Sometimes it takes adversity to see how interconnected we are as a community. When Hurricane Matthew wreaked havoc across the Southeast, we got to see how the Savannah community stepped up to help.
And, there were so many helpers in our community. In big ways and small ways, and even today, those helpers are still coming out of the woodwork to show their commitment to our community and our recovery.
We need to celebrate these stories of helpers. If we herald their work, then it might just inspire more to stand up and be helpers. I am extremely proud of the Tourism Leadership Council members and how they came together to aid our community in a time of critical need.
On Friday afternoon, I got a call from the City of Savannah. There was concern that the City had not stockpiled enough food for all of the first responders and City of Savannah and Chatham County staff. They needed food to get through the storm without having to break into pre-packaged military food known as Meals Ready to Eat. Those could be reserved for worst case scenario because they practically never expire.
So, I reached out to the Tourism Leadership Council membership for help. We needed hotels and restaurants to provide food for 1,000 people. We needed transportation to get that food to the Civic Center. We needed to act fast, the storm had just started.
One of the TLC members, the Georgia Restaurant Association also stepped up. Mike Vaquer, in particular, helped coordinate our efforts and began contacting restaurants with us.
Restaurants and hotels gladly provided salmon filets, short ribs, hot dogs, lamb, and all sorts of food. We had 15 cases of produce from the State Farmer’s Market. The BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir Hindu Temple provided 350 pounds of rice.
They were willing to provide it all, but now we had to find a way to get it to the Civic Center where city staff would be cooking the food.
Eric Kennedy, owner of Host South, volunteered to drive his truck from place to place to collect the food. So, during the storm, we set out on our mission. Ryan Giannoni, director of Savannah Food Truck Festival followed close behind to help load the truck at each stop. We were terrified as we crossed the Talmadge Bridge and the cables were shaking back and forth with the wind gusts.
We had members helping left and right with food and paper goods. The Brice, Mansion on Forsyth Park, Westin Savannah Harbor, Pirates’ House, Leopold’s Ice Cream, Hyatt Regency, Hilton Desoto, Hotel Indigo, and Chicken Salad Chick all stepped up to provide for our first responders who would undoubtedly be hungry.
Within a few hours, all of the freezers and coolers at the Civic Center were full. We were soaked to the bone, so we battened down and waited for the storm to pass.
And, when those first responders needed a place to stay, Westin, Holiday Inn Express, Hampton Inn, Northpoint Hospitality, and Hyatt all housed hundreds of first responders and served meals to them throughout the whole ordeal for free.
When our city needed a Red Cross Shelter, the Savannah International Trade & Convention Center provided. Lodging properties all over the city housed contractors and electric company workers who were critical to getting Savannah back on its feet. If the hotels were not able to house the disaster recovery staff, our recovery would be taking much, much longer.
Many of the hotels also provided free shelter and free food for their employees and to their family, and in some cases extended family. And, when the storm passed, restaurants started feeding us because we were hungry. For many, it was the first hot meal in days.
I am extremely proud of the entire community, and it’s encouraging to see how everyone pitched in to help. We must continue to stand together, and when we do, we’ll be stronger than before the storm.
Michael Owens is president/CEO of the Tourism Leadership Council, the largest non-profit trade organization that supports and represents the tourism community.
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