Friday, October 31, 2014

Accentuate the Positive

You may have seen and heard some negative stories surrounding the two-year anniversary of Superstorm Sandy's landfall. The American Red Cross has responded to the reporting done by ProPublica and NPR (some of those responses can be found here, here and here), but it is still very difficult for those of us who were there not to take these stories personally. As my friend and volunteer Pete Swales, who spent 39 days working on the Sandy response, told me, "What ProPublica and NPR claim hurts terribly, and brings back all the ruination we witnessed and the amazing gratitude of the New Yorkers, even those that were not affected!"

What was left Michael O'Hanlon's Breezy Point home
after Superstorm Sandy
The last part of that sentence is what I want to focus on, the incredible work that I personally witnessed during my two weeks in NYC in November 2012. I think back to Miss Cynthia in the Rockaways, who was so grateful for the efforts of the nearly 17,000 volunteers who worked on the Sandy response that she told my colleague Katie and I, "You shouldn't be called the Red Cross. You should all be called angels." Or being interrupted while speaking to a union meeting by Michael O'Hanlon, who said, "The Red Cross is awesome!" He later showed my colleague Julie and I the pictures of what remained of his Breezy Point home, explaining that we had provided the only hot meals his family had eaten since swimming out of their home three weeks earlier. I am so proud to have been just one of the hundreds of Western and Central New Yorkers who have their own stories of traveling to help our downstate neighbors in need, and each of those incredible volunteers should remember the millions of people who were so grateful they were there to help them.

You may have also heard that the Red Cross is currently undergoing a transition in order to meet the growing demand for our services. While this will allow us to help even more people because we are operating more efficiently, changes such as these are never easy. But thanks to our amazing volunteers and supporters, the great work of the Red Cross continues in our communities each and every day. Last Tuesday, for example, two hours after arriving on the scene of an early-morning apartment fire in Niagara Falls, our volunteers had opened a shelter for the dozens of displaced families, without ever having stepped foot in the Niagara Falls office.

An Emergency Response Vehicle distributes supplies and
information to areas around Penn Yan hard-hit by flooding
in May
We know this new structure can work because it has already. In September 2013, the Yates County Chapter in Penn Yan was closed. Less than a year later, that area was affected by massive flooding. "We weren't happy when the office closed," Yates County Deputy EMO Diane Cabes told me. "But you were there when you needed to be, providing very beneficial services that were very appreciated." Those services included opening a shelter at the Penn Yan Academy in the initial hours after the storm's impact, then providing a total of 34 overnight shelter stays, serving serving over 600 meals and snacks, distributing 238 clean-up kits and providing emotional support and referrals to help the community get back on its feet in the weeks that followed.

"Disasters don't always happen where offices and staff are," said volunteer Donna Davis, who was among the first to respond in Penn Yan while water was still running through the streets. "Staff and volunteers know what to do. Regardless of where a disaster happens, if there's a need, the volunteers will be there."

That's the message that I hope everyone remembers moving forward. The Red Cross has the most incredible volunteers and supporters, and thanks to them, each of our communities will be able to count on us to provide these vital services tomorrow and for years to come.