Into the eye of relief
SUMMIT COUNTY – The disaster was there for everyone to see. Above the homes, beside the levees, in the Superdome; the fury of Katrina leveling New Orleans down from a cultural capital to a mire of death and debris. It was to be one of the worst national catastrophes in U.S. history.As the hurricane tore through the city, the Holiday Inn in Arlington, Texas, seemed like the unlikeliest of shelters for potential refugees. The hotel was located more than 500 miles from the eye of the storm in New Orleans, a drive that takes eight hours on a clear day. The thought that survivors could be displaced that distance was almost unfathomable, as far as Troy Benavides, the hotel’s general manager, was concerned. And yet, the refugees came. First in small groups, then in busloads. The Holiday Inn’s sister hotels in New Orleans – the Hilton Garden and the Fairfield Inn – sent many of their employees toward Arlington. Unaffiliated families followed. “We definitely took care of them first and asked questions later,” recalled Benavides. “Once they came to the hotel, they definitely had a place to stay.”
Within days, the Holiday Inn had over 200 survivors staying within its quarters. The refugees had dry beds, clean bathrooms, free phone lines and trained counselors at their disposal.They also had piles and piles of donated supplies – supplies that came directly from Summit County.Resolved to helpBrian and Kevin Harvey, the brothers responsible for transporting the provisions from Summit County to Arlington, said they were gripped by Hurricane Katrina the moment it made its initial landfall, early Aug. 29. Sitting in Kevin’s townhome in Breckenridge, they watched on TV as the disaster unfolded: At 8 o’clock in the morning, a barge breaks loose from its moorings on the Mississippi and crashes through a floodwall near the lower 9th Ward.
Near 10 o’clock, gusts of winds topping 140 miles per hour rip two holes in the Superdome’s roof with some 10,000 people sheltered inside.A few hours later, the Mississippi breaches the 17th Street Canal levee, pouring more water into the floundering city.The brothers became increasingly resolved to help.”I had one friend who lived in New Orleans, so I had a way to personally relate to everyone who was in the situation,” Kevin said. “(But) at that point, everyone becomes part of our United Sates family. We have to go back to the original Constitution and say, ‘We the people.’ We the people need to respond.” At first, their plan of response was a loose one. The next afternoon Brian and Kevin decided they would collect as many donations as possible from the local community and pack them into a U-Haul headed for the disaster zone.
“Our plan was to get as close to the city as we could,” said Brian, 23, who happened to be visiting his brother in Breckenridge when the hurricane hit.The following morning, Aug. 31, as the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services was declaring a public health crisis in Louisiana, he and Kevin began their drive for supplies in Summit County. KSMT “The Mountain” (102.3) spread word of their plan across the radio. Locals began dropping off donations at Kevin’s townhouse – water, clothes, non-perishable foods, even feminine hygiene products.”Us being men, feminine hygiene products were something we would never consider,” Kevin said with levity in his voice. “Once a local woman brought that up, we called up the radio station and asked them to mention it.”And so, a flood of tampons and maxi pads joined the growing pile of supplies. Local real estate agents Kijah Hanson, Jeff Moore and Rob Neyland offered money for gas. Warner Kingsbury with the Church of Christ in Frisco followed suit with a donation of $600. The Breckenridge Town Center, Peak 8 Nursery and the Frisco County Commons added clothes, food and baby products to the provisions.”It was amazing to see all the people who came together,” Brian said. “We had one little boy who came in with his father. The little boy had broken his piggy bank and gave us slightly over $8 in change to help out with our trip. “It brought tears to your eyes to see the community coming together as quickly as they did,” he added.
The brothers even had a stranger from Alma, Tony Swentkowski, volunteer to go with them. The next morning, Sept. 1, with their supplies gathered, organized and packed into a U-Haul in under 20 hours, Brian, Kevin and Swentkowski left for the south.Supplies help lighten the mood The group arrived at the Holiday Inn in Arlington, Texas, late on Friday, Sept. 2. The trip had taken two full days of driving, the wheels of the 11,000-pound capacity U-Haul rubbing against the wheel wells the whole way down.
Brian and Kevin had spent $800 in gas money between Breckenridge Main Street and the hotel parking lot.”We essentially ran ourselves dead broke doing it,” Kevin said. “… We were originally thinking (of going to) Baton Rouge or Houston, but gas supplies were short, and local radio was saying that if you were going anywhere closer to the disaster, make sure you had armed yourself – to essentially have a shotgun or something of that nature in your vehicle.”The scene at the Holiday Inn was dire enough, anyway. When Brian, Kevin and Swentkowski arrived, they found displaced families standing around the lobby of the hotel, tired and confused, some trying to contact missing relatives on cell phones, others scanning through newspapers looking for jobs, all of them wearing the gravity of the situation on their faces. The U-Haul helped lighten the mood.”When we opened the door, it literally came avalanching out on top of us,” Kevin laughed. “It was luckily mostly bags of clothes (fell out first).”In the two days that followed, Swentkowski and the Harvey brothers organized the goods on the first floor of the hotel and watched as the refugees – many of whom had never heard of Summit County – received aid from the High Country.
“We saw everyone in the shelter wearing Summit County’s clothes,” Brian recalled. One such man left a particular impression on Kevin. The man was in his early 50s, Kevin estimated, and he looked utterly humbled by the hurricane, he said. Standing in an elevator, he told Kevin that his $1.5 million house had just been inundated in the hurricane with no flood insurance to cover the damage. Worse yet, he had millions of dollars in private banks, money that creditors now had no record of.The man took a hold of Kevin’s hand.”I have never had to take any sort of donation in my life,” he said. “Without you kids doing what you have done, my son and I would only have the clothes we wore on our backs out of the hurricane.”Andrew Tolve can be reached at (970) 668-3998, ext. 222, or at firstname.lastname@example.org
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