Jaime Garcia was at home with his daughter when Hurricane Harvey hit — and kept hitting for four days straight in August 2017.
“It was an eerie feeling,” he said, “knowing that a monster, a Category 4 storm, is going to consume your city.”
Garcia’s eerie feeling was accompanied by a surge of adrenaline. He took a video as the wind rushed around his house, blowing the rain sideways on 70 and 80 mph gusts. Then he got in his truck and headed out on the deserted streets to pick up any friends, family or members of his church unlucky enough to get caught in the storm.
Garcia saw abandoned cars flooded in the streets and fires from ruptured gas lines burning in the rain. Sometimes he would drive up the off ramp to get on the freeway because the entrance was inundated.
“I knew I’d be opening the church for people as soon as I could.”
Garcia is the pastor at Bethel Church, a diverse congregation just north of downtown Houston, an area among the hardest hit by Harvey. “It’s the epicenter of the poorest of the poor,” he said.
After four days of storm, the aid effort began. As a pastor, Garcia was responsible for taking care of the spiritual needs of his community, but part of the vocation is physical care. The day after Harvey, he converted Bethel’s gym into a warehouse for aid. Thousands of people showed up seeking food, hygiene products, shelter and healing. But after two months, supplies started to run out.
“I had to turn people back,” Garcia said. “I couldn’t help all the masses. It was heartbreaking.” He was standing in the middle of a clergyman’s nightmare: the needy were flocking to his door and he was powerless to help them.
He had the community, but he didn’t yet have the resources.
Help is on the Way
Meanwhile, in Springfield, Mo., Mona Ellis was on the phone. Ellis is on the disaster services staff at Convoy of Hope, an aid organization known for its disaster-relief efforts and feeding the poor. She’s the equivalent of air traffic control during a natural disaster. When the storm hit, she began to coordinate everyone from her team in Texas all the way up the supply chain — procurement to shipping to distribution — so supplies reached people in need.
That’s a lot to tackle, but Convoy of Hope’s mission requires planning ahead for disasters like Hurricane Harvey. Procurement directors like Bill Whitworth accept donations year-round to make sure there are supplies on hand when disaster strikes.
“We put together a list of ‘wow’ products for us — the ones that are most useful in disaster situations,” he said.
Shelf-stable protein is essential during disasters. Victims and aid workers need long-lasting nourishment and most protein sources spoil quickly when the power is out. Items such as SPAM® products, Hormel® chili and SKIPPY® peanut butter don’t need refrigeration, so they’re easy to keep in warehouses until they’re needed.
“Every time, Hormel Foods comes through with what’s needed most,” Whitworth said.
After Hurricane Harvey, Convoy of Hope loaded over 150 semi-trucks with supplies and sent them from a staging warehouse in Victoria, Texas to 65 of the hardest hit communities in the state. The storm destroyed or damaged hundreds of thousands of homes. There were people to feed.
Later, in November, Ellis’ phone rang. “There’s a pastor in Houston who is connected to the community and needs help,” the caller told her, “but he doesn’t have enough supplies.” Ellis got Garcia’s information, and directed a first shipment his way.
Feeding the Community
“I call it a miracle because each time we emptied the warehouse it was refilled,” Garcia said. “I could hardly believe my eyes.”
The ever-replenishing supply of life-saving resources did seem biblical, but behind the miracle was a line of dedicated everyday heroes — sourcing food, driving trucks and delivering the goods so no one went hungry. Garcia estimates that Convoy of Hope filled his gymnasium 25 times over the course of the year.
“It was such a relief, not only could we be generous with everyone, but we could say, ‘Come, and tell your neighbors.’”
He could even go out into the community and distribute food. In the year following Harvey, Bethel lodged volunteers from 33 states who came to aid in food distribution and cleanup.
“Now that we have product, we have hope,” he said.
Ready for Anything
Stacy Lamb is the senior director for Convoy of Hope’s U.S. Disaster Services program. His teams aren’t first responders in the traditional sense — they’re called early responders and they’re among the first on the scene.
“We’re in there when there’s no power,” he said. Often, Lamb’s team provides food for victims and first responders alike in the early days of recovery.
Convoy of Hope can mobilize to bring relief resources in as quickly as 12 hours. In the case of Hurricane Harvey, electricity was out for up to 10 days in some places, meaning grocery stores were closed for more than a week.
“It’s not that food trucks can’t get there, it’s that the infrastructure is not there,” Lamb explained.
Lamb described Hurricane Harvey as an “all-hands-on-deck situation” — he had 150 people working in the field. He keeps the Weather Channel up on a monitor above his desk. During a recent phone call with the Federal Emergency Management Agency discussing which resources were needed, he monitored a Pacific hurricane’s progress toward Hawaii, then moved on to reaching out to partners like Hormel Foods to secure the necessary supplies that weren’t already in the warehouse.
Registered dietician Linda Colbert lives in Texas. “When I went to the store, people were taking whatever they could find. A little bit of a panic situation,” she said. “Shelf-stable proteins are the first things to go off the shelves. You don’t have power, so you need something to last … once you eat everything in the freezer.”
Colbert helped feed families relocated to shelters during Hurricane Harvey. “Trying to recreate a normal meal pattern that has everything is important — quality protein, complex carbs, fruits and vegetables — to get back to a normal routine. Protein helps to ensure that they will stay nourished while dealing with a crisis, especially for children to maintain growth,” she said. Shelf-stable proteins make the job of delivering necessary foods much easier during a trying time because they don’t require refrigeration or special transportation.
Colbert said food is more than simply feeding the body; it’s a time to check in during a stressful situation. “Food brings people together and gives them an opportunity to share stories over a meal.”
That’s where Hormel Foods and Convoy of Hope come in. “We see people at a time that’s not so good for them,” Lamb said. “To serve and provide emotional care for people in those settings — that’s why I do this.”
Time to Rebuild
The end of the storm was just the beginning for survivors of Hurricane Harvey. People were still out of their homes, and once they get back, the work was just getting started. They still have to muck out their houses, replace drywall and start over.
“The air conditioning is back on, but nothing is normal yet,” Pastor Garcia said. “Until things are back to normal for everyone we serve, things are not back to normal for us. There was debris in the streets for a year and half.”
Shelf-stable protein isn’t just important in the weeks following disasters. More than a year afterwards, people are still cleaning up in Pastor Garcia’s neighborhood. Many don’t have working appliances in their homes yet, so storing food that can spoil is a challenge.
Still, over a year later, shipments of doors and windows roll in from New York to aid in the rebuilding efforts. Pastor Garcia was waiting for a family of six to arrive from Illinois — they’re coming to distribute supplies and repair ruined homes. Thousands of people are still relying on aid, many of them are still displaced from their homes.
The entire gymnasium at Bethel Baptist church was an aid supply warehouse for almost two years after the hurricane. The church still keeps a bus garage full of supplies, just in case. Several of the women working there now were once among the victims waiting in line for aid.
“To see them come back and volunteer their time donating food after receiving help,” he pauses with emotion before continuing. “If not for the product we received, we wouldn’t have the people here in these halls right now.”
A simple can of chili can go a long way in a crisis. And there’s something miraculous about how teamwork allowed a little church of 200 to minister to more than 10,000 people in their time of need.
“There is no way I would be able to do this work without the organizations that donate,” he said. “As long as there is need, we’ll be out here.”