By SARA ARTHURS
“Semper Gumby: Always Flexible” is the unofficial motto of the Red Cross disaster relief efforts, American Red Cross North Central Ohio Chapter Executive Director Todd James said. Flexibility is a necessity, as the situations change quickly.
James, for example, was among many Red Cross volunteers deploying nationally for Hurricane Harvey. He had been assigned to Baton Rouge, Louisiana as Hurricane Harvey approached. Then the Red Cross told him he would be needed in Houston instead. So the plan was to fly to Baton Rouge, then drive to Houston.
But by the time he landed, it was impossible to get into or out of Houston. James ended up spending two days in Baton Rouge before assisting in Austin, then San Antonio. He said people who had evacuated Houston were staying in shelters in many other communities in Texas including Austin, Dallas and San Antonio.
James’ role is in public affairs. These volunteers’ job is to get word out to those affected by the disaster of “where help is available” and how to safely evacuate and prepare to shelter.
They also get the word out to the public in general, letting them know what they are doing and how they can offer support, financially or through volunteering.
They coordinate with many partners including nonprofit and faith-based organizations and government entities. “No one (organization) can do it alone,” James said.
James must keep a giant list of details and information organized. He keeps a lot on his phone and laptop, but also has lots of pads of papers posted to the walls, keeping track of where everyone is and what they are doing.
James has deployed to many disasters, and he said every deployment is different. “But the scale of this is the largest that we’ve seen in a very long time, if ever,” James said.
Holly Blaine, another local volunteer, experienced the hurricane itself in a shelter where she was volunteering. They lost both power and water, as did another shelter in another community she was sent to shortly after. That shelter then closed.
“After three days, it was a health hazard,” she said. Driving through the area, “It’s like you’re in a war-torn zone.” Everyone was low on food. Stores and gas stations were boarded up.
“There’s nothing to get anywhere,” and trucks that could bring supplies couldn’t get through.
Blaine volunteered at several shelters, sleeping in cots just as the residents did.
James said in Austin, there were several shelters set up which the city consolidated into one “megashelter” — a term for a large shelter that can hold several hundred to a thousand people. He talked with some of those staying there.
“Some knew whether they had a home to go back to or not,” he said. “Others didn’t.”
And some had already gone through two or three different shelters, being moved from one to another and then another.
“Folks of course are frustrated,” James said.
A particular concern was trying not to worry the children. “Children are so vulnerable in this situation,” James said. He said they try not to further traumatize them. The Red Cross works with the Children’s Disaster Network, which brings in volunteers who come in and play with the children to give parents a break.
James was in a shelter in San Antonio on the last day of his deployment. The television was showing the weather channel, as Hurricane Irma approached.
He discussed with the mental health volunteers whether it was really a good idea for the children in the shelter to watch that. They decided instead, “Let’s turn some cartoons or something on.”
Area businesses tried to bring small joys to adults as well as children in the shelters.
Whataburger, which James said is “the big thing” in Texas, came in and served lunch and gave out gift bags. SAS Shoes fitted residents for free pairs of shoes and Sea World brought in some animals from their wild animal park.
As for residents’ own animals, policies on pets depend on who is running a particular shelter, James said. Service animals are usually welcome. Pets usually are not in the shelter itself, but the Red Cross has partnerships with humane societies and other organizations to keep them safe. The megashelter where he was based had set up an area right outside the shelter for residents’ animals.
“Because pets are family,” James said.
The Red Cross also has partnerships with health care organizations, as someone might be separated from their medication or a medical device they need. There are mental heath volunteers as well as those offering spiritual care, for people who need someone to talk to.
“This is a traumatic situation for everybody,” James said.
There are still thousands of people in shelters in Texas, and many of them will be there for some time, James said. A lot of people don’t have homes to go back to.
Blaine spent time in the shelters talking with clients, hearing their stories and playing with their children. She strove to understand their fears.
“I had no answers and neither did they,” she said.
But she would listen. She was night manager at one shelter, settling people in who might walk in at 2 a.m., as well as helping people who might have a headache or have cut themselves.
She also spent many hours at another shelter lugging water in, to flush the toilets.
Volunteering involves working 14-hour days at least. “You focus on the mission,” James said.
He said they meet “so many good people” and hear a lot of stories, but have to compartmentalize and focus on what they need to do. “Just the enormity of this disaster” was different than a normal tornado or flood, he said.
Blaine had originally become a Red Cross volunteer to help with local needs like house fires.
When she sees something in the newspaper or on the news, she feels for the people affected.
“At this point in my life, I am able to help…. It’s something I can do,” she said.
She said it’s rewarding to get to know the people in the shelters, and has also made friends with other Red Cross volunteers who she has seen at several disasters. Blaine expects in the near future to be sent to Florida to help with Hurricane Irma. James, meanwhile, will be going to Houston on Sunday.
Another local volunteer, Vicky Ginter, also deployed to Harvey and is still there. Ginter was working on emergency response vehicles, delivering meals and cleanup kits.
All told, the 45-county Ohio Buckeye Region of the Red Cross has about 80 volunteers deployed to Hurricane Harvey or Irma right now. More will be on their way.
Volunteers will be needed to help with the relief effort from both hurricanes, James said.
“Recovery is going to be a years-long process” from both Harvey and Irma, James said.
The Red Cross is also recruiting volunteers for local efforts like house fires.
“If you like to help other people, there are lots of things to do,” Blaine said.
The only requirement to volunteer is “a desire to help… Anybody can be a part of what we do,” James said. He said it’s even possible to do some volunteer work from your home at a computer.
The Ohio Buckeye Region trained 120 new volunteers last week.
An orientation is held from 6 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. every Thursday at the Marion office, 1849 Summerset Drive, Marion.
People have also been “very generous” in donating money, James said. It’s possible to donate through the Red Cross in Findlay but designate your funds to the Hurricane Harvey relief effort
James said he hears from many people wanting to donate items. This comes from “a place of wanting to help” but collecting items isn’t what the Red Cross does. And if you drop off supplies at a shelter, that takes up space that might be needed for the people staying there as well as manpower to clean and sort the items, he said. So the Red Cross accepts donations of money but not of items. James said they can refer those who have these questions to other organizations that do accept donated items.
Flying back to Ohio, James was tired and looking forward to seeing his wife, but also found himself thinking, “I wish I could stay. There’s still so much work to do.” In addition to his staff and volunteers, James said he was receiving “great support from this community,” with a lot of people giving well wishes or saying “Good luck” on Facebook.
“To have that support from home means so much,” he said.