Thursday, August 29, 2013

Hurricane Katrina: Memories Still Vivid

by Bridgette Joye, volunteer contributor

In 2005, Hurricanes Katrina, Rita and Wilma ravished the Gulf Coast as one of the worst hurricane seasons in history. Out of the turmoil came a sense of hope and camaraderie as millions across the country banded together to donate or volunteer in order to assist over 400,000 evacuees in emergency response efforts.

Running one of the largest shelter operations in American Red Cross history, the American Red Cross in Dallas, Texas saw an unprecedented number of evacuees. Even though the years have passed, the memories haven’t faded.

James “Dr. Will” Williams, project manager for Lufthansa and long-time Red Cross volunteer, was the shelter manager at the Dallas Convention Center, home to thousands of Katrina and Rita evacuees for nearly two months.
Red Cross volunteer Will Williams knows that
this family is going to need a lot of help
“I responded to the call for help and reported to the shelter at the Convention Center. My heart immediately tore.” Dr. Will stated. “People realized there was assistance being offered there and at Reunion Arena and were coming in droves.”

“One story that I’ll never forget was a gentleman who had just had bypass surgery,” said Williams. “He was having a bad reaction because he had been in the water and we had to get him transported to the hospital. He had to have surgery again.”

“A few days later,” Dr. Will continued, “his family came looking for him. Of course we couldn’t give out any information at the time; but I was familiar with the family and the gentleman. The family went into the registration area and confirmed their relation, and I called the hospital to connect them so they could visit him in the hospital.” The family was reunited and the gentleman’s surgery was a success.

Unlike Dr. Will, many people became Red Cross volunteers because of Hurricane Katrina, because they wanted to help. One of the new Red Cross volunteers during Hurricane Katrina was Michelle Tanner, a PR and marketing consultant and now a veteran volunteer on the public affairs team. “I had three hours of orientation,” Tanner recalls. “Then they gave me a t-shirt and said ‘go forth and volunteer.’”
Reunion Arena was the site of one of the largest shelter
operations in American Red Cross history.
(Photo credit: KERA)
On her first day, ironically September 11, Tanner was tasked with helping to announce how financial assistance would be distributed to evacuees and she had to help reporters understand how the Red Cross was working with the City of Dallas to being moving people from the shelter into apartments.

“I was completely exhausted,” said Tanner. “But it was the most exciting day I’d ever had in my entire career as a PR professional…so I signed up for the next week.”

The outpouring of local volunteers who wanted to help out was overwhelming. Susie Spartano, director of volunteer services, remembers the chaos to this day.

“We typically had about 25 people fill out a volunteer application each month before the storm,” said Spartano. “After Hurricane Katrina we received approximately 8,000 volunteer applications.”

A challenge the Dallas-area chapter faced was managing the massive influx of volunteer support. It was not easy; but it was necessary to revamp the volunteer in-take process within days after the storm hit.

“Katrina was a wake-up call for the Red Cross and for the country in terms of emergency management,” Spartano added.

Eight years ago, volunteer applications were paper only and volunteers experienced a slight delay in getting assigned to duties as background checks and training had to be conducted. These things took time. Today; however, the Red Cross has an online application system, web-based training and a database for volunteer tracking.

Due to the overwhelming support of new volunteers during Hurricane Katrina, the Red Cross has also developed a process for creating a spontaneous volunteer in-take center, which during an emergency response, is set-up to specifically assist the Red Cross in training and facilitating new volunteers.

Like Dr. Will and Michelle Tanner, many individuals that helped out during Hurricane Katrina are still volunteering with the Red Cross. While there may not be a need for thousands of volunteers at your local chapter on a daily basis, it’s still beneficial to sign up to volunteer whether you’re assisting with the day-to-day efforts or if you want to help out during times of emergency response.

“Sometimes it’s difficult to be involved at the level you want to be involved,” Spartano explained. “Because of Hurricane Katrina, we developed a volunteer reserve corps... a group of volunteers that would like to help out during a large disaster like Katrina. They are still connected to the organization, so we already have their background checks and their training and applications done.”

The process of becoming a Red Cross volunteer takes time. It is a much quicker process today than it was during Hurricane Katrina, thanks to lessons learned and the new technology; but there is still a protocol to be followed and you can get ahead of the next storm if you apply and get trained now.

Spartano puts it best by saying, “Train when the skies are blue so you are ready when the skies are grey.”

Start your Red Cross story today. Learn more about volunteering at


  1. Sad no mention of the Mass Care Task Force that was formed as a reaction to Katrina.

    1. That's a good point. The Mass Care Task Force was formed so that we and our partner organizations can better respond to disasters of that size. As we saw with Katrina, a relief operation of that scale takes a tremendous amount of work, coordination and dedication, especially from our amazing volunteer force. With the Mass Care Task Force in place, we hope to be better ready to help the people who need it most.

      Thanks for your comment!


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