Vermonters pitch in by the truckload
MONTPELIER – Aaron Brodeur walked across the Statehouse lawn carrying two plastic bags. In one was a gallon jug of water, in the other a multi-pack of Powerade sports drink bottles.
He quietly put down the beverages in the drink pile, as volunteers scurried to sort non-perishable food items, batteries, clothing and blankets.
His donation, like the thousands of other items that came pouring into Vermont's 10 official collection stations for the victims of Hurricane Katrina, would be packaged, crammed into the bed of a tractor trailer and eventually brought to the storm-ravaged area.
For Brodeur, watching the Red Cross truck get packed up was a chance to be on the other side of a hurricane disaster. It was only a year ago when as a resident of Tampa, Fla., he watched the Red Cross trucks come to his neighbors' rescue, after surviving three of the four hurricanes there last year.
"I just moved up here from Tampa last January, and I was there for three out of the four hurricanes, so I definitely know what it's like to go through this," Brodeur said.
Brodeur was one of hundreds of Vermonters who delivered food, water and toiletries to the state's 10 collection points, in an effort dubbed "Operation Special Delivery" by state officials. The collection drive, which continues today, is being coordinated at the governor's direction, with the help of his senior staff, the Department of Public Safety and the American Red Cross.
It took Central Vermonters less than six hours to fill two tractor trailer trucks to the brim, and the outpouring of support at the Williston State Police location was so overwhelming that police sent out a media release warning that traffic there was backed up and at times at a standstill.
"This is truly one of the most heart-warming displays of compassion that I've ever witnessed. It's a testament to the generosity and goodwill of the people of Vermont," Jason Gibbs, Gov. James Douglas' press secretary said Friday.
Gibbs said that by Friday evening, Vermonters had filled 20 large trucks with goods. He said he expected five more would be full by 2 p.m. today, when the convoy of trucks has to leave for Mississippi. Gibbs said that while he was sure Vermonters would keep filling the trucks even after 2 p.m., the delegation has to get on the road because the supplies are so urgently needed. The Vermont delegation is meeting up with the Mississippi Highway Patrol in Gulfport, Miss., Gibbs said.
For the volunteers who separated and boxed the items, and those who dropped off bags full of the much-needed goods, it was a chance to offer help directly to the victims of the hurricane.
Sande French-Stockwell of Corinth called the Red Cross Thursday to find out how she could help.
"I never really knew that it was so accessible," she said. "And when I called and found out I could actually come right here and do something, it made a huge difference."
French-Stockwell packed boxes full of cat food, as another volunteer asked her if she knew where the supplies would go. Volunteers bounced questions off one another over logistics, a seeming lack of organization, and questions over who was in charge. The work went along at a steady pace, however, with the volunteers seeming to know that the logistics would work themselves out. The scene offered a glimpse of the magnitude of the rescue efforts facing those in the disaster area.
But everyone at the scene was working hard to get the supplies organized for transport from the Green Mountain state to the target area.
Antonia Bean, 4, and her nanny, Zea Sands, made a trip to the grocery store before bringing goods down to the Statehouse lawn, where the young girl helped Sands package up boxes of shampoo.
"… She enjoyed picking out the food together. She wanted to get baby formula, but we forgot," Sands said.
Those at the Statehouse traded stories of people in grocery and department stores cleaning out shelves as they bought items to donate.
AmeriCorps/Vista members and Youth Service Bureau employees brought armloads of goods down around 1 p.m. Friday.
Kadie Schaeffer, director of the National Service Program at the bureau, Leslie Aldridge, Matt Stewart and Kimberly Laschinger focused their efforts on bottled water.
"This is a great opportunity for us to … directly help some people," Stewart said.
Aldridge, who just moved to Montpelier from Vicksburg, Miss., said she really wanted to go back to Mississippi to help, but doesn't think she can because of the road closures. She found donating Friday a satisfying way to help.
For Maxine Leary of Montpelier volunteering was a way to channel her anger into something positive.
"I'm angry at the lack of preparedness for this," Leary said. "Five days, and the president just goes in now? To make a photo-op of it? Now that stuff is arriving?"
"If the National Guard were where they are supposed to be, which is in the states, then they would have been there to help. Send in 400 National Guard," Leary continued as she gestured at the boxes she was filling. "They need 40,000 the governor said!"
On the other side of the capital, Hunger Mountain Cooperative was organizing a to help Hurricane Katrina victims as well.
Shoppers can make donations at the co-op, which will route what it collects to America's Second Harvest, a hunger-relief organization and the largest domestic food-relief effort in the United States, according to a release from the co-op. Cashiers will be collecting monetary donations, and the co-op delivered non-perishables and other supplies Friday morning, according to Linda Hagens, a spokeswoman for the natural food store.
And money is desperately needed.
The hurricane's impact on New Orleans is comparable to last year's tsunami in Asia that killed hundreds of thousands of people, according the former director of UNICEF who is now working in Vermont.
"This is unprecedented — a major American city has been wiped off the landscape," said Carol Bellamy, who toured Sri Lanka and Indonesia following the tsunami. "The loss of life isn't comparable, but the impact … this is among the worst I've ever seen."
For 10 years Bellamy was executive director of the United Nations Children's Fund; she retired earlier this year and became president and CEO of World Learning and the School for International Training in Brattleboro.
Bellamy said she has encouraged the school's staff and students to donate money to various relief organizations.
"In situations such as this one, money is needed the most," she said.
Hannaford Bros. Co., parent company of Hannaford Supermarkets, will donate $250,000 to the American Red Cross Disaster Relief Fund, and each of the company's145 stores will have sites where customers can donate to the fund through Sept. 17.
Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Vermont contributed $10,000 toward a special relief fund being developed by the Blue Cross and Blue Shield Association and administered by the American Red Cross.
Brendan McKenna and Dan Barlow contributed to this report.
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