Trucking, rescue groups describe hurricane relief as ‘organized chaos’

Hurricane Laura bears down on Gulf of Mexico

Truck drivers, along with search and rescue groups and humanitarian relief organizations, are once again answering the call to deliver critical medical supplies, food and other essentials after Hurricane Laura pounded the Gulf Coast early Thursday, killing six people in Louisiana.

Shelli Conaway-Waugh of Lexington, Kentucky, a 28-year trucking veteran, runs a nonprofit group called Trucks with Room to Spare. She was already coordinating relief efforts Thursday morning with her network of truckers, sponsors and donors, to provide disaster relief in the areas hardest hit by Laura, which was a Category 4 hurricane when it made landfall.

Shelli Conaway-Waugh coordinates disaster relief efforts from the cab of her truck. Photo: Trucks with Room to Spare

“We coordinate with drivers who want to volunteer and have space in their trailers to haul a few pallets of supplies or more if they are headed to the area, or we ask companies if they could donate a driver and their equipment to deliver supplies,” Conaway-Waugh told FreightWaves. 

In some cases, her group, which relies on donations, steps up to cover fuel costs for truck drivers who volunteer their time and equipment.

Conaway-Waugh, a flatbedder, isn’t new to hauling disaster relief loads. During Hurricane Katrina, which devastated the Gulf Coast in 2005, killing more than 1,800 people, she hauled trailers for the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), which nearly cost her everything.

“The FEMA contractor I subcontracted with also subcontracted with several other companies to haul trailers,” Conaway-Waugh said. “The money ran out after the fourth level of subcontractors and I was the eighth level, so I never got paid.”

Helping those in need

Those hardest hit by the hurricane may not have flood insurance and rely on donated supplies to repair their homes, she said.

“We coordinate with churches and other groups in the area to access what their needs are and we collect cleaning supplies like hammers, tarps, shovels, buckets, trash bags and chainsaws to help clean up after other relief organizations have left the area,” Conaway-Waugh said. 

Besides cash donations, her group accepts plywood and lumber that may have sustained water damage, but would suffice in an emergency situation. The organization also accepts boxes of usable building materials where just one box is crushed, but the whole load is rejected by a receiver. 

Trucks with Room to Spare is currently evaluating requests from relief groups and plans to establish donation dropoff sites sometime Friday. She has organized a list of rules and regulations for volunteers who have collected disaster relief supplies to ensure her group can accept the shipments. 

Her group works with several relief organizations, including CN Supply, a branch of the Cajun Navy, a water search-and-rescue group that rescued thousands during Hurricane Katrina.

Jessy Gillespie, one of the cofounders of CN Supply, formerly worked in logistics, before changing careers to become a costume designer for the film industry. She has been volunteering and coordinating disaster relief efforts for 15 years since Katrina. 

“Logistics and sewing are a puzzle to me,” she said. “I like to make sure all of the pieces fit.”

While hunkered down in a closet Thursday as the hurricane passed through her hometown of Shreveport, Louisiana, Gillespie was texting with other group members and coordinating cleanup efforts in her community, along with assessing the needs in Louisiana and Texas.

She describes CN Supply, which she founded with Jason Cannon in 2017, as a group of volunteers from across the country who assist in the transport, distribution and delivery of lifesaving supplies to victims of natural disasters.

CN Supply relies on volunteers to donate and transport critical relief supplies to disaster areas. Photo: CN Supply

Over the years, CN Supply has been able to help hundreds of thousands of people and deliver millions of tons of supplies to natural disaster areas with the help of nonprofit trucking groups like Trucks with Room to Spare. 

“I have seen truckers make up to 10 stops along their routes to build a full truckload of supplies,” Gillespie told FreightWaves. “Our group is then able to hotshot the supplies out to the areas they are needed most.”

The group’s relief efforts were hindered Thursday by a chlorine fire that broke out at the nearby BioLab plant in Westlake, near Lake Charles, according to Kristen Wise, president of CN Supply.

A shelter-in-place order was issued and the state Department of Transportation Department (DOTD) closed Interstate 10 in the area, diverting traffic to other routes because of black smoke billowing over the interstate. 

“We are making connections with fire departments to get points of distribution established,” Wise told FreightWaves. “Due to the chemical plant fire, it’s complicating getting set up near the most impacted areas.”

Wise, who is originally from southeast Texas before moving to Washington, D.C., several years ago, joined CN Supply during Hurricane Harvey in 2017, which caused heavy flooding and destruction in her hometown. 

“I felt so helpless that this was happening in my hometown and wanted to help my family and friends in some way, even though I couldn’t be there,” she said.

Prior to becoming the group’s president, she worked remotely as a high-water dispatcher and supply coordinator and humanitarian aid director for the group.

“We realized after these people were rescued there were going to be a lot of places without access to food, water and life saving supplies for long periods of time,” Wise said. “We partner with major food banks and trucking companies to get the supplies to the people who need them the most.”

CN Supply volunteers also worked to deliver relief supplies during Hurricane Florence, Hurricane MIchael and to victims of the Nebraska floods. 

“My involvement came about just by loving people and just being the organizer of chaos,” Wise said. “I think it comes from being a youth minister many years ago. Instead of organizing the chaos of teenagers, I now organize the chaos of hurricanes.”

Coordinating relief efforts during COVID-19

Coordinating relief efforts during the COVID-19 pandemic has been challenging.

Instead of having supplies delivered to a warehouse where 20 to 30 volunteers would then sort and organize them, CN Supply is having to pivot and take a different approach to ensure no one, including its volunteers, contract the deadly virus, Gillespie said.

“We are asking people who want to help to look at their own families and evaluate all of the supplies they would need for a week and then put them in paper bags and label them by age,” she said.

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