During my six years at the helm of the American Red Cross, I have seen a number of devastating disasters, and you think you would get used to it, but you never do. On my trip to Arkansas this past weekend, the damage I saw, to homes and lives, was indescribable and heartbreaking.
I toured the communities struck by one of many deadly tornadoes last week, with Jeh Johnson, Secretary of Homeland Security; former President Bill Clinton, Senator Mark Pryor, Congressman Tim Griffin and other local, state and federal officials.
The sights we saw were unbelievable.
Everything on the ground looked chopped up – tons of lumber, bricks and the bones of houses pulverized. Then, amidst this dark and twisted backdrop, you see the bright color of a doll, or a beanie baby, or a piece of needlepoint - reminders of the real people who lived here.
The stories I heard reinforce the terrifying power of nature when unleashed. One man was searching desperately for his dog, a chocolate Labrador, only to find him in a tree – not because the dog had climbed up there, but because he had been tossed up there by the tornado. Fortunately, the dog survived, and the Fire Department got him down and reunited him with his owner.
Then I saw a power boat that had been blown yards away with a 2x4 piece of lumber jammed like a spear into the sturdy fiberglass walls of the boat, which seemed so fragile in the face of the storm.
President Clinton and I talked with a young man, who was just getting married that day the tornado struck. They had a joyous ceremony outdoors at the top of one the highest peaks surrounding the town. Then the winds picked up and chaos ensued. They couldn’t find their daughter, who had gotten into their car thinking they were going home. After a period of frantic searching, they found her in the car but the wind was so strong they couldn’t open the doors, until a lull came in the middle of the storm. They got her back into the church and were so thankful she was safe, only moments later to receive texts from neighbors telling them their home, where the reception was planned, was totally gone.
But the most amazing story was what happened to a family huddled in their home when it was blown away by the wind. A heavy bathtub that had been carried into the air by the wind landed right on the family, but instead of crushing them, it covered them and kept them safe through the storm. It was truly a miracle.
Red Cross workers and volunteers were everywhere, going house to house to find out what people needed and driving our emergency response vehicles through neighborhoods offering meals and clean-up supplies. In Arkansas alone, the Red Cross has served 46,000 meals and snacks and delivered 12,000 relief items. Throughout the week, the Red Cross responded in a total of 14 states, serving 134,000 meals and snacks, hosting more than 1,300 shelter stays, and deploying nearly 1,900 workers and volunteers.
None of this help would have been possible without the generous donations from so many individuals and companies who have come to the aid of their neighbors in need. This help is truly making a difference in people’s lives, and many people came out of their homes to tell us how grateful they were. We have also had extraordinary cooperation and coordination with FEMA and other government entities, as well as our other non-profit partners such as The Salvation Army, Southern Baptist Disaster Relief, Catholic Charities and Islamic Relief USA.
Even in the midst of total devastation, you see signs of the enormous resilience of people, and it gives you hope. One woman we met came up to us smiling from ear to ear and told us her story. Her entire family had made it to their safe house, and survived the storm, and she talked about how lucky she was. But her home was gone and all her possessions with it.
As she picked through the wreckage, thinking about all she had lost, she found a broach that had belonged to her mother. Talk about finding a needle in a haystack! It was all she needed to keep the memory of her loved one, alive, and, as she told us, with such gratitude and optimism in the midst of loss, “The angels put it there.”
Gail McGovern is president and CEO of the American Red Cross.