“Angels” go to the front of the line.
Seven Loudoun County men – members of Real Husbands of Loudoun County (RHOLC) – earned that nickname and learned that skip-the-line policy during their self-started relief mission to North Carolina in the wake of Hurricane Florence.
The food was on the table. A few dozen members of the National Guard, first responders, and volunteers, tired and hungry from a long day of relief efforts, were gathered around.
Among them were Kumail Khas, Steven Young, Juan Gonzalez, Joey Urban, Michael Alvarez, Josh Holz and Danny Chicas, the RHOLC members who had launched their own recovery mission to the storm-ravaged area around Wilmington.
They correctly surmised that the group was waiting for the guests of honor to start through the food line. They were shocked to find out that everyone was waiting for them.
“There were like 50 people standing around – Army people, National Guard, first responders and other volunteers,” Young said. “They said, ‘You guys came all the way down here, you’ve been out there all day and you got here before the National Guard. You can go first.”
What started with a few off-the-cuff, “We should do something” social media comments turned into a real-life odyssey. An ad hoc GoFundMe campaign raised about $1,100 in a matter of hours. RHOLC ‘s network of brothers helped gathered enough water, toiletries and non-perishable people and pet food to fill four pick-up trucks and an 18-foot trailer.
It culminated in Wilmington, a place they were repeatedly warned was “an island” that could not be reached, and by the time they found their way back to Northern Virginia, it was a profound experience all three said changed the way they look at life.
“It was amazing how paths just kept opening up for us,” Khas said. “We had no intention of sleeping in beds. We all brought sleeping bags and thought we would be sleeping in our trucks. But every day, something opened up so we could sleep in real beds and get a good night’s sleep.”
The caravan left Sunday afternoon, just as Florence was moving inland. They stopped that night in New Bern, which is about 90 miles up the coast from Wilmington. Urban used to live there and his old landlord, Wendy Batton, put them up for the night.
Monday morning they headed to Wilmington – ground zero.
“On a normal day, it would take an hour and a half or two hours to drive,” Khas said. “It took us 12 or 13 hours. Everyone we talked to said it was an island and we were never going to make it through. ”
They kept running into roads that were flooded or bridges that were washed out. They ended up detouring west instead of going straight south, and gasoline became an issue. They figured they had enough in their tanks to get to Wilmington, but would not be able to get back if there no gas available there.
This quest led them to a town named Kinston and, perhaps, the biggest miracle of the trip.
“We were able to find gas in Kinston and we happened to link up with a pastor who was gathering supplies to provide a shelter for people in that community,” Khas said. “They said they had been waiting for four or five days but no trucks had made it through. We gave them what we could and we were able to get some gas and some extra gas cans there.”
That detour allowed the RHOLC mission to continue, but it was viewed as nothing short of a miracle by the people in Kinston.
“We were getting geared up at the disaster relief center and four or five trucks pull in, loaded with what I call angels,” said JoJo Mozingo, who was assisting Pastor Justin Barnett at the shelter. “They were off their path, looking for gas and somebody had directed them to our shelter. These amazing men shared half of their load with us and that was some of the first items we received.”
A Kinston resident took a picture of Barnett, who is pastor of Jackson Heights Original Free Will Baptist Church, praying with and for the RHOLC gang. Mozingo posted it on the RHOLC Facebook page, calling them “These Angels from Virginia.”
“I know with them being miles off their destination, I know it was nothing but God that led them to us.”
“It was definitely such a humbling experience even in time of disaster everyone could come to together and be selfless,” said Chicas.
The Real Husbands had another bit of drama on the road to Wilmington. Young, a member of the Sterling Volunteer Fire Department, ended up in a swollen river rescuing two people who were stuck in their vehicle.
“There was some flash flooding and there was water over the road and it was rising,” Young said. “We got over OK, but there were these two guys in a Honda Pilot that hydrolocked their engine. We all just kind of jumped in and they threw us a rope and we were able to pull them out.”
The caravan finally made it to Wilmington about 7:30 Monday night, where they stayed with former Leesburg residents George and Janette Delisle, who had moved to Wilmington a few weeks earlier.
“It looked like a war zone in their neighborhood,” Khas said. “They had a 30-foot tree that had fallen in their yard. If it had fallen the other way, it would have been on top of their house. They had an 8 o’clock curfew, so by the time we go there we couldn’t really do anything that night.”
As bad as Wilmington was hit, it was also better prepared and had enough supplies stockpiled for the people who had not evacuated.
“They were nice enough to say they had enough but there is this little town called Burgaw that was in desperate need of supplies,” Young said. “It was only about 12 miles away, but it took us an hour and a half to get there. We had to go around a whole lot of stuff.
“The distribution center was in this old industrial park. We dropped off the rest of our supplies, and that was all they had for the whole town. As we were unloading our trucks, the volunteers were already loading it into their vans.”
With their supplies dropped off where they were needed most, the RHOLC crew wanted to pitch in wherever they could help.
“They directed us to this high school where they were setting up another shelter,” Khas said. “One of the local shelters was in the area where the river was rising and they were getting flooded out. They had to move a lot of people and supplies to a new location.
“We loaded cots and whatever supplies they had in our trucks and brought them to the high school. We must have moved 600 to 800 cots. That took us the rest of the day.”
With another curfew approaching, they got back to the emergency operation center, where they found themselves first in line for a catered dinner of fried chicken and fixings.
“What I think of a lot about the trip is seeing the struggles that they went through,” Gonzalez said. “You see people who barely have any clothes or anything to eat. It was eye-opening to think about all the things we take for granted.”
Wednesday, they headed back toward Loudoun to find a welcome home reception of 40 to 50 people waiting to congratulate them at the Ashburn Pub.
“This was just another example of what Real Husbands is all about,” RHOLC founder Suhile Adam Alami said. “We are about brotherhood, community, human faith, and philanthropy.”
Read more about the RHOLC HERE