Wednesday, 13 September 2017 06:34

Community rushes to aid hurricane victims, evacuees

Written by  Cassie Fambro
A Florida family of 10 stayed at the old J.M. Alexander Middle School in Huntersville, designated as an American Red Cross shelter. A Florida family of 10 stayed at the old J.M. Alexander Middle School in Huntersville, designated as an American Red Cross shelter. Cassie Fambro

HUNTERSVILLE, N.C. -- Next Level Readiness was the hub, but the Huntersville community was the driving force behind more than a truckload of donations driven to Orange, Texas on the heels of Hurricane Harvey.

Lake Norman Charter School, Huntersville Fire Department, Huntersville Chamber of Commerce, St. Mark Catholic Church, The Glens at Birkdale and Dog Supplies of Huntersville were just some of the organizations that quickly banded together to secure donations for hurricane victims.

Dog Supplies alone donated more than 9,000-pounds of dog food as well as crates and other supplies for four-legged friends affected by flood waters and wind damage. Next Level Readiness is a locally-owned business specializing in disaster preparedness and has an FFL license, with Andre Gagne at the helm. Gagne has plenty of experience with disasters. “I have 18 years in disaster response,” said Gagne.

When relief efforts got underway, the Huntersville community immediately turned to Gagne for leadership because of that experience. “It’s kind of humbling, I really enjoy what I do. This isn’t about me, it’s about the town, and the town came together,” he said. Gagne’s volunteer team even paid out of their own pockets to rent the Penske truck that hauled the goods down to Texas.
Kiire Wolf, a woman from Texas, took it upon herself personally to solicit diapers. “It just kind of blew up,” she said. “We ended up with more than 9,000 diapers.” She said the response was overwhelming, and humbling. “We are so glad our donations are going directly to people in need,” she said.

The mission isn’t over, yet. With Irma quickly following Harvey, Next Level Readiness quickly laid the groundwork for another relief effort. They took to social media on Monday to detail their Florida plans, soliciting brand new socks, canned food, adult and baby diapers and baby wipes, bleach and cleaning supplies, gloves and more dog and cat food.

They also asked for no more clothes donations, due to the challenge to distribute appropriate sizes and items to hurricane victims. Items can be dropped off at 12108 Old. Statesville Road.
For now, Gagne is headed to Florida on his own to assist his in-laws, who were impacted by the eyewall of Irma.

“Thanks, as always, for your strong support and we look forward to bringing another load of your heartfelt donations to our Florida brothers and sisters,” said Gagnes of the future trip to bring supplies. Gagnes will use social media to advertise any drop-off deadlines for future donations.

More than six million people were ordered to evacuate Florida, many of them not sure where to go. With Hurricane Irma looming on the horizon, threatening storm surge and 180 mph winds and spawning tornadoes, millions of Floridians headed north. Mecklenburg County made the decision to open a shelter for evacuees on Saturday at the former J.M. Alexander Middle School in Huntersville.

The old middle school at the corner of N.C. 115 and Hambright Road is slated for demolition soon, but is still fundamentally clean and has furniture, having closed just this past year. The Red Cross quickly deployed its team, albeit stretched a little thin from providing relief to Hurricane Harvey victims in Texas. On Monday, 25 people stayed in the Huntersville shelter. Jerri Jameson, Red Cross regional communications officer, said all save a few were from Florida.

“We always have trailers staged with cots and cleaning equipment,” said Jameson. “Some of our resources were stressed, but our volunteers stepped up and were phenomenal.”

The Red Cross has an ongoing working relationship with Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools in the event of disasters. Just a few months ago, a fire in east Charlotte left 150 people homeless, and the Red Cross was able to set up shop at an elementary school and help those families find housing. And, the help from the Red Cross doesn’t just stop at food and a place to sleep. For families who evacuated from Irma, the Red Cross offers recreational relief, Internet access and even counseling.

Laura Gil and her family evacuated from Orlando, with no place to go. Gil said that at 1 a.m. Saturday, she saw the news telling people to leave who lived in low-lying areas. She gathered her sibling’s children and her own, compiling a group of 10 to leave town. The youngest, just eight-months-old. Gil said it was a fear for the children’s lives that drove them to flee north.

“We were really nervous, we didn’t want to be trapped in our house,” said Gil. They started driving north, trying to find lodging in South Carolina, at first. But every hotel they stopped at was more expensive than they expected. “We didn’t know where to go,” she said. The chain hotel they stayed at the first night was normally $40 a night, but had hiked prices to more than $100 a night. With a group of 10, that was simply unaffordable for the family.

“They took advantage of our situation,” said Gil. “It was horrible.” The hotel only let four people stay in each room, meaning they would have to rent three rooms to stay there. A friend told Gil to try the Charlotte area instead, and they drove two more hours north. Online research led them to the Red Cross shelter in Huntersville, where they found support and safety. “We didn’t have any family, and we had to think of our children.”

On Monday, the six children sat playing with puzzles, across from a TV set with children’s movies in the old middle school cafeteria. Gil looked over at them, saying she was grateful to have found the shelter. “These people are amazing, amazing,” she said. “They have been extremely nice to the kids, and have given us so much, not just food, but support and kindness.”

The family heard inklings on Monday that their home in Orlando may not have flooded, but the city’s mandatory curfew meant their friends couldn’t check on their home until it was lifted.

“We are hopeful,” she said. She was supposed to return to her job on Wednesday, but fears the traffic back to Florida will make that a challenge. “We have to take I-85,” she said. “And so do millions of other people. We will try our best.”

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