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 Bob Wallace/American Red Cross
Alexandria, Louisiana, March 28, 2016. “Where did all that water come from?” mused a Louisiana resident. It’s a question that many Louisiana residents have asked as they struggle to recover from the record spring floods that have devastated the state from the very northern corners down to the deepest southern reaches.
In early March a slow-moving weather pattern set in over Louisiana bringing torrential rainfall that in some areas resulted in a cascade of almost two feet of water over just a few days. As a result, lakes, streams and rivers rose to unprecedented levels, with some dams breached due to the high water. As the huge quantity of rainwater began to flow south towards the Gulf of Mexico, streams in areas that did not receive the greatest rainfall also began to overflow. Homes all across the state that had never before been flooded were inundated. Thousands of homes have been seriously damaged or destroyed, and four deaths have now been attributed to the flooding.
Immediately, the American Red Cross of Louisiana sprang into action, mobilizing local volunteers to provide essential shelter, food, water, disaster health, and emotional support. But the number of people affected was much larger than could be handled locally. So, the American Red Cross scaled up its response by sending out a call for action to its volunteers across the nation.
Within days, volunteers from all over the country with expertise in sheltering, feeding, disaster health and mental health care, bulk distribution and logistics of disaster supplies, disaster assessment, disaster technology services, and information and planning were arriving to assist with the disaster response. To date, almost 1,000 Red Crossers have stepped forward to help, 30 shelters have provided almost 3,000 overnight stays, and 29 Emergency Response Vehicles from all over the country and numerous rental trucks have distributed over 203,000 meals and snacks and handed out nearly 41,000 relief supplies such as cleaning items, mops, shovels, tarps and ice chests.
The response in Louisiana is a classic Red Cross disaster response: it began locally and has scaled up as necessary to provide for the immediate needs of people affected.
Now that the weather has normalized for the past few weeks and has receded in many areas, people are beginning to ask how long will the Red Cross be here? The answer we usually give is that we will be here as long as needed. However, the truth is that we are always here, maybe not with an additional 1,000 volunteers, but we will be here in force for the many days, weeks and months ahead as Louisiana residents all across the state work hard to put their homes and lives back together, and we are always here working to assist our local communities to either respond, recover, or prepare for disaster.
Another question that often arises is why have I not seen the Red Cross in my community? It’s likely that the Red Cross is responding to the disaster in your community but it may be working behind the scenes. Depending on which agencies are responsible for disaster response, the Red Cross may be sharing duties such as feeding or sheltering with other groups or supporting the response efforts with people, supplies, expertise or funding. For example, the Red Cross could be providing cots and blankets to a shelter run by another group or it could have provided training so a church or civic group could run a shelter on its own.
The Red Cross is always involved in a response, recovery, or preparedness for disasters. That trio—response, recover, prepare—is what the Red Cross refers to as the disaster cycle. It is an always-ongoing cycle of activity, often with different parts of the cycle overlapping in time.
A response is just as described above. It’s the immediate activity after a disaster to make sure that people have adequate resources to keep body and soul together until they capable of once again taking care of their basic needs. It is often the phase where the Red Cross has a high visibility, with it’s Emergency Response Vehicles circulating through communities providing food, water, and cleanup supplies and with shelters open, housing hundreds, and sometimes thousands, of displaced people.
Large-scale disasters quickly outstrip the ability of any one agency to provide the needed response, so a coordinated effort of many different agencies is essential. During the Louisiana response, the Red Cross collaborated with several partner agencies, including Southern Baptist Disaster Relief, FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency ??????. Many local companies and community groups stepped forward to help. One huge assist was a donation by International Paper of one million dollars to assist with disaster relief in Louisiana and Texas. The reality is that it takes the talents and resources of many agencies, organizations, and individuals working together to provide necessary services after a major disaster.
The recovery phase of a disaster is a more long-term activity. It involves helping people who have been hit by disaster develop both a short and a long-term plan of action and giving them the information, assistance, and access to resources they need to put that plan into action.
Recovery has to be done on a case-by-case basis. The Red Cross has highly trained caseworkers who talk one-on-one with the affected individuals to understand their particular situation and help them on the road to recovery. This sometimes begins in what is termed Multi-Agency Resource Center (MARC). The Red Cross is there to do casework and often can direct people seeking recovery help directly to other agencies present at the MARC.
Recovery can go on for many years after the initial disaster event. For example, we are now in the seventh year of recovery work after the Haiti disaster. Recovery is still going on for areas of the Northeast devastated by Hurricane Sandy in October of 2012 and also for the destruction caused by the multiple tornados in Moore, Oklahoma that occurred in 2013.
The Red Cross works with government agencies and other relief organizations to develop and execute long-term plans for a community’s recovery. Sometimes Red Cross extends grants to other agencies to do tasks for which they have special expertise. Much of Red Cross recovery work focuses on helping the most vulnerable and people who need extra help getting back on their feet. This could include those whose homes were destroyed or heavily damaged, who are ineligible for government assistance, or who don’t have anywhere else to turn for help.
One of the most important phases of the Disaster Cycle is preparedness. It’s one that is sometimes overlooked until disaster strikes, but in the midst of disaster it’s too late to prepare. Red Cross promotes and assists community preparedness by providing speakers for business, religious, government, and civic groups to discuss various disaster threats such as tornadoes, hurricanes, home fires, earthquakes, and others. These educational events focus on how to prevent, prepare and practice for, and survive disasters. The Red Cross also offers health and safety classes in adult and infant First Aid, CPR and AED, skills that everyone should possess.
The Red Cross provides potentially life-saving preparedness apps that are absolutely free. There are apps for first aid, tornadoes, hurricanes, flood, wildfire, and earthquake that can be programmed to give an audible warning should an event be imminent. They are packed with important information on what to do before, during, and after an event, and provide directions to Red Cross shelters. Recently, the Red Cross came out with an Emergency app that combines in one place many of the features of the individual apps described above. All of these apps are free of charge. They can be found and downloaded by going to your particular app store and searching “Red Cross” or from the Red Cross web site at www.redcross.org.
An important preparedness program is the Pillowcase Project, developed in collaboration with Disney, which is designed to teach third to fifth grade children about natural hazards and how to prepare for disasters.
Some Red Cross chapters have mobile Safety Houses that they take to schools and community events to teach home safety, including how to prevent home fires and what to do should such an event occur. Home fires are the major, ongoing, disaster across the country, and children are often the trigger for a family to take serious the need to instigate fire safety measures and to plan and practice home escape routes.
The recruitment and training of new volunteers, as well as continued training of long-time volunteers, is always a high priority. Simulated disaster events in most locations occur at least once a year to refresh Red Cross workers’ skills on disaster response.
Finally, a critical part of preparedness is the maintenance of sufficient disaster supplies to handle a large-scale disaster should one occur. Recently, a new Disaster Field Supply Center was established in Arlington, Texas. It is huge, occupying 174,000 square feet of space and contains sufficient disaster supplies to support 100,000 people. It is one of five such centers, with the others located in Pennsylvania, Georgia, Missouri, and Nevada.
So, no matter what the disaster situation, gray skies or blue, the American Red Cross is hard at work at some phase of the Disaster Cycle and often on multiple phases at the same time. The Red Cross is here today to serve those who have lost so much, and it will be ready to serve when disaster strikes again.