Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Volunteering during a disaster: Stories from the American Red Cross

Have you ever wondered what it’s like to volunteer during an emergency? Perhaps a natural disaster has affected your community, and you didn’t know how to help. In honor of Red Cross Month, APHA’s Get Ready campaign recently talked with some American Red Cross volunteers to get the scoop on what it’s like to volunteer during an emergency.

The American Red Cross responds to more than 70,000 disasters and emergencies every year, including home fires, hurricanes, floods, tornadoes, earthquakes and other human-made or natural disasters. The organization provides shelter, food and health services to those affected by disasters.

Because they respond to so many disasters, Red Cross volunteers have the opportunity to help with relief efforts for many different kinds of emergencies. For example, Red Cross volunteer Chris McNeil, of Bel Air, Md., has helped with flood recovery efforts in Vermont and tornado cleanup in Maryland. He described working on a “mud-out crew” — removing water, mud and damaged possessions from flooded houses — after Lake Champlain flooded in Vermont in 2011.

Red Cross volunteer looks onto
a flooding home in Vicksburg, MS.
Photo: Talia Frenkel/American Red Cross 
“We arrived at a house with the absolute worst amount of damage we had seen all week,” McNeil told the Get Ready campaign. “When we finished, the basement had been completely emptied and sanitized. The husband asked us how we would be paid. When we told him we were all volunteers, he broke down in tears.”

McNeil is a retiree who made volunteering with the Red Cross one of his post-retirement goals. His story is a great example that you don’t need to have any special training in emergency response to be a volunteer.

“There will be a useful job for you, regardless of your abilities or age,” McNeil said. “You just have to be willing.”

People who have specialized skills are encouraged to volunteer as well. The Get Ready campaign also spoke with Elena Acs, a Red Cross volunteer from Clarksville, Md., who works with her local Red Cross Disaster Mental Health Team. Acs, a trained clinical social worker, said she is on hand immediately after a fire to “look out for anyone who seems to be having a harder time than can be expected and may need some intervention.” Acs recalled one house fire where a resident also lost the family pet.

“What made this memorable was to be able to give assistance and support immediately at the time of the death of the pet and give resources for further help,” Acs said.

Like McNeil, Acs encourages people of all backgrounds to consider volunteering with the Red Cross.

“It is important to have a range of types of team members from nursing to client caseworkers to mental health professionals so that we are able to respond to a wide range of needs that can occur in a disaster,” she said.

Red Cross volunteers may serve locally in their communities, like Acs, but volunteers who are able could also be asked to help with recovery efforts during large-scale disasters across the country. Rich Scanlan, a retiree from Towson, Md., said he began volunteering for the Red Cross in 2006 in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Scanlan responded to an ad he heard on the radio seeking volunteers, received training and was sent to work in a shelter in Biloxi, Miss. At the shelter, Scanlan reported that he was somewhat surprised to find himself cleaning out urinals every morning. He did this and other basic tasks, knowing that they were “critical to the job that the Red Cross does.”

Despite the bathroom duty, Scanlan was hooked. He continued to volunteer with his local Red Cross Disaster Action Team and in the past six years he’s helped with hurricanes in Texas, wildfires in California, floods in Pennsylvania and many other disasters around the country. While still a volunteer, he’s been promoted to the manager level in the Red Cross, which means that he’s now called to oversee advanced disaster response efforts. Last summer, soon after he was promoted as a manager, he ran operations for 40 shelters for the Red Cross in the aftermath of the tornadoes in Alabama. Scanlan said the sometimes 12- to 24-hour workdays were “the hardest I ever worked in my life” but that he always feels better later.

The American Red Cross
responds to an EF4 tornado, the most
powerful rating with winds of 175 mph,
which destroyed virtually entire
neighborhoods in Henryville, Indiana.
Courtesy Daniel Cima/American Red Cross 
When asked if he has advice for anyone considering becoming a volunteer for the Red Cross or a similar organization, Scanlan says, “Get up off the couch and volunteer. We always need people.”

These are stories from just three of thousands of volunteers who respond to disasters every day with the American Red Cross. Volunteering is a great way to get ready for an emergency. The training you receive can help you prepare to help others — and yourself — should a disaster strike your community. As Scanlan told us, no matter what happens next, “I’m ready, I’ve got a bag packed.”

To volunteer for the Red Cross, visit the organization’s website.


nelliebly said...

Great stories! I'm one of those people who always wants to help in a disaster but don't know what to do. I admire these folks who have so much time and energy to give.

For those of us who can't commit to so much, what can we do? What about a post on top 5 ways to help during a disaster? (And what not to do.) Thanks!

Get Ready Team, APHA said...

Hi @nelliebly,

Thanks! We admire these volunteers too. :)

Yes, we can address "how to help during a disaster" in a future post, thanks for the suggestion!