Hurricane Laura is projected to make landfall along the Gulf Coast as a category 4 storm, bringing a devastating storm surge and winds up to 140 miles per hour.
But Houston is stocked to feed its residents, thanks in large part to the coronavirus outbreak. It’s getting volunteers that poses a problem.
Ordinarily, regional food banks would be rushing to acquire extra supplies to support community members without food and water, but the Houston Food Bank — which has been operating at unprecedented distribution levels since the pandemic’s arrival — is well-stocked and primed to handle this next crisis.
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“We actually think that we're in better shape than we normally would be,” said Brian Greene, president of Houston Food Bank. “The difference that was shocking about COVID is we jumped at the kind of rate that you would expect after a major hurricane hit, but never got the break that you'd normally get after a natural disaster. It just kept going and going and going and going.”
As a pandemic-era measure, Houston Food Bank “geared up” and expanded its infrastructure and rented two additional warehouses, more vehicles, and more forklifts, he said.
Located in one of the hardest hit cities by COVID-19, it has been operating at a significantly elevated level and dispersing about 800,000 pounds of food, nearly double its pre-pandemic level of 450,000 pounds a day. It’s a pace that Houston Food Bank is prepared to operate at for the foreseeable future.
A hit from Hurricane Laura could mean the need could double from its current demand level, Greene said. Food insecurity, as the result of a natural disaster, is a situation “anybody can suddenly find themselves in,” he said, and a food bank might be “the only game you got” if supermarkets aren’t open or roads are inaccessible.
But there is one area where the food bank is lacking because of the pandemic: volunteers.
After a natural disaster, the blueprint for recovery involves the willingness and generosity of community volunteers to roll up their sleeves and help.
But the number of available volunteers available has shrunk since the health crisis began, Greene said, and Laura’s anticipated landfall comes at a time when the food bank is facing a gap in its volunteer coverage.
The National Guard had sent as many as 300 of its members for a three-month stint that ended in July, but Greene hopes that “at least a few dozen” service members will return soon. Until then, the food bank has received funding to hire over 300 temporary employees.
In the event of widespread devastation, volunteer power won’t be what it was due to COVID-19 social distancing precautions and advisories. Assembling masses, even for a disaster relief effort, is still a violation of guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention about large in-person gatherings where six feet of distance between people cannot be accomplished.
Greene said they are using the two additional warehouses plus its main building so that volunteers can work but still stay spread out.
“Normally after a hurricane, all doors are open and whoever shows up we try to make work,” he said. “But we wouldn’t be able to do that.”