Anatomy of Compassion


On Tuesday, September 21, Hurricane Igor assaulted Newfoundland with 140 km per hour winds and torrential rain. It destroyed buildings and vehicles, washed out roads and bridges and stranded thousands without power on the Burin and Bonavista peninsulas. The next day Kevin Jacobs, manager of the Clarenville Co-op, had an idea. “I left for my dinner hour at twelve,” he recalls. “There was a radio report on. CBC had hired a boat to go to Hickman’s Harbour to do a story. I turned around in my truck and went back to the marina. I asked them if they would allow me to put milk, bread and eggs on their boat. The guy said he couldn’t do it because they were in a hurry.”

Undaunted, Jacobs looked for another way to act on his idea of shipping supplies to the communities cut off by the 230 mm of rain Igor had dropped in six hours. “There was another guy in a boat. I asked him if I could hire him. He said yes. We had to go back to the store to get merchandise. I asked my assistant manager to call our vendors to raise money to get supplies. In a matter of a half hour, we raised $3,000.00.” In the meantime, the CBC employee Kevin had met on the dock tracked him down. “He called his boss, and his boss said to him, ‘Food first, story second.’ That was two boats we loaded to Hickman’s Harbour.”

So began a week-long impromptu relief effort led by Jacobs and his staff at the Co-op. Jacobs himself made public pleas via the media, contacted major Co-op vendors and challenged local businesses to match his own generosity. One of the first calls he made was to Melissa Churchill, the lone employee over at Clarenville’s Budget Rent a Car outlet; he needed a cube van to haul all the supplies. Melissa landed Kevin an initial two-day rental donation that turned into a ten-day give worth about a thousand dollars.

“Why wouldn’t I?” says Churchill of her decision to contact head office in Nova Scotia for permission to help out. “The devastation was unbelievable. You needed transportation to get the food to people. No access to communities, roads washed out for days, weeks. I saw people boated into the community for medical reasons. Helicopters bringing people into the hospital. It (the van) was to help people out, is what it was.”

When Kevin contacted the Coke bottling plant in St. John’s for a donation of 1,500 bottles of water, Neil Sullivan, area sales manager for Coca Cola Refreshments, had a similar response. “It was a great opportunity to help our customer and the consumer as well,” says Sullivan who oversees a staff of 23. “It’s good to be able to give back to the community when people are in an unfortunate situation. I was in Halifax back in 2001 in Hurricane Juan. No power for a week. I’ve been there, done it.”

At the request of the Red Cross, Bert Bown at Co-op Atlantic’s Gander Distribution Centre donated 665 cases of bottled water for a total of 31,920 litres. Co-op Atlantic assigned staff to follow tractor-trailers loaded with relief supplies up the Bonavista Peninsula until roads became impassable. At these critical locations, staff and volunteers carried supplies by hand to smaller trucks waiting on the other side. Kevin Jacobs went along on some of these trips to make sure the supplies got through. At one location, he says, “I saw these four ladies and some of my staff lugging eggs across the ditch.”

So successful were Kevin and his Clarenville Co-op staff at organizing their own relief effort and getting the word out, their office became the clearinghouse for the Hurricane Igor response. Kevin says ex-pat Newfoundlanders working for oil companies in western Canada donated cash they had gathered around their offices. “Everybody was calling in, trying to donate money. This was emotional for my staff,” Jacobs explains. “We’re grocery people. People would call them on the phone crying.” The Salvation Army called Kevin to ask if he could get supplies to communities they couldn’t reach. “While I was on the phone with the Salvation Army,” says Jacobs, “a guy walked in my office from Bonaventure. This is the area I wanted to get to. They were organizing a boat from the community to come to Clarenville for goods. I was looking for a boat, but it was already coming towards me. In an hour and a half, we had that boat loaded.”

Kevin and his staff did the best they could to cope with the extra work and the stress until others like the Red Cross and the Canadian military could take over. Inside a week, they raised $43,000, of which $17,000 paid for the purchase of the goods shipped to the communities cut off by the storm. The rest went to the Red Cross.

As the Red Cross rolled out its emergency response, more businesses found ways to assist. Dan Bedell, director of public affairs (Atlantic) for the Canadian Red Cross says that with the help of Kent Building Supplies, they trucked $4,000 worth of drywall, lumber, plywood, flooring, insulation, doors, windows and roofing shingles to Catalina on the Bonavista peninsula. “A second truck was an 18-wheeler flatbed,” says Bedell, “delivering about $10,000 worth of materials donated and purchased through Kent, but delivered by EastCan Transport of Mount Pearl, which donated the services of its truck and driver.” To pay for the supplies, Kent topped up the cash donated at checkouts in stores across Atlantic Canada with a corporate donation of its own. When the supplies arrived in Catalina, several faith groups organized volunteer tradespeople to carry out repairs.

Rhonda Kenney, regional director for Newfoundland and Labrador with the Canadian Red Cross adds, “We are working with many corporate supporters including Walmart, Irving, Esso and Newfoundland Power to help ease the financial burden on people.”

Though it wasn’t for lack of desire, not all businesses were in a position to respond to Igor. While Central Dairies and Scotsburn Dairy Group donated small amounts of milk immediately, Harry Burden, executive director of the Dairy Farmers of Newfoundland reports that farmers themselves were victims of Igor. “When the highway was down, all the milk made on the west coast had to be shipped to Nova Scotia. That was a big loss to producers. We ended up dumping about 10,000 litres of milk. If it had gone on one more day, it could have been tens of thousands of litres.” A week after the hurricane, DFNL managed to hold a board meeting. “We decided to offer some milk to the relief organizations. By the time we came to the table, most of the work was done. The amount was relatively small.”

In total, Igor caused $200-million in flood and wind damage. The Red Cross alone raised over $700,000 in individual and corporate donations and in-kind contributions of services and materials. The Government of Newfoundland and Labrador is providing further relief. These are only numbers, however, and don’t come close to telling the human story of disaster relief. It seems in times of crisis, businesses are more than just businesses. They are also the people who own and work for them, people with personal histories and human relationships like Melissa Churchill at Budget Rent a Car who comes from a family of 10 and remembers, “We had to work together to make it work.”

And people like Kevin Jacobs at the Clarenville Co-op, the only employer he’s ever known. “When my father used to bring out the last few loads of wood,” Jacobs recalls of his childhood, “he’d give it to someone. If you grow your own vegetables, you give away some potatoes, cabbage or turnip. Years ago, if someone had a moose, they’d give away a piece.” Hurricane Igor changed Jacobs forever. “I’m getting ready to get involved in a charity. I got it in my head to go to Africa. There’s this old saying, wake up and smell the roses. I guess in this adventure, I’ve kinda woken up to what life is all about.”

Darcy Rhyno
About Darcy Rhyno

Darcy Rhyno is a writer of many feature magazine articles, personality profiles, travel journalism, short fiction, children's books and drama. His collection of short stories set in Nova Scotia called Conductor of Waves is published by Roseway.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.