Friday, November 9, 2012

Stories from the field

Since Hurricane Sandy first hit the east coast nearly two weeks ago, we have been using this blog to keep you updated with our official press releases. Those are fine sources of information on what the Red Cross is doing to help those affected, but they really don't tell the personal side of how a disaster of this magnitude affects the residents and the volunteers who deploy to help. So today, I want to share just a couple of stories from some of the 34 folks from the Western New York region who have traveled to assist in the relief efforts so far. This first story comes from Bill Tucker, the Executive Director of the SWNY Chapter, who deployed shortly after the storm:
Volunteers at Red Cross shelter at St. Joe's on Long Island

After six days as a mass care shelter associate (Kitchen supervisor) at the Deer Park shelter on Long Island I moved with our clients and staff to a brand new shelter at St. Joseph College in Patchogue, about 20-ish miles further east on Long Island.  It was a chaotic move, as most are; we had to be out of the Middle School we were in because school was starting the next day, but the new shelter wasn’t up and running yet.  We had school buses transport the clients about 5:00pm, and we managed to get the rest of the staff and most of our remaining supplies to the new shelter in jam-packed rental cars.  We walked into a big gym full of people (no cots!), where we joined staff and clients from other shelters who were consolidating there with us as well.  At 10:30 pm (on election night) our truckload of cots arrived; what a flurry of activity!  Everyone jumped in to tear open boxes and set up cots; within 15 minutes (literally) there were over 100 cots set up and families were settling in for the night.

The most amazing thing about this was that despite a certain level of uncertainty and the initial scarcity of resources, everyone – clients included – worked with phenomenally positive attitudes to make it all come together.  The picture that sticks in my mind is the gentleman in the wheel chair, with only partial use of his hands, struggling to push a boxed cot to the area he wanted to sleep in; our staff saw this and immediately came to his aid, setting up his cot and getting him comfortably situated for the night.  Similar scenes happened over and over, all across the gym floor.  By about 11:30 the lights were dimmed, the noise settled down, and everyone (except the exhausted night shift) fell into a deep sleep.  The next morning our shelter management finalized the set up and quickly had a “by-the-book” shelter in place; head counts were confirmed, signage increased, shift assignments adjusted, and routines established.  We are now running smoothly and working through the challenges that are inherent in mass care sheltering; feeding without a kitchen, showering without hot water, and (for the night shift) sleeping in the midst of much commotion with ear plugs in and eyes covered.  Through it all the mutual support has been there, with everyone displaying a positive, productive attitude and a sincere desire to help.

Client at Red Cross shelter at St. Joe's on Long Island
The stories of our clients are heart-breaking, and almost too difficult to write about.  I have spoken to so many, most in their 50’s, 60’s, and 70’s, who have nothing left and don’t know where to turn.  There are the families with young children also, trying to get the kids to and from school while living at a shelter miles distant from their homes (I am hearing that the school district is to start bus service for the children soon).  I am so thankful that the 31 volunteers from WNY (33?  34? I’m losing count) are here on the coast and doing all they can to help people in need.  Thank you!

Take care, and be safe!

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