Street Talk: Water, water everywhere — and lots of sandbags, too


Last week’s unprecedented 1,500-volunteer sandbag effort in support of the city of Grand Rapids’ Environmental Services Department was essentially organized over the course of a one-story stair climb following Mayor George Heartwell’s first emergency press conference at City Hall, and later deployed from the back of a speaker hall.

Two staffers from West Michigan Environmental Action Council were in the audience: Policy Director Nicholas Occhipinti, the author of WMEAC’s report on storm-water management last year, and Member Services Director (and former GRBJ reporter) Daniel Schoonmaker, a veteran of seven Grand River clean-ups and former coordinator for WMEAC’s rain-barrel program, which uses ESD facilities for storage.

Upon hearing the wastewater treatment plant was being fortified to protect the city from what was considered a worst-case scenario, Occhipinti asked City Sustainability Director Haris Alibasic if there would be an opportunity to get some volunteers involved. Alibasic thought that a dozen or so extra hands might be helpful, and a list of citizens ready to respond in the event of a true catastrophe couldn’t hurt.

As he walked the WMEAC duo down to City Manager Greg Sundstrom’s office to endorse the idea, Schoonmaker explained they had 400 volunteers already on hand as a result of cancelling the Third Annual Grand River Green Up a few hours earlier (rescheduled to June 1). They were also familiar with the facilities and staff that would be running the sandbag operation. While Alibasic and Sundstrom had low expectations, the WMEAC team was convinced there would be a strong response.

WMEAC received a request for approximately 30 volunteers a few hours later while staffing the 17th Annual Wege Speaker Series at Aquinas College, featuring children’s environmental health expert Marie Lynn Miranda. An initial request was made to event attendees, and an online sign-in form, e-mail campaign and social media posts were set up in the back of the auditorium with the use of an iPhone and Google Chromebook.

That night, WOOD TV8 ran a feature story on the volunteer request, and Occhipinti went to bed after texting ESD Director Mike Lunn to expect at least 40 volunteers at 8 a.m., with another 150 on standby. Schoonmaker, meanwhile, had gone home to discover that his own basement had taken on several inches of water during the day, and was disengaged until being woken up the next morning by a call from PR consultant Ginny Seyferth seeking information on behalf of her clients who wanted to help out.

By 9:30 a.m. Friday, WMEAC had organized three shifts of approximately 150 sandbag volunteers, each with the team-leader system used at its Grand River clean-ups. The sandbag goal had grown overnight from approximately 6,000 to 70,000, (eventually, 170,000). By that afternoon, when Schoonmaker joined Heartwell at the second flood press conference, WMEAC and city staff had made plans to open a second site to accommodate additional volunteers Saturday and Sunday.

Volunteer groups came from all walks of life, including contingents from the region’s Amish and Spanish-speaking communities, and as far away as Detroit and Indiana.

Boston Strong

Fifth Third Bank is the “Exclusive Event Underwriter” of the Energize Your Business conference the Grand Rapids Area Chamber is putting on May 7 at DeVos Place, so Andrea M. Rowland of the bank’s marketing department called to say that “it’s not just the average business conference.”

It’s a day-long event, billed as the first of what may become an annual event geared at helping entrepreneurs and business ventures get started and/or grow, according to Rowland. The chamber is predicting 500 people will attend, with the list of sponsors (besides Fifth Third) including Meijer, Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan, The Windquest Group, Priority Health, Lacks Enterprises, Pure Michigan, Haworth, Integrated Strategies, Saint Mary’s Health Care, Custer, Clear Channel, OnSite Wellness, Rockford Construction, Open Systems Technologies, Warner Norcross & Judd, WilliamCharles Search Group, Owen-Ames-Kimball and Truscott-Rossman.

In addition to breakout sessions where useful information will flow, there will be three nationally known motivational speakers at Energize: sportscaster Dick Vitale, Rebecca Ryan of Next Generation Consulting, and John Jacobs of Life is Good.

Boston’s Jacobs may prove to be the most interesting. In 1989, he and his brother, Bert Jacobs, designed their first T-shirt. In 1994, still struggling, they put a corny drawing of John’s huge grin on 48 T-shirts and sold the whole batch in one morning at a Boston street fair.

Today, Life is Good is a famous label in clothes and other goods, and the brothers donate a significant share of their profits to charity to help kids. Their corporate motto: Spread Optimism.

They are selling T-shirts now that have “BOSTON” on the front and “NOTHING IS STRONGER THAN LOVE” on the back to honor those maimed and killed in the Boston Marathon bombing — and all of the profits are going to The One Fund Boston.

Hard time

Last Wednesday, reporter Pat Evans toured the Kent County Jail (because that’s what people like Pat do for fun).

Although the tour reaffirmed his desire to stay out of jail, he learned some cool things. The jail, in general, was eerily quiet, but one section of the fourth floor was even more silent. It was being painted for the American Jail Association's 32nd Annual Training Conference & Jail Expo May 5-9. See, every portion of GR puts on its Sunday best for out-of-town guests!

The jail also has been home to a film crew, shooting for a national reality show about life in jail. The film crew had a multiple-hour interview with the jail's first “century man” — a person arrested 100 times. The episodes will air in August.

Moment of silence

Clear Channel Media and Entertainment West Michigan announced Thursday that long-time WOOD Radio morning host Gary Allen is leaving his position effective June 21. Allen, who began his career at WOOD Radio in March 1981, assumed the role of morning show host in June 1989, making him the fourth morning host in WOOD's 89-year history and currently the longest-running morning host in Grand Rapids radio.

“I’ve made this decision because I still have lots of things I want to do, especially to stay active volunteering with numerous area nonprofits — none of which will involve me answering to a 3 a.m. alarm!” said Allen.

Allen's tenure at WOOD Radio included thousands of on-air interviews with area business and community leaders. He’s also conducted live on-air interviews with U.S. Presidents Gerald R. Ford and George H.W. Bush, along with hundreds of entertainment and sports figures.

“Gary’s the Iron Man of West Michigan radio. He’s not only tireless in his service to our terrific WOOD listeners, but he’s also been a tireless and consistent contributor to so many charities in our great community,” said Tim Feagan, vice president and market manager for West Michigan. “He’s always giving, always offering to help. He’s got a big heart and a tiny ego, and that’s really a rarity in our business. It’s been a real joy to work with him for many years.”

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