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Longtime Volunteer Reflects on International Disaster Experience

Michele Devlin
People are impacted now by natural disasters more than any other time in history. So the need for disaster response will continue to grow.

Michele Devlin decided she wanted to join the American Red Cross when she was only in her early twenties. Devlin lived in Los Angeles at the time, and noticed the Red Cross recruiting volunteers to respond to fires and earthquakes.

Since she was pursuing a degree in international relations, she thought volunteering would not only give her career experience, but also allow her to give back to the community.

During her first Red Cross assignment, Devlin worked at a shelter for those forced from their homes by the Whittier earthquake in 1987. She recalled that several shelters opened following the earthquake. As a shelter manager, she was responsible for providing a safe environment to those in need.

Since then, Devlin has remained very involved in disaster response. Over the past 30 years as a Red Cross volunteer, she has responded to about 12 disasters a year. Now, when she isn’t teaching at University of Northern Iowa in Cedar Falls, she is a member of the Hawkeye Chapter disaster action team. She is also certified as a disaster action instructor and teaches volunteers about disaster services, damage assessment, and providing help to victims of disaster.

Along with volunteering for the Red Cross in the United States, Devlin has helped with disaster responses internationally. She has deployed on two major responses; including Haiti after the January 2010 earthquake and more recently to the Philippines after Typhoon Haiyan in November 2013. She said that helping abroad is always a much different experience than disaster response in the United States. “When we are called into other countries, it is because there is a massive level of destruction and death,” she said. “You just don’t see that devastation in the United States.”

Devlin said when you work with international disaster response it is can be very competitive. She said only about 12 to 16 disaster workers from the entire American Red Cross will travel. “The host country will bring specialists in from all over the world to help,” she said. “They want people who are experts in the specific areas that they need.”

Devlin also said you are invited in by a host country as a disaster responder; you must do whatever it is they ask of you when you get there. On these two responses she said her team’s main focus was disaster relief and assessment. “We would go into remote villages and interview the people there to figure out what relief resources they needed,” she said. They then would then set up mass distribution sites where volunteers hand out food, drinking water, and tents to people in the affected area. Devlin said on a normal day they would distribute over 2000 tents and food.

Through all of her experiences with the Red Cross, Devlin said helping those who have had their world turned upside down from a disaster is the most rewarding. “To go in and help them get a grip on the situation as a first responder is exciting, and I love that very much,” she said. “Countries that are affected by large scale disasters are usually without as many resources to help recover, and it has been the opportunity of a lifetime to help contribute to that recovery.”

“People are impacted now by natural disasters more than any other time in history. So the need for disaster response will continue to grow” Devlin said.