The American Red Cross prevents and alleviates human suffering in the face of emergencies by mobilizing the power of volunteers and the generosity of donors.
by Robert W. Wallace*
The phone call I’d been expecting came just before noon. Wanda Doyle, volunteer coordinator for the Mid-South Chapter of the American Red Cross asked, “Are you still available for deployment to New York to help with the Hurricane Sandy recovery?”
I had been a Red Cross volunteer for just a little over a year. During that time I’d taken numerous training courses, helped out on a few Disaster Action Team (DAT) responses to local house fires, and begun coming in one day a week to help with the public affairs function of my local Mid-South Chapter. This was the first opportunity to participate in a national disaster operation. “Yes, I can go,” was my response to Wanda’s query. She indicated that I needed to be sitting at her desk by 3:00 pm to do some essential paperwork, and that I would likely be on a plane to New York within 24 hours.
As I hung up the phone my wife Lana and I began a flurry of activity. I received Wanda’s call at our rural home in north Mississippi, almost two hours away from the Red Cross office in Memphis. We hurriedly closed up the house and headed back to our home in town. I was excited and somewhat apprehensive: I knew that I would be working in some aspect of public relations, but other than that, I did not know exactly what to expect.
Wanda was correct; I was on a plane to New York in less than 24 hours. During the intervening period I managed to get together the things I thought I would need–warm clothes for two weeks, sturdy shoes, cameras, cell phone, laptop computer, notebooks, and my red cross vest, hat, and identification—and managed a few hours of fitful sleep. It turned out the one thing I did not pack that would have been of great use was my almost new Garmin GPS unit. It would have been of great help negotiating the roadways of long Island and Queens, New York. Thank goodness I did have a GPS app on my smart phone.
Arriving in New York just a little over two weeks after the storm, I was part of the second-wave of volunteers. By the time I was there the Red Cross effort was well underway and the New York Chapter office was bustling with volunteers from all over the United States and several foreign countries. I soon learned that between 5000 and 6000 Red Cross workers in New York and New Jersey were involved in the relief effort during the time I was there.
It’s amazing to actually experience a national relief effort and the diversified staff of volunteers who make it run. The fourth floor of the Greater New York Chapter, a large space, was a honeycomb of cubicles and buzzing with human activity. In distinct areas delineated by well-marked signs, teams of responders managed the many different functions of the relief operation in the New York area. I continue to be amazed that these highly complex relief efforts are done with a work force consisting of around 90% volunteers. Just a few of the functions in the New York center were:
As a member of the public affairs team, my job was to inform and assure the public and provide documentation of the Red Cross relief effort. This involved interviewing Superstorm Sandy victims and Red Cross workers, taking pictures and video and writing stories for internal use in newsletters and blogs, as well as for distribution to the local and national news media. Our job was also to serve as the eyes and ears of the Red Cross management. If we saw something in the field that was not functioning as it should, part of our job was to make this known to the appropriate manager, so that remedial action could be put in place. In addition, we were tasked with escorting and assisting crews from the local news media as they covered the response of the Red Cross to Superstorm Sandy.
Our days began with an early morning briefing led by the Public Affairs Chief. During my tenure the members of the team ranged from 10 to 14 volunteers, many of whom were experienced public affairs professionals. Also included in our group were one or two full-time Red Cross public affairs professionals from the national office in Washington, D.C. Our morning briefing brought us up to date on the ongoing relief operation and provided each of us an assignment for the day.
My first day on the job I was teamed with Georgia Duncan, a volunteer from the Inland Empire Red Cross Chapter in San Bernardino, California. We were told to report to Anita Foster, a Red Cross communicator who was stationed at the Mineola, Long Island, Red Cross chapter and who was in charge of the public affairs function for all of Long Island. Work on Long Island continued to be our assignment for the first week of our deployment. We would make the long drive out to various sites on the island, spend the bulk of the day covering our assignments, make the drive back into Manhattan, and then often work into the evening to prepare photos, videos and stories for submission. Since I had experience driving in New York traffic, I took on the driving duty; Georgia was an excellent navigator. Using the precious GPS app on her phone, she always managed to get us to our destination, even when some pesky street signs were missing. The next day we would show up and do it all over again. Georgia and I worked well together, and we lobbied successfully to continue our collaboration for the full two weeks we were in New York.
One of the most interesting and inspiring operations we covered was the Long Island kitchen where meals were prepared by members of the Southern Baptist Convention for distribution by the Red Cross emergency vehicles. The Southern Baptists, who have had a long-time collaboration with the Red Cross, had set up a huge mobile kitchen in the parking lot of a municipal swimming pool. It was one of four kitchens they were operating in the New York area. The Southern Baptist workers spent their nights sleeping on cots in tents and started their day at 4:30 am to begin preparing what usually ran between 5000 and 6000 meals, day after day.
The kitchen site and food distribution for Long Island was under the very able direction of Red Cross volunteer Mitch Henry. Sandy was Henry’s thirty-seventh deployment with the Red Cross. He is a large fellow and initially came across as extremely gruff as he directed his cadre of staff and puffed on his cigar. But when he talked about his volunteers he offered high praise and a touch of emotion could be detected in his voice. We were there just before Thanksgiving; a tear crept down Henry’s cheek as he talked of not being with his two daughters in Whittier, California, for the holiday.
Georgia and I were present on Thanksgiving Day when Henry was giving the morning briefing to his crew who would be serving traditional turkey meals that day from the Red Cross vehicles. “I want you to load up with plenty of food and not come back until the sun touches the top of the telephone poles,” admonished Henry. “I’d rather have 500 meals left over than leave one person hungry today.”
On days just before the Thanksgiving holiday, Georgia and I were asked to collect short video clips from Red Cross workers greeting their family members at home and wishing them a happy holiday. Many of these clips where then played on national television over the holiday period. Georgia and I both found this to be a very moving assignment. I had to be careful to not let my voice crack with emotion when I explained what we wanted. Several times I was not successful in keeping my voice steady. Almost immediately tears would begin to well up in the eyes of the person being interviewed and their chin would start to quiver. It was clear that being away during the holiday period was a difficult assignment for many of us.
As we traveled through the areas on Long Island affected by Sandy, the streets were lined with piles of debris. Home owners had begun to demolish their interiors before mold could set in on the wet drywall and furnishings. On the street were huge mounds of what had been their possessions, important parts of their lives, now completely ruined by the storm and waiting to be trucked away to a distant landfill. In some places electricity and gas service still had not been restored weeks after the storm, and homeowners were breaking up furniture and other wooden belongings to burn for heat and cooking. In these areas the Red Cross emergency vehicles distributing hot meals and clean-up supplies were a welcome sight. We were privy to many touching moments when affected homeowners expressed their deep gratitude to the crews of the Red Cross distribution vehicles.
Long Beach, Long Island, was an area that was especially hard hit by Sandy. Huge quantities of sand were carried along with the seawater that flooded into the town during the storm. After the water receded, piles of sand several feet deep were left in the streets and in the homes of the town residents. When we were there efforts were still underway to scoop up and clear the sand. On the outskirts of town monstrous mountains of sand several city blocks long and the height of a three- to four-story building were to be found. Georgia and I were perplexed when we first saw these sand mountains as we drove into town, but after visiting and viewing the continuing clean-up efforts, it became clear that this was the sand that had been deposited by the storm and already removed from the streets and homes. There was so much sand it was difficult to believe it could have all been carried in by the flooding waters.
On the streets of Long Beach some cars still sat where they were parked before the storm. Large clumps of seaweed hung from the underside of many of these cars, and high water marks could be observed more than half-way up the sides of some the vehicles. The wheels of some cars were still encased in mounds of the ubiquitous sand.
One rather poor section of Long Beach, the Pinetown area, had for some reason been completely overlooked by the recovery effort of the city of Long Beach, the Red Cross, and by other relief organizations. When we were there, almost three weeks after the storm, the community was still without water, electricity and gas. Why the Pinetown area had been overlooked is not clear, but as soon as the Red Cross realized the situation they immediately sent in emergency vehicles with food, clean-up materials, and professionals who could provide emotional support.
Visibility regarding the plight of the Pinetown area was due to the work of one man, a city worker named James Hodges, who decided that something must be done to help the people there. “Pinetown has the largest concentration of children in the city,” noted Hodges, “and hunger is not a stranger here.” Through an appeal directly to the city citizens, Hodges had managed to fill the Martin Luther King Recreation Center, which sits in the center of this area of town, with clothes, food and other supplies free for the taking by local residents.
During the second week of our deployment, Georgia and I had the opportunity to work in the Rockaway area of Queens, another area hit particularly hard by the storm. There, just as on Long Island, we were interviewing Red Cross workers and clients and documenting relief efforts and client stories through pictures, video and writing. We also accompanied a local television crew one day as they gathered news video and interviews for their evening broadcast.
In some areas of the Rockaways it looked as if a bomb had exploded. These are the areas where fires broke out after the flood waters rushed in from both the ocean and the bay. With the high waters, the fire departments could not reach the areas of the barrier island where houses were blazing, as a result the fires spread from house to house, causing huge areas of destruction. As we walked through some of these areas with the television news crew on a cold rainy morning, I was awed and profoundly saddened by the enormous areas of the community that had been totally lost. It will be many years, if ever, before the region returns to some sense of normalcy.
At the end of my two weeks in New York with only one day off, I was exhausted. Almost every working day involved long hours, lots of driving in New York traffic, and dealing with what were often emotional stories. The Red Cross still has a presence in New York and New Jersey, helping residents recover from Superstorm Sandy. I know that some of the volunteers from my local Mid-South Chapter have deployed two, three, even four times to assist in this effort. I salute them for their stamina and good works.
Would I go again? Looking back after I’ve had some time to recharge, I realize that participating in the recovery effort was one of the most soul-satisfying things I have ever done. Being part of the public affairs function was a wonderful job. It gave me an opportunity to see a broad picture of what was going on during the recovery, a reason to talk with many of the vast number of Red Cross workers who responded to the call for help, as well as an opportunity to know the stories of many of those who were affected by the natural disaster. The obligation to tell their inspiring and sometimes heart-breaking stories is a task that is most important. Yes, I would, and I will go again.
*The author, Bob Wallace, is a public affairs volunteer for the Mid-South Chapter of the American Red Cross in Memphis, Tennessee. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.