Jeff Ogus felt guilty taking off Labor Day. In more than a decade of driving a tractor-trailer for the Food Bank of Central & Eastern North Carolina, he has never taken a sick day, and until he had a fiancée to insist, he rarely took vacation.
So having a holiday in the middle of the food bank's relief efforts in the wake of Hurricane Irene just didn't sit right with the Knightdale man.
Last week, Ogus and other food bank drivers started shifts at 4 a.m. to get much-needed cleaning products, paper goods, snacks, diapers and water to the Raleigh-based food bank's eastern warehouses that continue to serve Irene's hardest-hitareas.
"We pick up and deliver the goods to the people who get it to those in need," Ogus said of the agency's drivers. "They don't see us, but we're the first line of offense. I know every day that what I'm doing, that 450,000 to 500,000 people in our 34-county service area can benefit from it."
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Nineteen of those counties have been declared federal disaster areas since Irene.
Food Bank President Peter Werbicki said the nonprofit agency had sent its first trucks eastward the day after the Aug. 27 hurricane. By Wednesday, the nonprofit had moved about 200,000 pounds of goods into the most-affected counties. At least through September, the food bank will focus on filling the need in coastal counties.
Werbicki said the agency needs the Triangle community's help so that it doesn't become a matter of "robbing Peter to pay Paul."
"The way this community can support the community Down East is by providing cleaning supplies, personal hygiene items, sort of quick and simple ready-to-eat meals," Werbicki said. "Healthy snacks, healthy juices and drinks would be very useful. Obviously, it's taken additional resources, additional trucking. Gas is so expensive. Financial donations would help us recover for the relief effort."
'Like a bomb went off'
Even when he's not in disaster mode, Ogus gases up his tractor-trailer about every three days, at a cost of $600 a pop. The food bank has two tractor-trailers and about 20 trucks in all.
Ogus, who routinely picks up and delivers donations around a circle that includes Charlotte, Boone, Elizabeth City, Wilmington, Fayetteville and Southern Pines, spent two days in New Bern last week but said nothing he has seen post-Irene compares with U.S. 301 north of Rocky Mount to Halifax: "It looks like a bomb went off up there."
With four more weather systems swirling around the Atlantic Ocean on Wednesday, keeping the N.C. Food Bank stocked has an urgency to it.
"We know here that September can be the time we get hit, and we're worried something could add on to this," Werbicki said.
On a typical day, Ogus leaves the Raleigh warehouse in the morning and drives to one of the agency's other five warehouses to distribute a load.
He then heads to another city where someone wants to donate goods and brings the donations to Raleigh. Last week, for instance, a trip to New Bern to unload hurricane relief supplies was followed by a stop in Wilson to pick up a load of canned yams donated by Bruce Foods to bring back to Raleigh.
Help needed every day
Ogus gets great personal satisfaction working for the food bank and has been impressed with how people have stepped up to help since the hurricane.
"There have been cars lined up outside the food bank to donate," he said. "If everyone just went online and gave $1 donation, what a difference we could make. ... But we need this every day, not just when a disaster strikes."
Helping with disasters like the hurricane in addition to maintaining the agency's usual regimen requires a huge logistical effort, Werbicki said.
"Getting the drivers and trucks around, replenishing or moving products around and moving loads out so the partner agencies we're working with can do their jobs - it's a lot," he said.
Ogus, who is in charge of the food bank's DOT compliance efforts and of training and testing new drivers, hasn't had to train many drivers because of employee turnover. People who work there love it, he said, and stay. But he has trained two additional drivers in three years.
"We're growing, and that's a bad thing. It means there's more need," he said.
"If we could somehow end hunger and put me out of a job, I'd sign up for unemployment tomorrow."