On Thursday, Sept. 7, members of Southwire’s Project GIFT drove to Bellaire, Texas, to distribute much-needed supplies to victims of Hurricane Harvey after successfully collecting more than 10 tractor trailers full of nonperishable food items, bottled water, hygiene products and more from throughout the organization.
My name is Jordan Weathers, and I’ve worked at Southwire for five years. I’m a communication specialist in the Corporate Communication department, writing for and editing the employee newsletter (among other roles and responsibilities), but I also work closely with Project GIFT, the company’s internal nonprofit organization. To earn a Project GIFT Blackshirt, a term given to the black shirts typically worn by employee volunteers, a member of the Southwire team must lend his or her time and talents at two events within a calendar year. I obtained mine within my first month of employment, and I’ve been a regular volunteer ever since.
Although I’ve helped out at several Disaster Relief collections in the west Georgia community, this is my first time assisting with the distribution efforts. I don’t know what to expect, but while we are in Texas, helping those who have lost nearly everything, I’ll be writing this special column and providing a firsthand account of what I see, hear, feel and experience for those in all of our Southwire facilities and local communities.
As the day began, a nervous energy pervaded the group, which consisted of 13 employees and retirees from different areas of the business – all gathered for a common goal. This excitement was palpable even as we huddled together and shivered in the relative cold. The sun had yet to rise, but we all remained talkative and jovial despite the early morning hour, spurred on by our desire to do good in the lives of those affected by Hurricane Harvey.
We had a briefing, in which Kristian Whittington, Project GIFT coordinator, provided details about our local partners and explained the game plan for distribution, and each of us was tasked with introducing ourselves to two new people. Given my role in the organization, I interview countless people on a weekly basis and attend numerous company events. As a result, I already knew most of the employees in attendance, but I did enjoy meeting three new people and chatting with a few that I hadn’t seen in a while.
With this assignment complete and after a short prayer, we hit the open road – coffee and donut holes in hand. The 14-hour drive (including lunch, restroom and gasoline stops) went smoothly. The members of my car – one of three – talked about getting married, having children and the joys of home ownership. The entire group had lunch together in Amite, Louisiana, and we posed together for a group photo, still happy and excited about what lie ahead. The heart-wrenching reality of what we’d signed up for had not yet dawned on us.
While leaving Louisiana, we texted members of the other vehicles in our caravan and planned a final restroom break for the Texas Travel Information Center, but as we crossed the state line, we seemed to enter another world. Within only a few minutes, we received our first glimpse of the unfathomable, have-to-see-it-to-believe-it devastation of Hurricane Harvey. The Welcome Center – a common rest stop for travelers in any state – was underwater. The entry ramp to the facility was almost entirely covered in the murky brown liquid, and a white van floated nearby, abandoned and still half submerged.
From this point on, the images and accompanying emotions only intensified. We passed a gas station with several feet of standing water preventing access to the pumps. Exit ramps off of the interstate no longer led to roads but to lakes. A caravan of National Guard transports outfitted with troops in combat fatigues and battle helmets drove down the highway alongside us, some sort of code – TX70306 – scrawled onto the side of each vehicle. An entire RV park, tents and canopies still opened, sat in a low elevation area that could’ve easily passed for the bayou.
Continuing toward our destination, we arrived at a residential area, and the reality of the storm’s impact nearly brought me to tears. A few houses on the outskirts of a tiny Texas town had been gutted and businesses damaged. Trash and debris brought in by rising flood waters still hung to chain-link fences, and as we neared a subdivision, positioned off of the road and blocked by a fence, another member of my vehicle noted a chilling sight: piles of wood, sheetrock, furniture and personal belongings littered the curbside. This was the case in front of every single house. No home was spared.
I was immediately stricken by the thought that these piles represented the whole of possessions, the memories and moments and life stories of families just like mine, just like the ones we’d all talked about earlier in our drive – soaked and set out for all the world to see as part of a cleaning process that is only just now beginning. In tandem, I began to wonder: how many of the people driving beside us right now are returning home for the first time since leaving, unsure of what they might find?
Alongside the damage and destruction, however, we also witnessed the good of humanity. At what would become our final restroom and snack stop at a grocery store in Orange, Texas, a group of people had set up a smoker in the parking lot, feeding those who had been affected – it seemed – free of charge. Another man handed out one-gallon containers of mold remover from the back of his pick-up truck. In the midst of division and disaster, it’s always comforting to see ordinary people using their own resources and skills to serve their neighbors, to unite for the common good. And we’ve experienced this unifying kindness ourselves. We’re currently being housed in the upper room of a church in Bellaire, Texas, and we’ve been told that all of our meals will be provided in the coming days.
As I sit on my twin-sized air mattress in a room full of people who are hoping to make a positive difference in the lives of others in the days ahead, the momentary discomfort of being away from loved ones in an unfamiliar place is bearable when I remember the homes and businesses that we passed on the way into town. It’s worth it to inconvenience myself for a few days, knowing that there are others out there with a lot less, others still who may have nothing left – no home or loved ones to which they can return. These are the people that we’ll be seeing this week, the lives we’re eager to touch and the stories I’m hoping to share.
Stay tuned to southwireblog.com for more journal entries.