Susan O’Dwyer of Alpharetta shows off donated items for victims of Hurricane Michael. She has been leading such humanitarian efforts since 2005. CONTRIBUTED
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

This Life: Looking for ways to help victims of Hurricane Michael?

News reports described Hurricane Michael as the worst storm to hit the Florida Panhandle, leaving untold leveled buildings, power outages, thousands of homeless and at least 36 deaths across several states in its wake.

It didn’t take much of an imagination for Susan O’Dwyer to picture what the trail of destruction might look like and, more importantly, how she could help ease the suffering it had caused.

“I fell into humanitarian logistics before I even knew there was a name for it,” she says.

Channel 2's Mark Winne is with the convoy which will deliver supplies to south Georgia following Hurricane Michael.

It was a trial by fire that began in 2005, when Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast and a friend reached out for help. Hundreds of thousands of people had evacuated New Orleans with no place to go.

O’Dwyer and her Alpharetta neighborhood opened their homes to nearly 200 people.

“We thought it was just for Labor Day weekend,” she remembered. “They wound up living with us for months.”

O’Dwyer sent out a desperate plea for help, and every day during those months, trucks pulled up packed full of boxes of clothing, shoes, diapers, everything imaginable from people all over the country.

“It was pretty crazy,” she said. “Our house looked like we were getting ready to film an episode of ‘Hoarders.’”

That was O’Dwyer’s first experience with humanitarian logistics.

But it wouldn’t be her last.

On April 27, 2011, an EF4 tornado decimated parts of Tuscaloosa, Ala., where O’Dwyer’s son, James, was wrapping up his freshman year at the University of Alabama.

If anyone needs a place to stay, you bring them here, O’Dwyer told her son in a text message when it was all over.

James arrived later that day with four classmates.

RELATED | How strong was Hurricane Katrina?

What happened next was chronicled in this newspaper, but long story short, the O’Dwyers’ property filled again with donations — enough to fill 10 semitrailer trucks, and that’s only because she stopped counting at 10.

“It made you so proud to be American,” she said.

Shoeboxes containing donated goods bear messages (front) as James O’ Dwyer (upper right) leads an effort to collect and load goods on an 18-wheeler at the Home Depot in Alpharetta after a tornado hit Alabama in 2011. CURTIS COMPTON / CCOMPTON@AJC.COM
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Something was shifting in Susan O’Dwyer. If she didn’t know this was her calling, the people she worked for at the accounting firm Aprio did.

They’d been watching her and were impressed.

And so when Hurricane Maria struck in September 2017, the partners asked O’Dwyer if she might work her magic on behalf of a physician and client in St. Thomas.

“He was performing emergency surgeries in a parking lot because the hospital wasn’t standing anymore,” she recalled. “He needed water, refrigerated insulin, medical and cleaning supplies, scrubs, clothing.”

O’Dwyer sent an email out to the same list she’d used to get help for Tuscaloosa. Only this time, she needed an airplane. Thirty minutes later, she had one along with tons of medical supplies and other items.

But she soon learned it’s a whole lot easier to move stuff to Tuscaloosa than to an island.

O’Dwyer ended up renting a U-Haul to transport the stash to a cargo ship leaving Fort Lauderdale for St. Thomas, but when they arrived at the dock, there were 70 trucks ahead of them. There was no way they’d make it. Plus the medicine they were sending would not survive another day without refrigeration.

But hold on.

They walked to the front of the line. The first dockworker they spoke to was in control of which loads went first. He was a native of St. Thomas.

As he’d done many times before, the “big man upstairs” had already made a way.

RELATED | Dunwoody resident remembers night 1998 tornado destroyed her home

If you know what happened next, you know there is no way O’Dwyer or Aprio could ignore the looming need in the Florida Panhandle.

Each week, Gracie Bonds Staples will bring you a perspective on life in the Atlanta area. Life with Gracie runs online Tuesday, Thursday and alternating Fridays.
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

You see, Aprio was founded by two Jewish men in 1952 when they realized large accounting firms weren’t willing to hire them because of their ethnicity.

Despite the community not always supporting them, helping others has always been a core part of Aprio because, well, tikkun olam, Hebrew for repair the world, is central to the Jewish faith.

And so naturally they wanted to help the people of Florida, too.

They know from experience what people need. Water. Wipes and hand sanitizer. Diapers. Canned food, especially peanut butter for protein. Household cleaning supplies — mops, brooms, garbage bags of all sizes, Lysol. Paper plates, towels, plastic utensils. Tarps large enough to cover roofs. Gift cards of any kind, but mainly Home Depot/Lowe’s. Gas containers. Heavy work gloves. Toiletries.

O’Dwyer, Aprio’s director of community relations, has never even been to the Florida Panhandle, but she lies awake at night thinking what if. What if she awakened one day and there were no schools or hospitals or stores left standing in her neighborhood, city, state? What if she had no way to shower or flush the toilet?

She doesn’t even know anyone there, but maybe you do. Maybe you have a favorite vacation spot or worked for years to save for a vacation home there.

“These places are special to us, both for the people and the memories of vacations and family celebrations,” O’Dwyer said. “Now they need us.”

She doesn’t dwell on it, but O’Dwyer hopes she never forgets how much people in Florida have lost.

More than anything, she said, she hopes she never grows tired of trying to fulfill that Jewish tenet, tikkun olam — repair the world.

Here’s our chance to help.

Find Gracie on Facebook (www.facebook.com/graciestaplesajc/) and Twitter (@GStaples_AJC) or email her at gstaples@ajc.com.

TO MAKE DONATIONS

9 a.m.-5 p.m. Oct. 30. Home Depot, 5300 Windward Parkway, Alpharetta, and Lowe’s, 5925 Roswell Road, Sandy Springs.

At other times: Sue O’Dwyer, 12725 Bethany Road, Alpharetta, 404-384-9940; Dan Mallory, 211 E. Parkwood Road, Decatur, 404-729-1685.

Monetary contributions:

Make checks payable to the Aprio Foundation. C/O Melisa Beauchamp, 5 Concourse Parkway, Suite 1000, Atlanta, GA 30328. squareup.com/store/TheAprioFoundation.

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