You've probably forgotten about the whirling Labor Day windstorm that hit Savannah last fall, but Mary Jane Crouch sure hasn't.
The executive director of America's Second Harvest of Coastal Georgia remembers those burly gusts quite well, since they destroyed the food bank's massive freezer and left her and her staff scrambling to save almost a million pounds of food.
"It was a domino effect," describes Crouch. "The wind got in under the eaves and knocked down the walls, and the roof just collapsed."
Insurance will pay for most of the reconstruction, but there's a five percent deductible of $150,000 that Second Harvest has to shoulder in addition to its daily operating expenses. Around $50K of that sum has already been raised, and the non-profit hopes to make a dent in the rest with Raise a Glass for the Roof, a Superbowl-themed benefit at Southbound Brewing Co. this Saturday, Feb. 1.
Since the Sept. 2 catastrophe, the twisted remains of the freezer have laid in piles as the damage was documented and claims were filed. Second Harvest has managed to continue business as usual, providing hundreds of thousands of meals a month via seven tractor trailers kept cold by a slew of constantly humming generators. Those generators need to be filled every 48 hours with several hundred dollars of fuel, adding to the expense of the accident.
The temporary solutions are not ideal, but it's kept the food coming to those who need it. Second Harvest stocks pantries for more than 300 agencies in 21 counties as well as feeding seniors and children nearby and on site.
"So many people depend on us," reminds Crouch. "Mothers tell me that they give a glass of water to their kids at night so their stomachs won't grumble and keep them awake."
One of the first to cover the freezer disaster was Meredith Ley, then a TV reporter with WSAV. Ley was deeply affected by how the loss of the cooling room could have meant serious issues for thousands of families in coastal Georgia.
"I couldn't believe what I saw when I got there. Everyone was running around trying to save this food so that people wouldn't go hungry the next day," recalls Ley.
"A freezer is everything to the food bank, and this isn't an organization that can pull out a check for a brand new one."
Ley returned several times in the following weeks to update viewers on emergency donations and area food drives. By the end of October, she had accepted a position as Second Harvest's Community Relations Coordinator.
"I was doing a story about how they were giving out cans of tuna instead of frozen meat and they had nothing left on the protein shelf," she says. "And someone made a comment that since I was around so much, maybe I should work here."
Ley sympathized with the economic plight of Second Harvest clients, having put herself through Kennesaw State with a variety of minimum wage jobs. After working in journalism for seven years, the 28-year-old had no problem making the leap into the non-profit world.
"As journalists, we see so many sad things, and it's hard not to take it to heart and become hardened," Ley says. "I feel like this is a tangible way to make a difference."
Her new position requires a multitude of hats, including event planning. For Saturday's benefit bash, she called on her old friends Carly Wiggins and Smith Mathews, who she met during college while working at Atlanta's Sweetwater Brewing. Wiggins and Mathews now own and operate Southbound Brewing Co. in Savannah, at long last open for tours and tastings. The business partners have donated their space plus plenty of beer for Raise the Roof.
In honor of Super Bowl weekend, Southbound's brews will be paired with finger foods from Wild Wing, tasty pies from Marco's Pizza and award-winning chili from Second Harvest's own Chef Floyd. A raffle for a new grill and a luxurious recliner round out the sports fan theme. Longtime Second Harvest sponsor Rives E. Worrell is providing commemorative tasting glasses, and the Accomplices will supply the soundtrack for the evening.
Crouch is sensitive to the many causes in Savannah and reiterates that less than five percent of Second Harvest's budget goes to administrative costs; the rest goes to feeding the hungry. She promises every dollar raised at Saturday's benefit will go straight to the freezer fund. She's happy to report that though the insurance bill is still outstanding, the paperwork has been pushed through and construction on the new 30,000 cubic foot freezer began last week.
"The plan is to have it finished by our annual 'Jewels and Jeans' event at the end of April, fingers crossed," says the eternally upbeat Crouch.
She also sees a silver lining in the freezer fiasco: Though last fall's tempest brought down the roof, the disaster has raised community awareness of just how tenuous Second Harvest's resources can be.
"When it first happened, everyone wanted to know how to help. Well, this is the way to help," instructs Ley.
"You also happen to get a really fun night out in exchange."