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Disaster relief nonprofits fighting supply shortfalls

Some transportation-related disaster relief nonprofits have been struggling to meet their missions, laying blame on Mother Nature, inflation and to a lesser degree, COVID.

They’re trying to help communities rebuild after winter tornadoes. Meanwhile, severe storms this spring have been devastating communities as hurricane season fast approaches.

“I’m gathering stuff as we can, what we can find, and going from there,” Shelli Conaway, president of Trucks With Room to Spare, told FreightWaves.

Trucks With Room to Spare volunteers with a load of donated relief supplies for Hurricane Ida victims in Louisiana. (Photo: Trucks With Room to Spare)

Supply shortage

Trucks With Room to Spare is a nonprofit founded by truck drivers. The organization works with fellow drivers, mostly small owner-operators, to provide transportation, warehousing and distribution of donated supplies for families hit by natural disasters.

Conaway said preparing for disaster relief is a year-round job because so much depends on when supplies are available. It’s been particularly difficult since the December tornado outbreak across the South.

“The tornadoes in Kentucky kind of took a lot of the supplies we would normally take for hurricane relief,” Conaway added.

These supplies include clothes, diapers, formula, food, lumber and other construction materials.

Conaway has been trying to recruit more drivers by reaching out to past volunteers, in addition to working with the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Department of Homeland Security, both of which have supplies available for pickup.

Trucks With Room to Spare volunteer couple Derek and Mel with a load of donated relief supplies for wildfire victims in Colorado. (Photo: Trucks With Room to Spare)

Conaway connected with people who didn’t even know about Trucks With Room to Spare, so it was a chance for her to show drivers that there was a way they could help. She also said she got permission from truck stop representatives at the Mid-America Trucking Show (MATS) to post flyers at their locations.

Staying connected

Kathy Fulton, executive director of the American Logistics Aid Network (ALAN), has also been concentrating on making new connections while maintaining current ones. ALAN is another nonprofit providing supply chain assistance to disaster relief organizations and other nonprofits.

“It’s always about relationship building,” Fulton told FreightWaves. “Anything in supply chain, anything in logistics, is always about [long-term] relationship building.”

According to Fulton, ALAN works with more than 35 logistics and supply chain industry associations that represent thousands of companies and hundreds of thousands of individuals. ALAN also works with members of National Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster, as well as about 50 nonprofit groups.

“Finding the ones who are not already committed to a particular organization, it’s the same thing we go through every year. We just continue to talk with partners and show appreciation to our partners,” Fulton added.

She’s also been networking tirelessly since COVID has been less of an issue this year. Fulton recently attended MODEX, a supply chain trade show, where she showed how the work ALAN does in support of disaster relief and crisis response aligns with the missions of potential partners.

Hygiene kits heading to Hurricane Laura survivors in Texas and Louisiana, with the help of the American Logistics Aid Network (ALAN). (Photo: ALAN)

“It feels like 2019 all over again in that regard in getting in front of people,” Fulton said. “People are hungry to be able to see people in person.”

Conaway has also been beefing up social media campaigns and networking as much as possible, like at MATS last month.

“It was just so nice to have the shows back again, because during COVID, you were reliant on word of mouth,” Conaway said. “And we all know what Facebook does with their algorithms, and your messages aren’t getting out to enough people.”

Making it personal

Fulton said her biggest challenge has been the competition for attention, mostly due to the conflict in Ukraine. Companies that may otherwise have been interested in helping a group like ALAN have been supporting Ukraine financially, or simply focusing attention on serving their customers rather than on philanthropy.

She doesn’t expect partners to pre-commit capacity, but she hopes they will at least be willing to answer the call down the road when necessary.

“Whether it’s because it’s something that occurs within their community, so it aligns with their business continuity, helping their employees recover, or whether it’s something that they are personally passionate about, like children’s initiatives or hunger relief or military initiatives,” Fulton said.

Conaway believes people are more likely to volunteer after a disaster hits close to home. Her current volunteers share their experiences in the company newsletter and on social media.

“A lot of our volunteers, we get them after something happens to one of their family members,” Conaway explained. “They didn’t realize that there was a need for what we do until they’ve seen it firsthand.”

Colleen Goodrich, a Trucks With Room to Spare volunteer and Conaway’s longtime friend, told FreightWaves it’s sometimes hard to get carriers to let their drivers volunteer in times of need because it doesn’t pay, or because they don’t want the perceived headache that comes with getting their company involved. But she believes they should think twice about it.

“These people remember who thought of them in their time of need. When they’re back in business, that’s the carrier they’re going to call,” Goodrich said.

God’s Pit Crew, working with Trucks With Room to Spare, bringing donated relief supplies to eastern Kentucky flood victims. (Photo: Trucks With Room to Spare)

Bottom line

Another hurdle has been inflation, especially for Conaway. It has kept her from buying storage trailers for collected relief supplies. The cost is just too high.

“For now we’re stockpiling and putting it in warehouses of other nonprofits that will allow us space. We’re going to stockpile as much of it as we can,” Conaway said.

She bought a semi for the organization two years ago, but it’s not DOT legal yet. High prices have slowed Conaway’s purchase of the remaining parts needed to get the rig ready. This semi would be for volunteer drivers who don’t have their own equipment but want to donate their time.

One bright spot: The Mudflap app for truckers donated $10,000 worth of fuel to Conaway to help knock some of the edge off high diesel costs. Part of her policy is to cover fuel costs for volunteer drivers.

Regardless of the outlook for hurricane season, Conaway and Fulton plan to keep running on all cylinders to prepare for whatever may come this year.

“One storm is all it takes,” Fulton said. “We’re going to focus on being as prepared as we can be.”

“We have to show them that it doesn’t matter how big or how small, or how much or how little they can help. It all makes a big difference,” Conaway added.

More FreightWaves articles by Nick Austin.

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