One sure sign of a disaster-filled year? The American Red Cross has had a shelter open every day somewhere in the country since April 4.
Thousands of people have taken refuge with the Red Cross over the past six months because of tornadoes, floods, wildfires and tropical systems. These are just a few stories from some of the many shelters that were opened during that time.
April 19, Wake Forest, N.C.
Leobardo Olvera, his wife Rosa and their three children went to a Red Cross shelter in Wake Forest, N.C., after their neighborhood was hit by a tornado on April 16.
Olvera told how he and Rosa gathered 5-year-old son Leo Jr., 7-year-old daughter Lezith and 11-year-old son Mario in the center of their mobile home, away from any windows. When the tornado struck, it shook the entire trailer and air pressure blew out all the windows.
Twenty minutes after it passed, the family emerged from their home to a bright sunny sky and a horrible scene of destruction. Trailers on either side of them had been blown into pieces, and big pines had fallen on others.
“I don’t know what my family and I would have done without the support of the Red Cross,” he said. “We have lost everything, and it is only through the kindness and generosity of the Red Cross that we are going to be able to make a start back. Without the Red Cross we would have had nothing!”
April 26, Mineral Wells, Texas
In this small town outside Fort Worth, local residents gathered outside the Red Cross shelter each night to cheer their heroes—fire crews that went out each day to fight wildfires.
"The guys send us a text message to let us know they're on their way home," said Tina Draper, Red Cross shelter manager. "That's when the community begins to assemble. When the guys pull up on their trucks, they're so exhausted and covered in soot, but they perk right up when they see all of the people lined up to cheer them on."
Inside the shelter, drawings of support from local school kids line the walls, and the smell of good southern home cooking wafts through the air.
"We just want to do all we can to help these firefighters through this difficult time," said Draper. "The Red Cross, all the local churches, the schools, everyone has been working side by side to make sure that every family and every firefighter is cared for."
May 16, Tunica, Miss.
Brenda Griffin had already been through great emotional upheaval this year, and that was before the area known as “the cutoff” in Tunica, Miss., was covered by flood water. Many of the homes in the area were stilted as a precaution, but those homes and three fishing camps were wiped out by the Mississippi River in early May.
As Griffin told Red Cross worker Dominic Di Girolamo, her mom had recently died after a battle with cancer, and she had to put down one of her beloved pets. The small town has also lost several of its residents to illness in the past few months. And now she had lost her home.
“I’ve never been in a situation where I don’t have anything,” said Griffin. “I’m separated from all my stuff; I feel disoriented, like I’m floating on a raft in the ocean. My mom was always there for me and now she’s gone. She was the person who grounded everything.”
Griffin described the Red Cross shelter in Tunica as a safe haven where she and other Tunica residents from the cutoff could meet to catch up. Local restaurants and businesses were closed, so the folks from the cutoff met at the shelter to check in with each other.
As waters remained high for weeks through many parts of Mississippi and Louisiana, Red Cross volunteers like Di Girolamo were there to help residents through what was for many a life-changing disaster.
May 25, Joplin, Mo.
In a Red Cross shelter set up at Missouri Southern State University, William Whittenbach shared a cup of coffee with his wife Lorna. Only two days before, they had been sitting comfortably in their home in Joplin having dinner when the tornado warning sirens began to wail.
“My husband got on the floor and I got down behind a piece of furniture, next to the wall and away from the windows,” Lorna said. “When the tornado hit our home we were both beat up pretty badly. Everything collapsed on top of us, and we had to be pulled from the wreckage of our home.” They survived, but their home of 15 years was destroyed.
“I would rather be back in my own home,” remarked Lorna. “But everyone here at the Red Cross shelter has treated me so nice, and I am very comfortable here.”
September 26, Tunkhannock, Pa.
“Everyone is hurting. We all understand that, but because of my nursing training I recognized she needed more help than just finding an apartment,” said Ellie Berman as she spoke of Sandra Coolbaugh, whom she met at a Red Cross shelter in Tunkhannock, Pa.
Coolbaugh, who had remained in her basement apartment for several days after it was completely flooded, was soon overtaken by the mold and mildew, so she headed to the Red Cross shelter at the local high school. Upon arrival, her health and wellness exam was handled by Nurse Ellie Berman, and an immediate kinship developed.
Berman learned that Coolbaugh, who was on several medications, had had none in a month, so she immediately began to secure oxygen and other necessary medications to assist Coolbaugh in her physical recovery. She went above and beyond the call of duty and enlisted the help of several community agencies to secure Coolbaugh a secure place to live—a place where there are hot meals and companionship.
“She is my angel. I can’t tell you all she did...but she is my angel,” said Coolbaugh, with tears in her eyes.