Monday, May 9, 2011

Three people, One call

Written by Jeanne Shuffler

When an F4 tornado rips through Alabama and over 300 tornadoes strike 11 states, a lot of phone calls are made once the skies stop rotating. One call is to our nationally trained and selfless team of experts in disaster response. The American Red Cross - Dallas Area Chapter sent nearly 20 of these volunteers to Alabama, Mississippi, Arkansas and other areas affected by the recent and devastating spring storm outbreak. Three of those volunteers shared with us the unimaginable and, at times surprising, things they witnessed and experienced in their first week.

Maureen Gargiulo and Sylvia Rodriguez rolled out of the Dallas Area Chapter less than 24 hours after the tornadoes hit. Driving one of the many Emergency Response Vehicles (ERV) that would eventually be deployed for these storms, Maureen and Sylvia made their way through Tuscaloosa and then on to Birmingham for the night. Upon arriving, they were met with stark darkness, a reminder that there was little or no electricity in many areas.

Reaching their final destination in Rainsville near the northeast corner of Alabama, they realized this was unlike any other tornado operation they had worked before. Sylvia summed up her initial reaction saying, “It’s like someone just threw a bomb here. Everything is flattened.”

Traveling sometimes hours, they drive to hard hit communities in Alabama as well as crossing over to areas in Georgia and Tennessee. With their primary role to provide feeding in the communities, the logistics of 7:00 pm curfews and debris covered roads became something they would have to adjust to. During breakfast and through lunch, the neighborhoods would be bustling with people sifting through what was left of their home looking for any belongings that could be salvaged. By dinner, everyone would be gone, heading off in every direction to the homes of friends or family before night, and curfew, fell.

Through the devastation and the debris that Sylvia calls “The Mountains” surrounding them, there is an undeniable spirit of strength and community in the air. In one area, a place was set up where residents could take papers and documents belonging to their neighbors so they could get them back. In another area where one person’s home was a total loss, they are seen helping to put a new roof on their neighbor’s home. Another man who had lost his wife, went to volunteer to help his community rebuild.

The most surprising thing Maureen and Sylvia have encountered is the outpouring of support the Red Cross and other relief workers have received. As they make their way through the neighborhoods handing out meals, people are offering to donate money to the Red Cross and asking the volunteers how they are holding up. Sylvia recalled one woman commenting about how hard it must be for her to be out there, away from her home and family.

“I could only think to myself – no, it is harder for you!” Sylvia said. “They have lost their homes and they are asking if we are ok. It’s like they feel they have to take care of everybody else in addition to themselves.”

Maureen has seen this amazingly strong spirit from the people they meet too.

“All the locals want to help,” she said. “The people are taking care of the people up here.”

Over in northwest Mississippi, volunteer Ben Linke has experienced much of the same. Ben has been assisting with bulk distribution, helping with disaster assessments and generally getting needed items out to support the community.

In the 17 counties Ben has been working in, he has seen varying levels of damage. The town of Poplar Creek is one that was completely devastated and, in his words, a total loss. Right now, he and other Red Cross workers are doing their best to meet the needs of this community with comfort and clean-up kits and even diapers and baby food for those that have no other way to get these items.

Photo by Rusty Surette/American Red Cross
While visiting Prime Flats, he noticed one house standing with minimal or no damage with everyone pitching in to fix the roof. Two houses down, there was nothing left but the kitchen walls. Where you might expect to see despair here, instead stood pride. Since they no longer had a front of the house to hang their American flag, the homeowners made a makeshift flag pole from what was left of their mailbox post and some duct tape where that flag is now flying high.

In another area, Ben went to go check in on one gentleman who greeted him at the door and reached out to shake his hand.

“I looked down and noticed we were shaking hands through his screen door.” Ben said. “He didn’t seem shocked by it though and just walked out on the front porch and started talking to me.”

In all, it seems everyone is just grateful that help is there. “Our presence here is hot being overlooked,” Ben said.

Each of these Red Cross volunteers has consoled many tears and felt some uncertainty along with the residents. There still hangs a very present sense of anxiousness among the community. Storm spotters are still on the ground and the television stations are still running a constant scroll across the bottom of the screen telling people where they can get help and what they need to do.

For all of our Red Cross volunteers the days are often long and challenging. In the ERV, there is constant construction, difficult roads and long drives.

“Sometimes we will drive one or two hours to get to the place where we need to be going,” Maureen said.

Ben praises the very cohesive team he is with for keeping things running. A true sign of unity can be found in the staff shelter that was donated to them, a former United Methodist Camp which was unanimously dubbed “Camp Clara Barton”.

Now the areas are facing rains and the fear of widespread flooding is creating renewed concern. Maureen said there was a definite sense of urgency in the neighborhoods with people working as quickly as possible to salvage belongings before the water comes. Not sure when they will return home as the situation continues to change, two things to remain certain. One, these Red Cross volunteers are ready to stay as long as they are needed and, two, they will return with many more stories of strength and resiliency from the these amazing communities.

Video: Getting to Know Red Cross ERV Drivers

Photos: Tornado Damage in Alabama and Mississippi
Photos from Anita Foster and Ben Linke

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