Remembering Hurricane Katrina

Five years ago, three members of the Regional Food Bank’s staff – including Rodney Bivens (Executive Director), Dawn Burroughs (VP of Marketing & Development) and Bruce Edwards (Director of Urban Harvest) –  were helping set up a warehouse to distribute food and emergency supplies to victims of Hurricane Katrina and Rita. In less than four weeks, they helped to distribute 8 million pounds of relief supplies to victims of the storms in the New Orleans area. Rodney documented his story in a series of blogs. Today, we share these posts with you as we all remember how Hurricane Katrina impacted so many lives and changed things forever.

September 9, 2005

I left for Baker, La. on Saturday, September 3 and have been busy ever since. In addition to establishing an 80,000 square foot warehouse here in Baker, I have also been coordinating activities between America’s Second Harvest – The Nation’s Food Bank Network and three other Food Banks in this area. While I determine what loads are coming into this Food Bank and that it is also going out, I have been trying to find staff and volunteers places to live.

The Regional Food Bank of Oklahoma has been sending truckloads of food and supplies to us and I can tell you that the initial three loads were all distributed in two days. I haven’t left the Food Bank since I got here, because the need to get the food out is so great. The people from the New Orleans Food Bank have lost everything and are trying to locate two staff members that have yet to be heard from.

The staff of the New Orleans Food Bank and the families that are living here at the warehouse are doing everything to aid those that have been affected. We have established a day care and a dog kennel to help those that need these things.

Day-to-day life has changed here in so many ways and nothing will ever be the same.


September 12, 2005

We distributed over 300,000 pounds of product Friday for the relief efforts, which means we have distributed over 2 million pounds in just over a week at this facility near New Orleans. This is an amazing feat considering we are using volunteers from all over the country and only have two docks for receiving and distribution.

We are still hearing stories of people who have had little to eat or drink since the hurricane hit and we are using every means possible to get supplies to them. We are now working with a new group that has small planes flying in supplies to areas where there is still very little or no relief efforts.

We had two volunteers from Arizona, Roadie and Nick, who showed up at the warehouse after seeing what was happening on TV. They have been living at the warehouse and working tirelessly since they arrived. They called their boss and told him they were part of the relief effort and would take leave, but he told them not to worry about the leave – just go. They left today to return home and when I talked to Roadie’s wife last night, I told her how much his hard work meant to us and we would miss him. She cried and said she was so happy that he could be part of the our efforts.

I am still amazed by the staff of the New Orleans Food Bank who have continued to work to help others when they have lost so much themselves. Every staff person has been affected and in many cases they have lost everything. They still have two staff missing. We are trying to get the Food Bank operational again and discovered yesterday that it has power again and received very little damage. The Food Bank staff has been offered 30 days paid leave to try and help rebuild their lives and when they come back, they can hopefully return to their jobs at the Food Bank.

It is such a pleasure to be part of this effort. I will be forever changed for being part of the struggle to help people under such circumstances. I am humbled to be a part of an organization that allows me the opportunity to be part of a greater effort outside of Oklahoma.


September 13, 2005

Well, I think it is Tuesday – time and dates are a little blurry at this point. We have distributed more than 2 million pounds of food and other products in just over a week, and have six trucks to unload at 6:00 a.m. and 10 trucks to load to go out for disaster relief. We have a great group of volunteers and they are working beyond the amount of time they should. We are going to start operating two shifts beginning today so we will be open from 6:00 a.m. to 10:00 p.m.

It is amazing to me that we have been able to do so much with only two docks. We have RVs parked in front of the warehouse with seven people sleeping in them, a few volunteers sleeping in the warehouse and some are living in apartments that America’s Second Harvest was able to rent. Bruce, who is also at staff member at the Regional Food Bank of Oklahoma, and I have been able to stay at Dee’s house, which is about a mile from the warehouse. She has been great to us and has treated us like family by having something for us to eat late at night. She is leaving but has asked us to continue staying at her home in her absence.

We have had several dignitaries visit the facility for picture-taking opportunities. I am so grateful to have a roof over my head and food on my table. Thousands and thousands of folks did just a little over a week ago and now are living in other states, while others are still trying to stay to rebuild their lives. It makes you understand what really is important in life.

Our distribution system is working and improving every day. We are distributing both semi-trucks and bobtails into the disaster area. We are building the capacity to put people on the ground to go out and access where gaps still exist. It is great to work with a national organization like American’s Second Harvest – The Nation’s Food Bank Network and the food banks across the country that provide so much support, resources and personnel to help. We still continue to struggle to develop more collaborative efforts so all the resources can be used as efficiently and effectively as possible.


September 14, 2005

We are starting to get low on food as our distribution continues to increase as more and more locations are discovered and groups ask for more food. We have asked for more food drive product that is properly boxed and palletized. It is overwhelming to live in a country where there is such generosity and compassion. The thank you notes people have sent us have been great. When I am out and people ask what I am doing here, they always say thank you for helping us.

Full power has been restored to the Food Bank in New Orleans and the process of cleaning is gearing up. The freezers and coolers have been emptied and more than 150 pallets of food had to be thrown away. A company has been hired to start cleaning the walls and floors of the warehouse and remain on target to have the Food Bank reopened on October 3.

It is incredible the number of decisions that have to be made on a minute-to-minute basis. We distributed more than 391,000 pounds of food and other products yesterday. We have more food going out than coming in and I have had to put out a call for more. We now are loading out 8 bobtail trucks (approximately 18 ft.) and five 53 ft. semi trailers a day and receiving in another 10 to 15 loads per day. We received a load of apples, a load of watermelons and a load of bananas that were distributed as fast as we could get them out the door. The fruit was an unbelievable treat for those whose lives have been so disrupted.

We are still finding pockets of people who have received no assistance since the hurricane and have just barely been able to survive. People’s courage and strength to survive is amazing. I would like to thank everyone back in Oklahoma for their support and energy – it keeps me going. We are still having volunteers come in and e-mail us to see if there is anyway they can help. I hope everyone remains well in Oklahoma.


September 22, 2005

Well, it has been almost three weeks since I arrived in Louisiana and so much has happened. The New Orleans Food Bank has been completely cleaned and all the food that had been destroyed has been hauled off. The freezer and coolers have been restarted with the freezer pulling down to 0 degrees, but the cooler will require some additional work in order to maintain temperature. The challenge to getting the Food Bank operational is finding housing for the staff since most of their homes were destroyed or flooded and they will not be able to return for many months. At least one staff person and many of their board members have still not been located.

Many places outside of New Orleans are beginning to turn to a recovery mode. Local businesses such as grocery stores are opening and families that stayed or that have returned are trying figure out how to rebuild their lives. So many have lost everything they had including their homes. The spirit of rebuilding and trying to discover what will be normal now as compared to what was normal a few weeks ago is in the air. It will take years to rebuild many of the areas.

The uncertainty of when many will be able to return to New Orleans or several parishes weighs heavy on many. Some who said they would not be returning to New Orleans are now reconsidering, so they can be part of the rebuilding process. They want to be part of the future New Orleans since it will never be the same again. It has been a pleasure to continue working along side the thousands of volunteers who have come from all over the country to help so many sustain themselves and start the process of recovering.

Our challenge will be to transition from a disaster mode in many outlying areas to recovery so the agencies and churches that were providing food prior to the disaster can be operational again. This will include working with new partners that have been providing assistance during this tragedy and who will elect to continue their efforts.

We continue to receive food from all over the country. We receive it from communities, food banks and the food industry. It has been rewarding to be part of a national organization such as America’s Second Harvest – the Nations Food Bank Network. They have been supportive and extremely resourceful in getting the necessary supplies into affected areas.

We received over one million pounds of product yesterday and distributed almost 300,000 pounds. We are short of forklifts, volunteers, rolling stock and drivers, yet we are able to still receive and distribute incredible amounts of food to those that need it. The unknown factor is how many will continue to need food for months to come as they return to their homes and try to rebuild their lives. We are trying to locate a facility in New Orleans so we can move from this location in order to be closer to the greatest future need and create greater operating efficiencies.

So much is happening in the shadow of Hurricane Rita. Some of our volunteers are talking about leaving, some are talking about standing their ground and so many are worried about what will happen to them next. While no one wishes that Rita would hit somewhere else, they are wishing it does not hit here. One cannot imagine what the physical damage would be much less the emotional toll it would take on thousands who have suffered so much.


September 26, 2005

Hurricane Rita hit Saturday and the wind and rain was so hard you could not see at times. We lost electrical power at about 3 am. Fortunately, we escaped most of the damage. The front door of the warehouse blew off and we lost a lot of trees, but we consider ourselves lucky when compared to the damage sustained by others. Since most people evacuated to the north, we have not sent a lot of product to the Lake Charles area. We sent one load last night and three more today with several scheduled for delivery on Monday.

We received a call from DeQuincy requesting enough food, water and personal hygiene items to last 1,000 families for several weeks because electrical power will probably not be restored for several weeks. The folks in Louisiana have had to deal with so much in the past several weeks. Enduring another storm with so much additional damage-more flooding in New Orleans, more rain, and more wind-is beyond my imagination. Thousands and thousands of lives have been disrupted with no guarantees of what tomorrow will bring.

People have been left to survive on the generosity of strangers from throughout the country – many not knowing where their next meal will come from or if there will be a next meal. So many that did not have and in many cases could not afford insurance – have lost there homes and all that they called their own. We must continue to provide them with food so they can maintain their strength and resolve to rebuild. So many lives will be disrupted for years. One must question whether resources will be available to assist in rebuilding efforts once the national spotlight fades and watchful eye of the media is not present? Will residents be able to maintain their determination to rebuild with renewed hope and sense of purpose? I hope the answer is yes.

It has been with much anticipation that the Second Harvest Food Bank of New Orleans will be reopening this week. Eight truck loads were delivered today. The restocking will allow the Food Bank to continue relief and recovery efforts in the weeks, months, and possibly years ahead. It is a tribute to the Food Bank’s staff whose personal lives have been forever affected by this disaster that they have unselfishly assisted and will continue to assist in efforts to rebuild and reshape their communities. While the food bank will never be the same, it will be stronger and better for the work it is doing and will continue to do for many years after volunteers from throughout the country have left.

We had volunteers from every corner of the United States helping us at the America’s Second Harvest Baker Facility. We have five volunteers who drove from Toronto, Canada in an RV for several days to help with the disaster relief efforts. They will spend the week camping in their RV in the yard of the New Orleans Food Bank. They are helping to prepare for the reopening – doing inventory, driving trucks and forklifts, and distributing food.

It has been a pleasure and an honor to feel in some small way that you have contributed to helping other begin to recover from Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. While I may never see their faces in person, I see them in my dreams and in my thoughts. Their faces are the tragic faces of the hungry. They are no more or less tragic whether they are caused by a natural disaster or because of poverty. There are two reasons for people to be hungry – one is due to circumstances and the other is do to behavior – neither are justification for experiencing hunger in this great country of ours. The many faces you saw on television in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina were the insidious faces of poverty in a major urban area without the means to escape the tragedy that had befallen them. We as a nation must find it in our hearts and souls to ensure that no one, due to circumstance or behavior, goes without access to food.

Without food there is no hope, without hope there is no opportunity and without opportunity there is no chance to succeed. We must afford people the chance to succeed in this great country we call the United States – we must continue to provide hope.

Just got a call from a woman who said they are trying to provide assistance to over 8,000 residents who have no water, food, or electricity. Sorry, back to work!!!!


September 27, 2005

I will be leaving in a couple days – as they used to say in the military, two days and an awake. It is with mixed emotions that I leave this area. I met a lot of great people from all over this country as well as other countries that came to help out. People have suffered so much and still keep the faith that there will be a better day ahead. Many times services have been so slow because of the sheer number of people, other times it is just because we attempt to make people fit into a certain system and yet other times it is simply because someone is just afraid to make a decision.

It is so great to work for an network that remains flexible, willing to find a short cut and is not afraid of making quick decisions, America’s Second Harvest – The Nation’s Food Bank Network. While so many great people are working for organizations trying to provide relief, many times they find themselves standing around unable to act. We received a referral from one such organization about a husband and wife (he was dying of cancer) who needed food and water. The group had already contacted someone else that said they would help, but they had not. We told her we would get some help to them even if we had to delivery it ourselves. We told the person making the referral that we would call her back and let her know what we had done. She said out of the hundreds and hundreds of referrals she had made, no one had ever offered to call her back.

We began providing food, water and other supplies in southwest Louisiana after Rita. Most people left the area and have not returned yet. It appears they will start letting the residents back into the area any day now. The number of people returning to southwest Louisiana could eventually put a severe strain on the private food distribution system. While it is exciting that the New Orleans Food Bank will once again be functioning out of their own facility, the challenges that lie ahead will be daunting with the thousands of returning evacuees and the need for long-term food assistance. It will take a continued effort of public and private assistance for months if not years.

As we continue to provide food assistance to those affected by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, other volunteers and network food bankers will have the opportunity to serve. While I will look back and reflect on what has happened over the last four weeks, I will never forget what my eyes have seen and the wonderful opportunity to work beside so many great people. They gave their time, they gave from their hearts and they gave because they wanted to. I truly will be enriched by this experience and hopefully will appreciate the little things life has to offer and not just what we own, as it can be lost so quickly. Thank you.


October 26, 2005

Well, it has been a couple of weeks since I left Louisiana and like always the memory gets a little blurrier with time. As I said before, it was a pleasure and an honor to feel in some small way you helped in the relief efforts. I am still amazed that almost 8 million pounds of relief supplies were distributed during such a short period of time. It could have only happened with the support of America’s Second Harvest – the Nation’s Food Bank Network, volunteers that came from all parts of the country and all your support and help. I feel so lucky to have met and served with so many, working long and hard hours.

In the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, we saw images on television of people who had lost everything and who were not getting any of their basic needs met. For most of us these images were deeply disturbing; they kept us awake at night and they broke our hearts. Many of the people we saw on television found themselves in these desperate circumstances simply because they were too old, too sick, too young or too poor to get out of the way even when a massive, life-threatening storm was bearing down on them. Right before our eyes, we saw the face of poverty in the United States in the form of 100,000 desperate people who had been left behind. We also saw hundreds of thousands of other people who had managed to care for themselves before, but now they needed help from strangers.

While we would like to think that only a natural disaster could cause that level of human misery, the fact is that every year in our country millions of people don’t get some of their basic needs met. Right here in Oklahoma, 56,000 people find themselves without enough food to feed their families every single week – over 22,000 of these are children. They find themselves hungry because they face the daily disaster of poverty. There are two reasons for people to be hungry – it is due to behavior or circumstances and neither are justification for not having food on the table. What we see and hear at the food bank is the insidious face of poverty and lives in crises – a company downsizes, a child gets sick, a car breaks down, rent is behind, heating bill is too high, low pay, or the death of the breadwinner.

These disasters happen all the time. They happen in remote rural areas, in the dimly lit streets in urban areas and it is growing in the backdrop of the green manicured suburban lawns. It’s just that, unlike Katrina, these disasters don’t hit the whole town at once and we don’t see the whole mass of people in need on the evening news. In our country hunger is a largely hidden in the shadows, but that makes it no less devastating to its victims.

Thank you so much for all you have done over the past 25 years to make sure that the images we have been seeing on television are not the images we see every day in our community in our state. We look forward to continuing to partner with our donors and our volunteers to make sure that hunger never has the last word in Oklahoma.


Rodney Bivens

Rodney Bivens

Rodney Bivens is the Executive Director of the Regional Food Bank. He founded the organization in 1980.
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