Disaster Heroes: Transcript

CHARLY ARNOLT/CARUSO: Hello, everybody. Welcome to this inspirational new podcast series entitled This Is How We Planet, brought to you by Nestlé Waters and iHeart. I'm your host, Charlie Arnolt, also known as WWE personality, Charlie Caruso. So, the question, how do we planet? And why is it important? I’ll tell you why: because Earth is it. It is our only address. There is no other home we can just skip off to if this one doesn't quite work out. It deserves and needs the best from us, all of us, and the only real way to help protect, preserve, or change it for the better, is to do it together.  
Now, each episode takes an in-depth look at the people, and the organizations, that make our planet a better place in ways big and small, in our communities, across our country and also around the world. We'll focus on areas such as disaster response, children and health, water stewardship, recycling and so much more. 

We also recognize Planet Heroes in each of these areas whose work goes above and beyond. And the best part: you, our listeners, will even have the chance to nominate your own Planet Hero to possibly be featured on a future episode. 

In this episode, we're going to focus on disaster heroes. When disaster strikes, water is one of the top needs for people and their communities. I'm going to be talking with several people whose organizations have come to the rescue, whether it be during natural disasters, the COVID-19 pandemic that we're currently experiencing or, even when water gets contaminated. We're going to discuss what it takes to make clean water available for everyone. 

First off, I'd like to welcome in Jamie Gaskin of the United way of Genesee County in Flint, Michigan. Back in 2014, the United Way of Genesee County played a major role in addressing the crisis of lead in the water of thousands of Flint's residents. It was an issue unlike any the United Way has ever faced. Chief Executive Officer Jamie Gaskin is going to tell us why a town of 100,000 lost access to something as basic as clean drinking water and how the United Way stepped in to tackle the problem. Jamie, thanks for joining This Is How We Planet. How are you?

JAMIE GASKIN: I'm super-excited to be here and really look forward to today's discussion.

CHARLY ARNOLT/CARUSO: We are thrilled to have you. Next up, I'd like to introduce Stacy Lamb. He's the Senior Director of U.S. Disaster Services at Convoy of Hope in Springfield, Missouri. Convoy of Hope is on the scene when disasters, such as hurricanes, floods and even COVID-19, strike. It is one of the first organizations to arrive to help residents who have lost everything - not only in our country, but in 18 others around the world. With the assistance of volunteers and other organizations, Convoy of Hope mobilizes to distribute food, supplies and more during the first critical weeks after the disaster. And most recently, Convoy of Hope has delivered more than 50 million meals in more than 46 states in response to COVID-19. And that is just up to this very point. So, Stacy, thank you so much for joining This Is How We Planet. How are you doing?

STACY LAMB: I'm doing great. Thanks for having me.

CHARLY ARNOLT/CARUSO: Thanks for being here. And last, but certainly not least, we have Emma Robbins. She is the director of Dig Deep’s Navajo Water Project, and a woman who is no stranger to making clean water available in a public health crisis. The lack of access to clean water and indoor plumbing is a problem that exists in the Navajo Nation every single day. COVID-19 only recently brought this to the public's attention though. Emma is going to share how Dig Deep is working to address these critical needs, now and in the future, because Dig Deep believes that every person everywhere should enjoy their human right to water. Emma, thanks for joining This Is How We Planet. How are you? 

EMMA ROBBINS: Hello. Excited to be here.

CHARLY ARNOLT/CARUSO: Awesome. I'm so happy now to finally have all four of us here to really create a compelling discussion and teach everybody about access to clean water and why it's so vital 365 days a year. So, with that, Stacy, I want to begin with you. You know, I think most people realize the importance of water, but why is the need for water especially important during times of disaster?

STACY LAMB: Well, as you know, after a major disaster, such as a hurricane or even a widespread tornado, many times infrastructure is impacted. Stores are closed; maybe stores are damaged. And so, people don't have that immediate access that they're used to - being able to go down to the local grocery store, whatever the case may be - to buy what they need. So, being able for Convoy of Hope as a disaster response organization, being able to bring clean water in times of disaster is key in the early recovery efforts. 

CHARLY ARNOLT/CARUSO: And I think something that we had spoken about before is, let's just take COVID-19 as an example, one of the key elements they say to avoid passing along the germs is to wash your hands for 30 seconds. But if you don't have clean water, you're not able to do that.

STACY LAMB: Yep, absolutely. And we saw the same kind of issues, as I'm sure everybody can remember, in the early days of COVID-19 when we saw shutdowns across the country. That's similar to us rolling into a disaster scenario. While the stores weren't damaged per se, they were closed. So, people weren't able to get out. And then on top of that, the ones that were open, you had a run on the stores, if you will. So, in a lot of cases, just like toilet paper and other things, water became hard to find early on. So again, water as an essential need is one of the first things to go, but also one of the first things that people need.

CHARLY ARNOLT/CARUSO: I think during times of crisis, people really come to realize just how important water is, because on a daily basis, most people tend to take it for granted. And Emma, I want to ask you about what people experience throughout your profession that you have noticed every day of the year, but also especially in times of disaster?

EMMA ROBBINS: Charly, you brought it up perfectly earlier when we just started out, which is if you don't have running water, how are you supposed to wash your hands for 30 seconds? That's the case for 30 percent of Navajos living on the Navajo Nation every single day. It's not only not having access to clean water; it's not having access to water, period. And it's something that, again, is every single day of the year. It's not just during COVID and you don't have water to cleanse. You don't have water to drink. And apart from physical health, that can really impact you mentally. 

CHARLY ARNOLT/CARUSO: Can you talk about that mental perspective?

EMMA ROBBINS: Of course. So, let's take school-aged children, for example. If somebody without running water wakes up, it's a lot more difficult to brush their teeth. It's a lot more difficult to wash their face and get ready. And when you're going to a school with other children who are able to do that in the morning, you don't feel like everyone else. And you know, there's also their parents to think about. So, they have to think about hauling water, which could either be from a watering point or going to a store and purchasing bottled water. And that is very difficult because you have to factor in the extra time to do that. That wears you down emotionally. You have to factor in the extra money that goes into gas and wear and tear on your vehicle. And it's something that you're thinking about 24/7. 

CHARLY ARNOLT/CARUSO: So, I think you're bringing up so many good points because I think that a lot of people just think of disasters as being weather-related. So Jamie, I want to direct this next question at you because what we're experiencing even right now during our current times with the pandemic and, you know, as Emma just mentioned, even little things go on on a day-to-day basis around the country, even the world, that people may not be aware of that may affect people's ability to go about their lives. What I want to ask you about what happened in Flint, because that was a major crisis that I think most everyone, at least, knew a little something about, and it was very severe. So, what did happen in Flint and how were you able to respond?

JAMIE GASKIN: Yeah, the situation with Flint is a lot different than the kind of disaster that happens because a storm rolls through or a flood happens. From the perspective that we can really look at what happened in Flint as a series of really human error, bad decision-making, disinvestment in infrastructure that really happened over a period of time. And it's really a disaster that very much could be prevented with really long term and thoughtful investment in the community. And when those things don't happen, you know, we kind of have this disaster that creeps up on us and that's happening to us without us even really understanding what's happening. And I think in the case of Flint, you know, we had this crumbling infrastructure, we had a water changeover from one of the Great Lakes to the river water, and during that exchange, where we moved to the river water, it's much more complicated to treat that water and it requires very specific phosphate treatment. When that wasn't done properly, it caused corrosion, it caused particulate matter to break off in those pipes. It caused serious exposure to not just lead, but lots of other biological problems. And so again, we really have a situation where it's really a different kind of disaster and people really experience it differently. And it really changes the level of trust that our residents have with the quality of water that they have. It does some long-term damage. It's not just the pipes that were damaged, it's really kind of our perception of where we get information and is it accurate? And, you know, is that water safe to drink? Is it ever going to be safe? 

CHARLY ARNOLT/CARUSO: So, where exactly does the lead come from and what effect did it have on these people's bodies?

JAMIE GASKIN: Sure. This is a corrosion problem inside the pipes. When you don't treat the water that's coming through, specifically river water, which is much more complicated to treat (and) needs a phosphate treatment to lower the corrosiveness. And what happened is, the more of this river water that flowed through the system without proper treatment, the more it corroded the interior of the pipes and thus, people are drinking what's breaking off inside those pipes, which includes particulate lead, as well as a whole host of other bacterial problems. So, we're essentially poisoning people slowly as that lead's absorbed into their body. And again, not just lead, but other bacterial problems where people had skin rashes, loss of hair. We had several people die related to Legionnaires' Disease. We had some pretty serious consequences long term for families, specifically children, that are developing and how this would affect the rest of their lives, quite frankly.

Flint's an old industrial community and we've not had the kind of investment in infrastructure across our country. Specifically, I would say in industrial kinds of communities that are older, that have less representative communities and quite frankly, in places like Emma is challenged with, where you're in a very, maybe rural or very far out of an urban setting, but there's just been not an investment. And especially where we have marginalized populations. And I think this is a really important fact that you're not going to see the Flint water crisis happen in a suburban community where there's more wealth and investment in that particular infrastructure. This is going to disproportionately hurt low-income communities where people are marginalized because they're not getting the attention that really they deserve to have a basic human need met. And I think we're all challenged by that. And COVID-19 points that out. We have a huge disparity around the social determinants of health and how that impacts people's livelihoods. And how do we bring equity to that situation so folks who are marginalized have the same access to the basic things that we assume everybody already has?

EMMA ROBBINS: You know, Jamie brought something up just now that's super-important, is that these are happening in marginalized communities and you know, Flint and the Navajo Nation are thousands of miles apart, and yet, we're still seeing this across the United States. And I think until the United States, Americans collectively, the government, other entities, whoever it may be, until we start to define lack of running water, lack of access to clean running water, lack of access to these basic things that keep us alive, until we start defining those as a crisis, a health crisis, this is going to continue. Because this was said earlier, which I thought was super-interesting, is, there are natural disasters that are created by Mother Earth and there are disasters that are created by humans. Well, humans, we have control over our actions, and we have control over things that happen in our communities. And so, I think it's really time to start educating the public, which is why I'm so excited about this podcast, about the importance of it. Because if you have something, you're not generally thinking about others who don't have it. It's not to say that you're selfish or anything like that, but…

CHARLY ARNOLT/CARUSO: We take it for granted.

EMMA ROBBINS: Exactly, we take it for granted. I mean, I'm sure many people listening to this have had their water company or their energy company have to shut off services for a couple of hours to be able to make repairs. 

CHARLY ARNOLT/CARUSO: And then we go crazy. 

EMMA ROBBINS: Exactly. I was going to say, I hate not having the water and it's just-super important. As someone who grew up on the reservation, I have seen this firsthand. I have never been to Flint, Michigan, but I can imagine again, that it's the exact same thing. No matter how many thousands of miles separate us, we're going through the same thing. And so, it's not just one tiny community in the United States or in any other part of the world, there are millions and millions and millions across the country and the world. And, it's really cool to be talking to all these different folks, my colleagues here, the other podcasters who are talking about these solutions, because not only are there problems, but there are solutions in these marginalized communities. And it just starts with bringing more attention. I think oftentimes, native nations and those living on reservations are pushed to the back burner. And it's really important to me, again, as someone from the reservation and as a Navajo woman, that we start having these conversations and banding together with our sisters and brothers who are experiencing similar things.

CHARLY ARNOLT/CARUSO: And, you know, you talk about just how many people do not have access to running water. That number is about two million Americans, which is unbelievable to even fathom. I don't think people are aware of that. And that number does include over 30 percent of the residents of the Navajo Nation, which spans the corners of Arizona, New Mexico and also Utah. And as we know, and you know specifically, this situation has made the Navajo Nation’s approximately 173,000 residents especially susceptible to the rapid spread of COVID-19, which is mind boggling to think about.

EMMA ROBBINS: Yeah, definitely. I mean, we had the highest rates of infection in the entire country for weeks. And again, like you just said, a lot of that is attributed to not having water. It's not just about not having the water to clean your hands. It's about the fact that you're leaving our nation, our sovereign nation, and going to stores that might be off the reservation that don't have as many strict guidelines. And you're exposing yourself. You know, it was mentioned earlier by Stacy, that we're seeing that these stores are closed or, you know, the stores might be open, but I think everyone else can agree or they've seen this before, is that there might be a limitation to the quantity of water that you're able to purchase.

So, let's say you're a Navajo family, you've traveled a hundred miles to get to the next border town. There are only 13 grocery stores on our reservation, which if we were a state, we'd be the tenth largest. Thirteen is not enough. And you're going off the reservation, you're in a crowded grocery store. Then you go home and you're living with a multigenerational household where there are many people who have to continue to go out to work and have to continue to make money. And, you know, that's how things are spreading. It’s not only lack of running water to wash your hands, but again, going out to search for that water. 

JAMIE GASKIN: I do think that it's important to point out that the rest of the world's been struggling with clean water for a long time. And the United States is quite behind in how we think about access to clean water. And when we talk to people from around the world, they've been very sensitive to water for a long time. Europeans certainly have experienced that, countries that are less developed have experienced that, but in the United States, we've taken it for granted. And quite frankly, when the Flint story broke nationally, people from around the world were shocked that in a place like America, people would not have access to clean water. And the reality is, as we pointed out, millions of people who are underrepresented in our community are marginalized, who don't have a voice to speak up for the kind of infrastructure they need to have, have been drinking water that's not safe for a long time. And it's really a challenge for us to think about this clean water as not a controversial subject. It's not a partisan issue. It's just simply what we need, you know, like healthy food and clean water, to survive. And it's really unfortunate that it's become politicized at times because we’ve really got to focus on everybody. Just like they need access to a fair and equitable education, they need access to clean water that can help sustain them, regardless of their income. 

CHARLY ARNOLT/CARUSO: Stacy, I want to get you in on the mix here. I know we've kind of talked about COVID-19 a bit in terms of being a disaster that people have had some issues accessing clean and running water. I know we've spoken about Flint. You have had the experience of responding to so many different disasters throughout the course of your career. Are there any that you can really recall that have been particularly severe and maybe have been affected, like we've been talking…they've been affected really by race and a wealth disparity in the area that you're responding to?

STACY LAMB: Well, it's interesting you asked that. I was just sitting here thinking as I was listening to my colleagues here talk about this. The one thing that we see over and over, and especially in situations such as flooding, it tends to be the same areas of a locality, municipality, whatever the case may be, will be susceptible to flooding year after year, time after time. And the folks tend to live in those areas tend to be the lower-income individuals in those communities. So, because of that, we tend to see that marginalized population affected, especially in flooding responses, over and over. So, we've responded to areas before where we've talked to folks, helping them clean out their home or providing them groceries or clean water, things like that, and they're telling us stories about how this is the third or the fourth time that their home has flooded in the last so-many years, and that they're just used to doing this over and over. So, you're absolutely right, we do see that in other scenarios, as well. 

And I would like to kind of tag onto what we were talking about with Flint. It's interesting, Flint came on our radar, in Flint, Michigan, the water crisis there, in January of 2016. And that's when, Jamie, I think it was kind of making the national news somewhere around that timeframe. And we spent the better part of 2016 there, working alongside many organizations there in Flint, helping provide clean water, along with partners like Nestlé Waters. But what we've seen since 2016 has been very interesting because we didn't really see this prior to that. And it could be that the national news of Flint really brought this to the surface. But since 2016, we've had numerous water crisis responses over the last four years since then. And they've been big and small. Most recently, a very large one just last fall. You might recall Newark, New Jersey, had quite the scare, not quite to the level of Flint, but their own level of water crisis there. And we sent numerous loads of bottled water to help the schools out in the particular ward that was affected. But again, the point that I'm making here, is we've seen over and over since 2016, numerous water events, and I think that the Flint crisis helped heighten that around the country. 

And I would like to kind of tag onto what we were talking about with Flint. It's interesting, Flint came on our radar, in Flint, Michigan, the water crisis there, in January of 2016. And that's when, Jamie, I think it was kind of making the national news somewhere around that timeframe. And we spent the better part of 2016 there, working alongside many organizations there in Flint, helping provide clean water, along with partners like Nestlé Waters. But what we've seen since 2016 has been very interesting because we didn't really see this prior to that. And it could be that the national news of Flint really brought this to the surface. But since 2016, we've had numerous water crisis responses over the last four years since then. And they've been big and small. Most recently, a very large one just last fall. You might recall Newark, New Jersey, had quite the scare, not quite to the level of Flint, but their own level of water crisis there. And we sent numerous loads of bottled water to help the schools out in the particular ward that was affected. But again, the point that I'm making here, is we've seen over and over since 2016, numerous water events, and I think that the Flint crisis helped heighten that around the country. 

CHARLY ARNOLT/CARUSO: I mean, this really, when you don't have access to running water, it's not something you can say, oh, we'll deal with it tomorrow. We'll deal with it next week. I mean, this really deserves a very rapid response.

STACY LAMB: Absolutely. Again, as I mentioned earlier, at the onset of a major disaster, you know, infrastructure is impacted, whether it's just closed or whatever the case may be. And the first thing that people need is water. In our COVID response, in the opener, in our introduction you mentioned about our million meals campaign that we've been doing around the country. It's interesting that the very first load that we send out - our campaign is up to nearly 2,000 loads around the country, literally all over the United States. March 17th, four and a half months ago, the very first load that we sent out was a full load of bottled water because that was the very first thing that was requested as everything was starting to shut down and people were starting to see what could happen here, water was the first thing that we needed to get out the door.

CHARLY ARNOLT/CARUSO: And these are efforts that, you know, you each work for very respectable organizations that do so much for the community, especially in times of disaster, but obviously like we saw, for example, in Flint. Jamie, I know you touched on this for a second, there was, it became national news where people decided we need to step up. We need to help out in this effort to help the residents of Flint because of what they're going through. So, how important is it to collaborate with others when it comes to disaster response? And how do you go about that outreach? 

JAMIE GASKIN: Well, I think first and foremost, in the case of Flint, it was really the nonprofit community and the community itself demanding that there was change, right? And so, there was a knitting together outside of a normal disaster response, as much help as we could bring into this community as quickly as possible. And it was critical that all the partners came to play, that we had corporate partners delivering semis of water. We had partners, like they're here on the show today, you know, delivering water and bringing nutrition. And everybody just did whatever it could take until we had a real true acknowledgement from the state of Michigan, quite frankly, and then allowing the federal government to trigger, and so forth. 

STACY LAMB: So, in regard to the disaster response community, especially as we respond to disasters all over the country, collaboration is key. We're all better together. And when we can work alongside partners, either local partners in the community or other national organizations, or combination of both, we're able to do more and help more people. And obviously, in major disasters, major hurricanes and other things like that, it takes everybody coming together. Not any one organization can do everything, not Convoy of Hope, not United Way, not anybody. It takes all of us working together to help those that have been affected in times of disaster. And we see it all the way through, from the early response phases, all the way into the long-term recovery phases, as people are rebuilding. That can take years. 

JAMIE GASKIN: I'd add to Stacy's thoughts that people from all around the world basically sent resources to Flint, from very small donations to very large donations. We were really sort a community surrounded by love of the rest of the world. And I think this speaks to our responsibility, quite frankly, to other disasters and other parts of the world, as well. You know, when we have challenges that happen every day, whether it's here in the United States or elsewhere, when the world kind of comes together around these disasters, the results can be quite amazing. And those are opportunities for us to be stronger together rather than divided, as it seems like we find ourselves in so many instances.

CHARLY ARNOLT/CARUSO: Absolutely. And just speaking on Convoy of Hope, I see here that 11+ million pounds of relief supplies delivered domestically in 2019 on behalf of the organization, as well as 20,000+ volunteer hours in 2019. Stacy, that's incredible. And Jamie, I have to imagine in the case of Flint, you saw, I won't say the same numbers, but similar efforts. I even know that I worked at a news station in Indianapolis at the time and one of our anchors was a Flint native. So, she was spearheading an effort to have all of us and the Indianapolis community work together to get supplies to be sent that way. So, I know that it would really reach every corner of the nation. 

CHARLY ARNOLT/CARUSO: Absolutely. And just speaking on Convoy of Hope, I see here that 11+ million pounds of relief supplies delivered domestically in 2019 on behalf of the organization, as well as 20,000+ volunteer hours in 2019. Stacy, that's incredible. And Jamie, I have to imagine in the case of Flint, you saw, I won't say the same numbers, but similar efforts. I even know that I worked at a news station in Indianapolis at the time and one of our anchors was a Flint native. So, she was spearheading an effort to have all of us and the Indianapolis community work together to get supplies to be sent that way. So, I know that it would really reach every corner of the nation. 

STACY LAMB: Yeah, absolutely. We see it over and over, whether it be the local faith community or local civic organizations, or a combination of both organizations that come in from the outside. Everybody working together to help people recover there in times of disaster. 
And Charlie, if I could add onto what you just mentioned about those stats a while ago. That was from our 2019, just started disaster responses in 2019, but to put our COVID response in perspective, it's unlike anything that we've ever done before. In the last four and a half months of our COVID response, we're over 36 million pounds of resources delivered all over the United States. So, it's just been pretty phenomenal what we've been able to do this year. And we're not able to do it without partners that we have all over the country. And one of those would be Nestlé Waters.

CHARLY ARNOLT/CARUSO: And Emma, I want to get your take on collaboration. I want to ask you about how critical, in your opinion, in your experience, these collaborative efforts have been when an organization such as Dig Deep partners with others around the country, maybe the world, to provide relief to these communities that need it in times of disaster?

EMMA ROBBINS: Yeah, definitely. Collaboration is key. You know, I think previously we've seen that people are consentful but not collaborative, right? And it's not about an organization from the outside coming in and solving problems or implementing solutions without consulting with the communities first. Dig Deep is a long-term water access project. We don't generally do relief work. Outside of COVID-19, I personally have never done relief work or working with mutual aid groups. And so, I and my team have had to very heavily rely on those who are on the ground and from the communities. And we've been able to act so quickly, and I'd like to say so successfully, because we've been working closely with community health representatives who are able to identify COVID-positive patients or those who are at high risk. And working with them has ensured that we've been able to get these individuals what they need, which is water, the quickest and the safest, and again, in the most sustainable way.

CHARLY ARNOLT/CARUSO: So, we talk about how important these collaborative efforts are during a time of crisis, during a disaster. But what about after these disasters, or whatever's going on, seem to have dissipated? There's still obviously a need to keep these efforts going, I would imagine.

JAMIE GASKIN: I'll jump on that because we're almost six years out from the initial Flint water crisis situation. And three days a week, Nestlé Waters brings semi-trucks into our community and people line up for blocks and blocks and blocks to still pick up water. You know, when a disaster strikes, normally that emergency operation center is going to function in that disaster for a couple of years after the disaster happens and that's why it's important that we've got partners that stick with us over the long haul. I think that's important.

STACY LAMB: Yeah. And if I could jump in there, as well. I mentioned a few minutes ago the phrase long-term recovery. We see that after the early response phase is done after a disaster, that maybe infrastructure is back up and running and early-response organizations are winding down and heading back, demobilizing, the long-term recovery efforts are just starting. And all of those people that were affected, whether they lost their home to a hurricane or had been flooded, or whatever the case may be, it's a long time and can be years before people are fully recovered and back to where they were before the disaster. So, you're absolutely right. The recovery efforts go on for months, if not years.

CHARLY ARNOLT/CARUSO: So, I'm curious what people can do before, during, even after a disaster, to help ensure that they have a safe water supply. And Jamie, I'll have you start here.

JAMIE GASKIN: Yeah, I mean, when we were asked, “What can we do to help Flint,” my first response was always first make sure your kid's water is safe in your own school because this was a bigger problem than just Flint. Flint just triggered people taking a much closer look at the water quality. So, I think first and foremost, folks need to be informed about the water in their own community and make sure it's safe in their community. And then, quite frankly, we need to take the step around equity in water being available in a safe way across our entire country. But I really think the first step is, let's make sure our water is safe in our own communities, and then let's bring that equity across the country to help folks. 

STACY LAMB: I'm going to come at this from a disaster response standpoint, and I'm going to reference the website ready.gov and from a preparedness standpoint. Because when we're not responding to disasters, we talk a lot about preparedness, and we do preparedness trainings and things like that for folks around the country. And one of the main things that you can do is be prepared and have water on hand. Ready.gov, at a basic emergency supply, recommends that you have a minimum of one gallon per person per day for at least three days. Well, for a family of four, that's 12 gallons of water. I would venture to say, it doesn't sound like a lot, but I would venture to say that there's probably not very many people listening to this podcast right now that actually have 12 gallons of water on hand stored and ready to go in an emergency situation. So, being prepared, having that preparedness kit and especially as it relates to water, having that ready to go so that you can at least get through those first three days in a disaster scenario.

EMMA ROBBINS: Yeah. I mean, just branching off of what Stacy said, I grew up with always knowing that I should have two gallons on hand for myself. But it's good to hear that statistic, Stacy, and I'm like looking around my house, making sure that I'm going to start doing that right after we get off the phone, especially because I'm terrified of earthquakes here in LA. But, you know, I think really just having those things on hand because so often, again getting back to this idea of what we take for granted, we don't realize generally and collectively that disasters can hit anyone and everyone.

CHARLY ARNOLT/CARUSO: And I know in our preliminary discussions between the four of us, one key theme that I heard every one of you mention, was that water is equivalent to life. And I think that when people are preparing for a disaster - hopefully it doesn't strike - but if it should, water is the one thing that really should be on the top of your list.

JAMIE GASKIN: You know, I would add and think about. Water is also a unique challenge to get to a population, right? Water is heavy. Water can be difficult to open. Folks who can't get out of their own homes because of health issues can't easily get in the car and go get it, right? It has to be dropped off and brought in people's houses and sometimes poured in a way that people can consume it. We talked about community collaboration. In order to get water to 30,000 houses, dozens and dozens of churches were activated and delivering water to people's homes. It really is a challenge to get these basic needs out. And I know that replays itself in other disasters with other kinds of resources, whether it's food, but we really have populations that are challenged during these times. And it really does bring community together to literally go door to door to help people when they're in times of crisis.

CHARLY ARNOLT/CARUSO: And something else that I wanted to ask you about. You had mentioned that people should be aware about what type of water they're drinking, if it's safe or not. But how do you know what's in your water? How do you know if it's safe?

JAMIE GASKIN: Well, you test your water. And I think that's what people have to get used to, is sort of a little bit of a self-reliance on getting a test kit, sending it in and understanding what's in your water. But we really encourage people to go to your local health department, get a test kit, find a place where you can get that water tested that you trust and send it in. And give yourself a little bit of peace of mind and just be vigilant about that.

CHARLY ARNOLT/CARUSO: Now, my final question is directed at everyone. You all have such different experiences, all working towards similar goals, but are there any important lessons that each of you have learned through these experiences that you'd like to share in order to help others understand more clearly why these issues are so serious? Or things that people can do to help the planet move in a direction where things are able to improve for all of us in terms of water and also other resources?

STACY LAMB: I think one of the things that I would say is, from all standpoints of disaster response, is a lot of us come in from other areas. For instance, Convoy of Hope, we're based in Missouri, and we're going to travel to wherever that disaster may be. One of the things that is important to us and our team, is to really understand and serve the folks that are impacted by disaster and serve them well. Listen to their stories, understand what they're going through and help them get through that. Not just handing out food or water or whatever the case may be, but really take the time to listen and just help people, whether emotionally or whatever the case may be, get through, just being a listening ear to help people get through what it is that they're facing at that moment. 

I would also say, too, this is a little bit different, but I think probably everybody would agree with this. I think it's important, as we see across the country, as we've been talking about nonprofit organizations, is to encourage people to volunteer and get involved and help whatever organization, whether locally, nationally, whatever the case may be. But to get involved and help people in your community, whether it's with water needs like this or whatever cause that you can get behind, just to help people out. I just think that's an important piece and an important way for people to help their fellow man. 

JAMIE GASKIN: I'll piggyback a little bit on that, too. People in disasters are not just victims, right? These are people that live in that space that's been impacted. They deserve to be treated with dignity and respect and be heard. You know, it's very challenging because in a disaster, we need everybody there. But it's not about rescuing a victim. It's about working collaboratively and treating that community with the dignity and respect they deserve and allowing the solution to be developed in that community with those community members, not just coming in and rescuing them. Because that doesn't work, right? It really works and we find solution when those solutions are developed with that community really taking the lead and helping leverage all those other resources, as opposed to the outside coming in and fixing a place.

EMMA ROBBINS: I totally agree with what Stacy and Jamie said. Everybody's role and part is important. And whatever your role or part might look like, you are a valuable person and do what you can, whether that's donating, educating, posting things on social media, staying at home, calling your neighbor and checking in on them. I think it's really important to know that there's not just one type of way to help. 

CHARLY ARNOLT/CARUSO: I think these are all incredible points. I think that we all need to make sure we're putting our efforts toward a common goal and that is sustaining the planet, sustaining our resources and making sure we do our best to keep everybody safe. So, thank you so much for all of that insight. 

So, this episode has just touched on a few of the dedicated organizations and also the individuals, our true disaster heroes, who go above and beyond in times of need. So, a big thank you again to each one of our guests, Jamie Gaskin, Stacy Lamb and Emma Robbins. I hope they have inspired all of you as much as they have me. 

And now, we would like to single out one special person whose personal commitment and that of her organization, the Food Bank of Eastern Michigan, not only met the needs in times of disaster, but provide lifesaving services every single day. So, I am honored to feature our PLANET HERO, the president and CEO of the Food Bank of Eastern Michigan, Kara Ross. 

Kara tirelessly oversees the food bank's annual distribution of more than 29 million pounds of food throughout its statewide network of over 700 hunger relief partners in 22 counties, other partner agencies, community organizations and schools. Each year the food bank serves more than 333,000 people of all ages. And this ranges from children to senior citizens.

I recently spoke all about it with Kara, so let’s hear why she is so passionate about her work and what makes her a PLANET HERO.

Kara, you devote your life to helping others. I mean, I think just by your credentials, your past experiences, doing so many different things throughout your work, has just really shown why you are so deserving of being our PLANET HERO. So, I wanted to say congratulations and also thank you.

KARA ROSS: Well, thank you. I really appreciate the honor.

CHARLY ARNOLT/CARUSO: Absolutely. So, my first question for you is, how has the food bank grown from a grassroots organization that started in 1981 to one that distributes millions of pounds of food throughout the state every single year?

KARA ROSS: Well, it really is incredible. And I give most of the credit to our network. We have so many amazing people that not only donate to the food bank, but they do the work daily in their neighborhoods. We've grown from serving just Genesee County to now serving 22 counties in the state of Michigan. So, we do that with over 700 partners and programs. And most of them are volunteers that come together to help feed their neighbors and be available to provide just hunger relief and support and hope to neighbors that need help during difficult times.

CHARLY ARNOLT/CARUSO: And difficult times, really the only way to look at it, they happen all year long. But there are certain times, it's certain periods of time, whether it's one year, over the course of a decade, whatever it might be, that it's more of a disastrous situation. Tell us about your work in Flint and also the challenges you've had even now with COVID-19 and how they're different in those times of disaster.

KARA ROSS: Well, really, I think the food bank, again, the network that we have and the community that we have, we're really a group that can pull people together to work on an issue or an emergency. And we did a lot with the Flint water crisis. The residents here are facing just a whole lot of uncertainty and need. During that time, we helped with the water distribution and getting water out, bottled water out to residents. And we helped convene a lot of the groups that came together to create new ideas, like the community help centers and getting fresh fruits and vegetables and nutrition out to young children who were affected by lead, trying to mitigate those effects of lead on the body. And now with COVID similarly, not only do we just have one county that's facing an emergency, all of our 22 counties, all of our state, and our nation is facing this challenge that comes with the COVID pandemic. So, having relief with extra food and resources in each and every community, is a primary focus for us right now. And making sure we're doing distribution safely. We're setting up mobile food sites, sorting and reloading food into trucks and trunks, and helping people drive away with the resources that they need through our partner agencies.

CHARLY ARNOLT/CARUSO: And you talk about these counties need more resources at a time like this, but in fact, a lot of resources are pretty scarce right now. You go to different stores and it's tough to find toilet paper and paper towels on the shelves, bottled water. So, how has COVID-19, what challenges has it presented for you and those at the food bank?

KARA ROSS: Well really, since mid-March, our team's been great about shifting every month or so really, to see where the food is at, where can we get resources into our region, fresh produce from as far away as Texas and North Carolina, states that were growing it before the Michigan harvest season came into play. And then working with Michigan farmers and other relationships outside of just relying on donated food product. We do buy a lot of food, as well, to share within our network.  We've been able to distribute almost 95 percent more. We're double what we were doing last year in the same time period. So, since mid-March, we've distributed over 26 million pounds of food. And last year, for 12 months we distributed 29 million. So, we're just really moving food at a remarkable rate. We're getting it out to counties and neighbors that need it. And what's still sad to say, is in some of the counties and some of the areas we go to with mobile food pantries, it's still not enough. And there's still people that are lined up at the end of that food distribution that still need help from their community. So that's why we keep doing what we're doing, and we keep pushing for hunger relief. There shouldn't be families that worry about feeding their children, senior citizens that may not have family still living here. You know, checking on your neighbor and making sure that people have what they need is so important during this time. And then again, doing it safely and going with guidelines that keep everybody safe for food safety and for the concerns of the pandemic, really important during this time.

CHARLY ARNOLT/CARUSO: It's obvious by talking to you that you're so, so passionate about what you do. But what is it, whether it's a past experience or something that just inside of you, that makes you this passionate?

KARA ROSS: Well, what really captured my heart, probably really early on in this career path, having done internships for nonprofits and done some other community work in the past, I always knew I would work in nonprofit or that I would seek out something that I felt I was in service to the community and part of the solutions that need to take place with neighbor and neighbor working together. So, the passion that I really am always inspired about, is just the hope that comes from people collaborating and working together and having really honest dialogue and conversation. You know, people holding themselves with integrity and value is what we see all the time in our network. When you have volunteers that are from faith-based communities and neighborhoods and community work, it's hard not to be inspired by how much they do and how much they give of themselves to their neighbors.

CHARLY ARNOLT/CARUSO: Well, Kara, thank you so much for being part of that solution. I know that everybody realizes how important your role is and is very thankful for someone like you to be in the position you're in. So, thank you so much and congratulations again on being our PLANET HERO.

KARA ROSS: Well, thank you. I really appreciate it and the time to talk to you today.

CHARLY ARNOLT/CARUSO: Thank you so much, Kara, for inspiring all of us to be our own planet heroes. And thank you to our disaster heroes, the guests, for sharing the good work that they do, not just in times of disaster, but every single day of the year. They truly make the planet a better place for all of us. 
Now, do you know someone who is a PLANET HERO? How have they made your community or state a better place to live? We would love to hear about them and the work that they do. You can nominate them at www.ThisIsHowWePlanet.com and we may feature them on a future episode. 
If you would also like to learn more about the people and organizations featured on this episode, please visit www.ThisIsHowWePlanet.com. You can also find some helpful tips on how you can be best prepared if a disaster should strike in your area. 
Now, we hope you enjoyed the discussion as much as we did. So, thank you so much for joining us. And we look forward to having you with us again for future episodes of This Is How We Planet. Until next time, I'm your host, Charlie Arnolt. And This Is How We Planet.