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Red Cross Disaster Leader Retires After Four Decades of Service

Forty-one years ago a young man asked his college professor where he should look for a job and was told to try the American Red Cross. That young student took his teacher’s advice and spent the next four decades helping people all over the globe through his work with the Red Cross. That young man was Armond Mascelli, who will retire as vice president of Disaster Services for the Red Cross.

Hurricanes, floods, tornadoes, earthquakes, over the past 41 years, Mascilli has served on and directed numerous disaster relief operations throughout the United States, Puerto Rico, Central America and the U.S. Virgin Islands. He also served on Red Cross assignments in South Vietnam, Thailand, Japan, Canada, Mexico, Turkey and Guam.

“We have been very fortunate to have Armond’s wisdom, talent and experience for 41 years,” said Gail McGovern, president of the American Red Cross. “Thanks to him, we’ve helped countless numbers of people. The country’s response to disasters is stronger today because of him.”

Mascelli began his career in September of 1970 as part of Red Cross Service to Military Installations, now known as Service to the Armed Forces (SAF).

“I was in Vietnam at the tail end of the war,” he explained. “I was stationed in Da Nang for a year, then in Thailand.” Part of his duties included relaying emergency communications from home to U.S. servicemen overseas.

"The Red Cross is always looking to the future, to change, to improve..."

After leaving for a short time to attend graduate school, Mascelli returned to the Red Cross, this time joining Disaster Services as part of the Eastern Operations headquarters in Alexandria, Virginia. In the mid-1980s, he joined the disaster staff at Red Cross headquarters in Washington, D.C.

There have been many significant disasters over the past forty years and Mascelli remembers them all, particularly the Johnstown flood of 1977. That’s because he met his future wife, Kathy, in the midst of the disaster response. He was a young disaster worker responding to the devastation and she was a Red Cross volunteer helping her hometown cope and recover. Two years later they were married in Johnstown and today reside in the Washington, D.C., metro area where they raised their two daughters, Amanda and Kristina.

Mascilli was assigned to the Three Mile Island nuclear disaster near Harrisburg, Pa. in 1979, and was part of the task force at Indiantown Gap near Lebanon, Pa., helping the more than 19,000 refugees brought there during the Cuban Boat Lift in 1980 and 1981.

“I was one of about 200 in the task force,” he recalled. “Overnight they flew in about 19,000 people who arrived on boats from Cuba with nothing but the clothes on their backs. We scrambled to find clothing for 19,000 people and Sears came to our rescue.”

Mascilli has been part of the Red Cross response to major national and international disasters over the past four decades. He recalled hurricanes Hugo, Andrew, Mitch and Katrina, the Loma Prieta and North Ridge earthquakes and the 1993 flooding in the Midwest.

“I traveled to Nicaragua, El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala to respond after Hurricane Mitch in 1999,” he said. “It was eye opening to see such a degree of poverty so close to the United States.” He received the 2011 National Hurricane Conference Distinguished Service Award for leading the Red Cross disaster response in every major hurricane since 1985.

After a series of aviation disasters between 1994 and 1996, he represented the Red Cross on the Task Force on Aviations Disasters and later in the development of the Department of Homeland Security's National Response Plan. The face of disaster has changed during Mascelli’s tenure. Relief response has grown beyond a charity to the expectation that the government will play a role in helping communities recover.

“People expect a quick response today,” he said. “They want their utilities back on, their roads open, the rebuilding to begin. Increased urbanization has more people living in the same area, putting more people at an annual increased risk. A loss of utilities for eight or nine days could have a huge impact. And there are international implications – the most recent the earthquake and nuclear issues in Japan. These are all challenges to the Red Cross.”

When asked if it was ever difficult to stay in a field that witnesses so much devastation and sadness, he said the good work the Red Cross does was motivation to stay in the job.

“Disaster is unfair, heartbreaking,” he said. “Working for the Red Cross is an opportunity to provide assistance to those in need. I’ve met a ton of real interesting people – good people – through my years with Red Cross.

“The people I work with really believe in the principles of the Red Cross, the mission,” he said. “And our volunteers – they amaze me. It’s neighbor helping neighbor. People in this country want to help when something happens, it’s part of their makeup.

“Part of being with the Red Cross is to make it better. I’m passing this to someone else for them to make improvements,” Mascelli said. “The Red Cross is always looking to the future, to change, to improve. We’re an old organization, but we’re still relevant. I attribute that to our mission, our volunteers and adapting to meet the changing needs of those we serve.”