Hurricane Katrina inspired long-time volunteer to join the American Red Cross

I felt we really gave a lot of people a lot of promise, that is when I realized I wanted to keep working with this organization

On Aug. 29, 2005, a horrified Heidi O’Mara was watching TV images of the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans when she decided she couldn’t take it anymore.

“I’m listening to the mayor of New Orleans calling out to everybody to come and help because they have a major disaster there,” said O’Mara. “And then I’m listening to a man tell the story of how his mother has died in a nursing home, and he’s crying on the phone. That’s when I thought, ‘That’s it! I can’t sit around and do nothing,’” she said.

So she contacted the Broward Office of the American Red Cross South Florida Region and offered to volunteer. She came in, received disaster training, and within two weeks was deployed to Tuscaloosa, Alabama, to work in a shelter the American Red Cross had opened for evacuees from New Orleans, Mississippi and Alabama.

She stayed three weeks in Tuscaloosa, where she helped open another shelter and remembers the Red Cross helping thousands of people.

In fact, according to Red Cross statistics, more than 1,400 emergency shelters in 31 states and the District of Columbia were set up for Hurricane Katrina evacuees, with overnight stays totaling more than 3.8 million.

“I felt we really gave a lot of people a lot of promise,” said O’Mara. “That is when I realized I wanted to keep working with this organization.”

O’Mara has been an American Red Cross volunteer ever since, working in different roles within the international services and emergency disaster relief teams.

While working for the international services team three years ago, which helps reconnect families that have been torn apart by war or disaster, she played an instrumental role in helping to reunite two cousins who had been separated during the Holocaust and had not seen each other in about 60 years.

“It was just an amazing story,” said O’Mara. “For me, being of Jewish faith, the historical aspect of it was just like ‘Oh My God.’”

As part of the disaster relief team, O’Mara has participated in the relief operations for several natural disasters, including Hurricane Wilma, the 2010 Haiti earthquake and, more recently, Tropical Storm Debby. For the latter, she was deployed to Gainesville, Fl., for three weeks and welcomed back by her team in South Florida with lots of gratitude and a welcome-back poster.

When she is not attending to a natural disaster, she is busy either manning the hotline, working as a disaster action team (DAT) dispatcher or being dispatched with other DAT volunteers to provide assistance and comfort to victims of local fires.

Late last month, while several of her fellow volunteers were busy providing relief to those affected by the passage of Tropical Storm Isaac through South Florida, O’Mara was out responding to local fires ensuring that those affected had food, clothing and a place to stay while they put their lives back together.

“It is very rewarding to help our local victims who on a daily basis need help,” said O’Mara. “They have a fire and they have no resources, so we help them. We give them the necessary assistance so that they can figure out a plan to help themselves.”

As for O’Mara, her personal plan is to continue right where she is.

“I’ve always had the passion of wanting to help people,” she said. “And I found a place to do so in the Red Cross.”

If you are interested in volunteering with the American Red Cross, call 1-800-RED-CROSS, visit www.redcross.org or contact your local chapter. Volunteers are the foundation of the Red Cross, comprising more than 90% of the workforce. Our volunteers are the presence of the Red Cross in the communities they serve.

HOW YOU CAN HELP You can call, click or text to make a donation today. Please consider making a donation by visiting www.redcross.org, calling 1-800-RED CROSS (1-800-733-2767) or texting the word REDCROSS to 90999 to make a $10 donation.