On Monday, May 2, technology consultant Jas Panesar heard, like everyone else in Canada, that Wood Buffalo was under mandatory evacuation. The first thought to run through his head was, “Fort McMurray is coming to Edmonton.” When the downtown resident arrived at his 104 St. office, he turned to Sam Jenkins, who works from the Unit B Co-Working Space with Panesar, for help with what was to come. “Well,” replied Jenkins, “what do we do?”
Determined to be of some value to the emergency response eforts, they started sifting through their networks. For three days, they pestered Northlands—the central emergency shelter for the tens of thousands of evacuees—but kept getting the same response: they weren’t needed. Anywhere. Astonished and discouraged, the young professionals felt stuck. That’s when they saw a problem with the relief effort itself: The system lacked the organization to effectively use the resources available to it. Ever the IT guys, they set out to fix it.
It dawned on Panesar first. Walking home one evening, he noticed a barbecue on the typically empty sidewalk outside of the Edmonton Emergency Relief Services Society (EERSS) headquarters. An insufficient meal was being grilled for the relief effort volunteers inside. Prior to then, Panesar had hardly acknowledged EERSS, just two blocks north of his office, and thought it was just a tiny thrift shop. The door, after all, was always shut. Now, for the first time, it was open and he saw that it was filled to the doorway with bags and boxes of donations. It buzzed with people run of their feet. We can feed the volunteers, realized Panesar, peering inside.
He offered this service to EERSS volunteer Lloyd Skinner and was taken up on it. But when Panesar and Jenkins met Skinner, there was a change of plans. Skinner explained, “We just got the keys to an airplane hangar at the International Airport and people are working there 24/7.” In a matter of two days, the EERSS had grown from five part-time staff to 1,500 volunteers.
With a $17,000 operating budget funded by a single grant, plus modest revenue from its 104 St. thrift shop, the EERSS was built for small disasters. If a family’s house burns down, for instance, they can depend on the EERSS for toothbrushes, clean clothes and pillows. The 30-year-old charity was a big help on Black Friday, in 1987, when Canada’s deadliest tornado caused $330 million in Edmonton property damage, and again after the Slave Lake Fire in 2011. But those paled in comparison to the Fort Mac wildfires, which displaced 88,000 people. Still, EERSS was determined not to turn away a single one.
By Saturday, May 7, Panesar and Jenkins entered a hangar filled with thousands of boxes, hundreds of people and utter chaos. Nobody was in charge and it was completely self-organized. Everyone was a stranger to everyone. “We have to find food. And lots of it,” Panesar told his friend and colleague. They made one call to a pizzeria and 50 free pies were on their way. Subway soon became involved too. Another call to the Sikh Temple in Millwoods—which had an industrial-sized kitchen—and they were feeding over 1,500 people a dozen donuts at a time. But that was one day. Skinner asked them to commit to seven more days of coordinating meals for volunteers. The partners looked at each other and with little more than a nod agreed to put their companies on hold. (They each operate separate startups; Jenkins is co-founder of Wellnext Inc. and Panesar the CEO of NewEngage.)
New EERSS relief sites were popping up daily: a south-side warehouse filled with donations within eight hours, as did the Sikh temple and an old and emptied Target at Kingsway Mall. At each venue, donations of clothing, bedding, toiletries and more had to be received, organized, re-palletized and sent out. Every individual truck had to be loaded and unloaded by hand. “People were showing up and saying, ‘Just put me to work,’” recalls Panesar. And they all had to be fed. After two weeks, over 6,000 volunteers were working for the EERSS at a time, and over 20,000 meals—all donated through the young entrepreneurs’ contacts—had been served.
“It was unbelievable,” says Panesar. “Food was way beyond the scope of what I had imagined, and at times we felt like we weren’t doing enough. But we quickly recognized that armies march on their stomachs.” Jenkins adds, “In order to keep people going we needed to keep them fed.”
As it were, coordinating food was just the beginning. The charity didn’t have the funds for an operation of that size. While the donation reception and distribution tried to run smoothly, food had to be supplied, delivered, disposed of due to lack of refrigeration and replenished. Panesar and Jenkins made the latter possible but call it a “small contribution” compared to the bigger story. Before the first dollar arrived to support its ballooning efforts, the EERSS had already catalogued and served over 57,000 evacuees.
Imagine 57,000 toothbrushes in a room. Now picture 57,000 of everything else you would need if you were forced to flee your home. That’s how many donations it took, that’s how many items had to be coordinated. Working as efficiently as possible, volunteers listed requests for specific donations, like diapers and pillows, on a poster board with a sharpie, photographed it and posted the image on Facebook. And to run the equivalent of a 24-hour business, with 6,000 rotating employees and little to no permanent management or scheduling, the IT friends used WhatsApp and 10 strategically-shared tablets that were donated to them by Microsoft on request. “
We witnessed the purest form of humanity during that time,” says Jenkins.
“Edmonton, as the integrated and whole community I know it to be, was completely represented through this,” adds Panesar. Sadly, despite the Edmonton Emergency Relief Services Society’s valiant efforts, it’s struggling to survive. Its lease expired on Oct. 31 and the provincially owned building, now up for sale, was deemed “at the end of its life” by the Alberta Infrastructure Minister. Though the agency can stay put until there’s a “sold” sticker on the For Lease sign, the organization that helped thousands of Fort McMurrians who lost their homes could have its roles reversed and be homeless itself.