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Delivering the Good – News
How American Apparel Distributed 80,000 Pieces of Clothing to Victims in Wake of Hurricane Katrina
Los Angeles Garment & Citizen
October 12, 2005

Putting the "T" in Tenacity: American Apparel community relations liaison George Lewis III gives clothes directly to victims of Hurricane Katrina during one stop on a week-long odyssey through the Gulf Coast in a truck the company rented.

Imagine what it's like to put on a crisp new shirt after spending days in a cavernous shelter—or on a rooftop, for that matter—without a change of clothes.

Tens of thousands of victims of Hurricane Katrina don't have to imagine the sensation of soft cotton against their worn-out bodies, thanks to Downtown-based manufacturer American Apparel.

The donated goods didn't reach the hurricane victims easily. There were logistical challenges to overcome, red tape to navigate, and a conscious effort to coordinate with relief agencies to ensure that the good deed wouldn't end up contributing to the chaos that comes anytime aid workers set out to help so many people who have lost so much.

A pair of American Apparel employees got through all of that to deliver 80,000 new T-shirts and underpants to the Gulf Coast after Hurricane Katrina struck. They spent a week cobbling together their own role in the relief effort, eventually going from shelter-to-shelter in the Houston area—and making a last-minute run in response to an urgent plea from Pascagoula, Mississippi.

The donated goods, worth approximately $600,000, were well appreciated wherever the American Apparel team went. It took longer than expected—they originally planned to be in the Gulf Coast region for two or three days. It also involved more mileage than anticipated—the company ended up renting a 26-foot truck to haul the goods from shelter to shelter.

American Apparel community relations coordinator Roian Atwood said he and colleague George Lewis III worked their way through it all thanks to a carte blanche directive from American Apparel co-owners Dov Charney and Sam Lim, and vice president Marty Bailey.

"They told us, 'look, this isn't Indonesia, this isn't across the ocean, this is our backyard," recalls Atwood. "They just told us to go and do whatever it takes to help."

Atwood and Lewis arrived in Houston as the full effect of Hurricane Katrina began to come into focus. The storm had laid waste to New Orleans and spread damage for hundreds of miles. Relief agencies and government personnel struggled to find their footing as the world watched live TV broadcasts of the devastation.

Atwood and Lewis had spent a week preparing for the trip. They had the shipment of clothing scheduled to be delivered by air two days after their arrival in Houston. They originally planned to find out where to deliver the clothing, drop it off in the hands of a reliable relief agency, and then head back to Los Angeles.

The enormous number of evacuees in Houston rendered those plans meaningless. Tens of thousands of evacuees had arrived in the city, and by then many of them had begun to leave the Astrodome and a nearby convention center for various locations—social service facilities, churches, schools—throughout the city and its suburbs. Relief workers were overwhelmed by the need as well as amount of aid arriving in Houston.

A roster of contact information for relief agencies that Atwood and Lewis had brought with them became the key to piecing together a new plan. They got an assist when they found out that a Houston businessman named Peter Hirsch had made his warehouse available to hold donated goods, with the place serving as a sort of clearing house for requests for aid.

Requests for clothing soon started reaching the American Apparel team—but delivering the goods were another matter. They decided they could do more good by renting a 26-foot truck and making deliveries on their own instead of asking various relief agencies to haul the goods or shelter workers to come and pick them up.

"We would call ahead to the shelters that needed clothes," says Atwood. "They would ask us where they could come and pick up the stuff—and they were surprised and grateful when we told them we'd deliver it."

The deliveries became as much of a gift for the American Apparel team as the hurricane victims, according to Lewis.

"By then the situation on the ground didn't have all the dramatic images that we saw on TV from New Orleans — it had settled into the ongoing relief work, with a lot of people who had lost everything," Lewis says. "It was great to be able to help at that point, and it wasn't so much giving people clothing… it was more like letting them know that there are people who care, people who know they could find themselves in a similar situation because of an earthquake or some other disaster someday. I think that gave the whole thing a spirit of community — like this time it's our turn to help, but you never know when we might be asking you to come to our aid somewhere down the line."

Atwood and Lewis continued making the rounds, shelter by shelter, church by church. Then, a couple of days before they were expecting to return to Los Angeles, a relief coordinator asked them to make a special run to Pascagoula — a straight trip across the heart of the damage. The devastation in New Orleans and scenes of desperation from the Astrodome in Houston had claimed top billing in most news reports in the wake of the hurricane. But Pascagoula had also taken a thorough beating at the hands of Hurricane Katrina—a battering that led Duane Cunningham from the Eastlawn United Methodist Church there to put in a call to Houston businessman Hirsch, who relayed the request to the American Apparel team.

Atwood and Lewis set out on the 400-mile drive to Pascagoula immediately, leaving Houston after midnight. Atwood says the journey proved to be harrowing. Scenes of devastation were everywhere — cell phone numbers scrawled on everything from rooftops to mattresses in the hope that rescue workers and insurance agents would eventually reach victims who had made a run from Katrina. Gas remained in short supply once they left the Houston area, too, making the whole trip a roll of the dice.

The pair found an open gas station on their journey, allowing them to take on enough fuel to creep into Pascagoula before the truck's tank went empty. They delivered 20,000 articles of new clothing to Cunningham — and turned right around to head back to Houston.

Atwood and Lewis finally packed up and headed back to Los Angeles — but not before hearing a story that reminded them that fashion still counts — even in the midst of a disaster. The story came from a young girl named Arianna, whose family had been evacuated with to Houston with little more than the clothes on their backs. She had begun classes at her new school just a few days before the American Apparel team distributed clothing at her shelter. Arianna's parents told Atwood and Lewis that she wore her new clothes to school the next day — and received so many compliments that she got a jolt of confidence and decided to run for class president.

There's no word yet on whether Arianna won the election — but her decision to make the effort no doubt marks one small victory over Hurricane Katrina.