As you approach the scene of a natural disaster, it’s nearly overwhelming. Every time.
On Coney Island, residents in the area told me that there was an elderly lady in a wheelchair who lived in a high-rise building and needed help. I walked up more than 20 floors and knocked on her door.
“Who are you?” I heard a very quiet voice say.
“I’m from the Red Cross and came all the way from Texas to help you.”
I gave her blankets and food. She sat there with a hot tray of food on her lap, and you could immediately see what a difference it made. I reported to the Red Cross nurses that she needed more help than I could give her.
As a volunteer for the American Red Cross, I flew from San Antonio to New York on Oct. 31 to help the victims of Hurricane Sandy, one of more than 15,000 trained disaster workers deployed by the Red Cross in the wake of an enormous disaster.
Sandy made landfall in the United States on Oct. 29, bringing with her 80 mph winds that knocked out power, and produced heavy rainfall, flooding and a destructive storm surge. It impacted an area the size of Europe, left 125 people dead, and caused tens of billions of dollars in property damage across New York, New Jersey and other northeastern states. I was assigned to the American Red Cross in Greater New York, on 49th Street in Manhattan, where we were deployed around the region to help in the areas that were hardest hit.
Breezy Point, in the New York City borough of Queens on Rockaway Peninsula, is home to many generations of firefighters and police officers, both active duty and retired. Breezy Point sustained heavy damage from flooding, and nearly 100 homes burned to the ground.
I talked with Joseph Aminolfi, a local fireman, who said he was hesitant to be interviewed because so many people had lost so much more than he had (his basement was flooded). He said local firefighters tried to respond when the fire started, but their fire trucks had all been flooded with seawater and they couldn’t even find the fire hydrants because they were under six feet of water. They tried to fight the blaze by pumping seawater. Nearly everything that caught fire burned down to the foundation, Aminolfi said.
The firefighters and police officers whose homes were damaged or destroyed all seemed to be reluctant to talk about their own personal losses. Uncomfortable, I think, because they’re typically not the victims – they’re used to being the rescuers.
My work as a Red Cross disaster volunteer is usually in public affairs – we hear people’s stories, write them down and pass them along to the Red Cross. Our stories are used to help determine what people’s needs are and to share with media outlets. For example, we might observe a mass feeding and try to determine how well it’s working and what else is needed to make it work. We are the eyes and ears for the Red Cross. I think working in public affairs is important in order to tell the lucky ones what’s happened to the unlucky ones and vice versa. Be grateful for what you have because it could be gone in a second.
When I respond to a disaster, I know my role as a public affairs worker. But when you wear that red vest, you represent the whole of American Red Cross and that means you’ll have to commit and adapt to each situation. You can’t just play one role, you have to adapt to play them all.
In addition to my public affairs duties, I have fed people, distributed comfort kits and blankets, organized feeding sites, knocked on doors, provided psychological comfort to people, done needs assessments and made referrals. The best thing is just to be able to help people.
At Lido Beach, a working middle-class and retirement community on Long Island, Hurricane Sandy sent 10 feet of water rushing in. The place was just devastated. We heard about a senior center that was without power, and the residents were cold and had not been attended to. This was an entire week after the disaster.
We filled the car with blankets and comfort kits and hot and cold food. When we got there, we would knock on doors and people would just burst into tears. They had no power, no access to media, so they didn’t understand the scope of the disaster and why it was taking so long to get help. They thought they had been abandoned. So we listened, reassured them and promised that more help was on the way.
Many people in the region had no grasp of the enormity of the storm and its impact, and thus, why they had not yet received the attention and help they needed. People who suffer in a natural disaster don’t want to feel alone. They want to know that other people know what’s happened to them. They want help.
One elderly man in a mass shelter in Brooklyn – he had been evacuated from a nursing home – told me he wanted to jump off the Brooklyn Bridge. He had been there two weeks and wasn’t getting the care he was accustomed to. He missed his room and his bed and didn’t know how long he would be there. He was fed up and just needed someone to talk to. He didn’t understand the magnitude of what had happened to the region and why everything was taking so long. Once he did, it was like a weight was lifted off of him. By the time I left, he was smiling.
In my “real life” at home, I am serving my second term as the Converse City Councilman for Place 6. Since I am retired from the Air Force, I’m able to spend most of my time as a volunteer. In addition to responding to disasters for the American Red Cross, I am active with Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA). CASA volunteers are appointed by judges to watch over and speak up for abused and neglected children. I do other volunteer work, too. My philosophy is that if you’re going to complain about something, you need to be part of the solution, otherwise you’re part of the problem.
I’ve responded to five or six major disasters for the Red Cross since I became a volunteer with the San Antonio Area Chapter in 2004 – Hurricane Katrina, Hurricane Gustav and Hurricane Ike, and major floods on the Mississippi River. Stephanie, my wife, understands my passion for this and the other volunteer work that I do and is very supportive. So is Converse Mayor Al Suarez, when I’ve missed a couple of City Council meetings.
In addition to the individuals deployed in response to Hurricane Sandy, the American Red Cross has provided more than nine million meals and snacks, 81,000 stays in shelters, 103,000 health and emotional support contacts, 6.7 million personal relief items such as cold-weather gear and cleaning supplies, and sent in more than 300 emergency-response vehicles. About 1,400 Red Cross workers continue to support Hurricane Sandy survivors through the relief work, which continued through Christmas and past the New Year holiday.
I left New York on Nov. 15, tired and ready to go home, but I was so glad I was able to impact people’s lives. That red vest with a cross on it is a sign of hope. Help is coming.
Steve Brown serves on the City Council in Converse, Texas (just northeast of San Antonio) for Place 6 and works with local and national disaster relief and youth outreach programs.
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