained some of its original power and struck Newfoundland.
Kevin Jacobs was on his way home for lunch from his job as manager of the Clarenville Co-op. CBC Radio was reporting flooded homes, destroyed buildings and vehicles, washed out roads and bridges, and tens of thousands stranded without power on the Burin and Bonavista peninsulas. Jacobs turned his truck around, compelled to do something… anything. His actions in the next hours and days are a timely testament to the capacity in each of us to respond with vigour, imagination and compassion in times of disaster.
“CBC had hired a boat to go to Hickman’s Harbour to do a story,” he explains. “I turned around in my truck and went back to the marina. I asked them if they would allow me to put milk, bread and eggs on their boat. The guy said he couldn’t do it because they were in a hurry.”
Undaunted, Jacobs kept searching for a way to ship supplies to the communities cut off by the 230 mm of rain Igor dropped in six hours. “There was another guy in a boat. I asked him if I could hire him. He said yes. We had to go back to the store to get merchandise.”
Jacobs’ makeshift sealift was on. In the meantime, he had to raise money to support his plan. “I asked my assistant manager to call our vendors to raise money to get supplies. In a matter of a half hour, we raised $3000.”
That CBC employee Kevin met on the dock remembered Jacobs’ request and tracked him down. “He called his boss, and his boss said to him, ‘Food first, story second.’ That was two boats we loaded to Hickman’s Harbour.”
So began a week-long relief effort led by Jacobs and his staff at the Co-op. Jacobs himself made public pleas via the media, contacted major Co-op vendors and challenged local businesses to match his own generosity. One of the first calls he made was to Melissa Churchill, the lone employee over at Clarenville’s Budget Rent a Car outlet; he needed a cube van to haul all those supplies. Melissa landed Kevin an initial two-day rental donation that turned into a ten-day give worth about $1000.
“Why wouldn’t I?” says Churchill of her decision to contact head office in Nova Scotia for permission to help out. “The devastation was unbelievable. You needed transportation to get the food to people. No access to communities, roads washed out for days, weeks. I seen people boated into the community for medical reasons. Helicopters bringing people into the hospital. It was to help people out, is what it was.”
At the request of the Red Cross, Bert Brown at Co-op Atlantic’s Gander Distribution Centre donated 665 cases of bottled water for a total of 31,920 litres. Co-op Atlantic assigned staff to follow tractor-trailers loaded with relief supplies up the Bonavista Peninsula until roads became impassable. At these critical locations, staff and volunteers carried supplies by hand to smaller trucks waiting on the other side of washed out bridges. Kevin Jacobs went along on some of these trips to make sure the supplies got through. At one location, he says, “I saw these four ladies and some of my staff lugging eggs across a ditch.”
So successful was Kevin and his Clarenville Co-op staff at organizing their own disaster relief effort and getting the word out, their office became the clearinghouse for the Hurricane Igor response. Kevin says ex-pat Newfoundlanders working for oil companies in western Canada donated cash gathered around their offices. “Everybody was calling in, trying to donate money.
This was emotional for my staff,” Jacobs explains. “We’re grocery people. People would call them on the phone crying.” The Salvation Army called Kevin to ask if he could get supplies to communities they couldn’t reach. “While I was on the phone with the Salvation Army,” says Jacobs, “a guy walked in my office from Bonaventure. This is the area I wanted to get to. They were organizing a boat from the community to come to Clarenville for goods. I was looking for a boat, but it was already coming towards me. In an hour and a half, we had that boat loaded.”
Kevin and his staff did the best they could to cope with the extra work and the stress until others like the Red Cross and the Canadian military could take over. Inside a week, they raised $43,000, of which $17,000 paid for the purchase of the goods shipped to the communities cut off by the storm. The rest went to the Red Cross.
In total, Igor caused $200 million in flood and wind damage. The Red Cross alone raised over $700,000 in individual and corporate donations and in-kind contributions of services and materials. The government of Newfoundland and Labrador is providing further relief. These are only numbers – small numbers in comparison to those that will emerge from New Zealand, Haiti, Japan and elsewhere – and they don’t come close to telling the human story of disaster relief.
In times of crisis, people are driven to do anything they can to help. Government employees are no longer just government employees. Businesses are more than just businesses. They are also the people who live and work in the community, people with personal histories and human relationships like Melissa Churchill at Budget Rent a Car who comes from a family of ten and remembers, “We had to work together to make it work.”
And people like Kevin Jacobs at the Clarenville Co-op, the only employer he’s ever known. “When my father used to bring out the last few loads of wood,” Jacobs recalls of his childhood, “he’d give it to someone. If you grow your own vegetables, you give away some potatoes, cabbage or turnip. Years ago, if someone had a moose, they’d give away a piece.”
Hurricane Igor – a name now retired – changed Jacobs forever. “I’m getting ready to get involved in a charity. I got it in my head to go to Africa. There’s this old saying, wake up and smell the roses. I guess in this adventure, I’ve kinda woken up to what life is all about.”
“Hurricane Igor hits Newfoundland” by Angela Hollett, CBC.ca
“Hurricane Igor hits Clarenville” by Jennifer Rideout, CBC.ca
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