I have a book by Clara Barton, and I so love her words – they are as true today as they were when she wrote them:
Since the foundation of the Red Cross in America, many direful calamities have afflicted the country. In each of these visitations the Red Cross has acted in some degree as the Almoner – the distributer and organizer – of the boutiful measures of relief that have been poured out by the American people.
Its work has been accomplished quietly and without ostentation. The wreckage has been cleared away, the stricken people have been wisely, tenderly, and calmly guided out of panic and despair on the road of self-help and cooperative effort to restore their shattered homes and broken fortunes; and then the Red Cross has retired as quietly as it came, and few, outside of the people immediately concerned, have realized the beneficent powers of help and healing that have fallen like a benediction upon the stricken wherever that sacred symbol of humanity has made its way.
– Clara Barton, May 15, 1904; Glen Echo, MD
Sixteen days, no bicycle. Sixteen days in New York and northeastern Pennsylvania with the American Red Cross, trying to help people recover from catastrophic flooding from the combined hit of Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee. Sixteen days where time became a blur – unforgettable, exhausting, sometimes frustrating, but ultimately rewarding.
I got the call asking me to deploy on Sept. 6, and within 24 hours I was on a plane to Albany, NY. My assignment was to be camera-less this time; I would be serving as an individual client case worker – working with disaster-affected clients on a one-on-one basis, listening to their stories, identifying their immediate needs, and facilitating contact with a variety of other agencies (FEMA, housing assistance, local charitable agencies, etc.) to help them begin their recovery process. The Red Cross Disaster Assessment teams had identified nearly 9,000 homes that had suffered major damage or had been destroyed … now it was our job to make contact with every one of those residents.
When I first heard those numbers, I confess it felt overwhelming.
Outreach calls (when it became safe to do so) within the communities often had many physical challenges. Consider the aftermath of a flood: mud and silt mixed with sewage as well as spilled heating oil. When the film of “mud-mess” began to dry, it would become dusty in the streets, and often dangerous to inhale – requiring the use of dust masks.
In addition to outreach within communities, our casework teams were involved in serving displaced clients within the 5 shelters that had been opened in the region. The largest shelter, in the Binghamton University Event Center, intially held over 1,600 clients – including a separate section for functional/medical needs clients (at least one nursing home had to be evacuated). I had never been in a disaster shelter before, so this was an incredible learning experience.
Communal living can be extremely stressful, especially when you have just lost nearly everything you own – and are faced with starting all over again, often with limited financial resources. The social demographic is very mixed. Patience and tolerance often runs thin, emotions run high. It is a never-ending effort to comfort and calm, and help make the situation a little more bearable – all while trying to facilitate necessary steps to find housing, replace clothing, obtain medical care and make application to FEMA and other agencies.
Initially, the Red Cross volunteer staff also resided in men’s and women’s staff shelters – located in the gyms of several of local churches. We had 88 women in our shelter; all sleeping on cots, sharing bathroom facilities for 8. It was a “symphony of snoring” when the lights went out, and I’m not sure everyone enjoyed the close quarters, but we all knew to expect this is a disaster relief operation. I think it was a vitally important experience; it really gave us a better understanding of what our clients have to endure when they’ve been displaced from their homes, and it fosters cooperation, tolerance and understanding on a very necessary level. I happened to have a white noise app on my phone, so I had no problems sleeping – and I had some really great cot-mates around me. 🙂
There are more stories from these sixteen days than I will ever be able to record … and even as I arrived home, the disaster relief efforts continue in the region. As some of us leave to go home, others arrive to take our place.
My heart goes out to all of the residents in NY and PA who have had to experience such catastrophic devestation; we want to do everything we can to help, and thank you for letting us into your lives. And to anyone out there who can help with financial donations to the American Red Cross, I assure you it is desperately needed and well-used.
Last night, I slept peacefully in my own bed, in my quiet room. Today, I hope to take a ride on my bicycle. I have so much to be grateful for.