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In Waves, Island Evacuees Came to a Strange Place – Atlanta -- and the Red Cross Was There to Help

Young man stands in the wreckage of a house destroyed by a tornado

(story by Jay Lawrence, Red Cross volunteer)

From the sky, they came in two waves.  The first wave, the largest and loudest, started in September at Dobbins Air Force Base in huge planes – C-130s and their brethren — filled with stretchers.  The second wave came in FEMA air ambulances, in ones, twos, and threes.  And they kept coming, all through the fall.

The patients, hurricane evacuees from the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico, had all kinds of problems.  Many were dialysis patients flown off the islands due to lack of electricity.  Others had serious medical conditions – from heart attacks to crush injuries.  Most were elderly – but the ages ranged down to infants.  A few had high-risk pregnancies.

Thus the Atlanta area, and the Georgia Red Cross have been playing an ongoing role in the response to hurricanes Irma and Maria, welcoming hundreds of medical evacuees and their caregivers from the Caribbean.  Most were from the Virgin Islands. Half came alone, the rest with a relative or caregiver.  By the end of November, the Red Cross had helped almost 400 individuals.

But that’s not all.   Arriving with less fanfare, many on the roads and highways, were hundreds of self-evacuees – and not just from the islands, but from mainland areas affected by the hurricanes of 2017.  The Red Cross was helping many of them too.

What a busy fall it made for Red Cross workers Marilyn Self and Kathleen Innes, Recovery Lead for the Red Cross in Georgia, and their fellow volunteers.  But worse, what a jolting experience, especially for those flying from the islands.

“Imagine you are in a disaster and you are hurt,” said Innes. “And here comes someone who plucks you up and you land in a place where everything is different.  The food is completely different. The culture is different. You have no money.

“All of your family is left behind on an island,” she continued.  “You don’t know if they’re okay and you can’t find out.  And you’re totally dependent on the people around you.  That’s why I encourage our volunteers to listen to their stories.”

Atlanta volunteer who grew up on St. Croix helps a former teacher – and others

Listening to a lot of the evacuees’ stories have been Khaliph West.  A Red Cross volunteer just since Hurricane Harvey, West grew up in St. Croix, although he has lived in Atlanta for 17 years.

“When I meet with them I’m like a familiar face,” he said.  “When they give their address, I know exactly where they live.”

The very first person he helped at Dobbins AFB was one of his middle-school teachers, a Catholic priest with a life-threatening condition.  Soon after he was assisting a friend of his in-laws.  It became a big part of his life. 

Recently he was touched when the evacuees turned the tables on him – surprising him with gifts for his children and for him – and a condolence card after his grandmother, who was living with him, recently died.  Most important were the evacuees’ “abundant thanks.”

West has been just one of the volunteers helping those who were still at extended-stay hotels in December, and who will be in Atlanta for months more. It will be that long before they can return.

Innes said a dozen or more on her volunteer team have met with hurricane victims at nursing homes, residences and hospitals.  The hospital was the first stop for most after Dobbins AFB – and some still remain there.

“We support these clients with immediate needs such as warm clothing, personal items, prescription co-pays and emergency financial assistance,” Innes said. 

For two months, the Red Cross also provided two meals a day at the hotels, after which the federal government took over.

For all that’s been done, Innes noted that the Red Cross has been in a support role, following the lead of government partners starting with FEMA but including especially the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the U.S. Public Health Service and the National Disaster Medical System.

Among the patients the Red Cross helped, Innes, pointed to two young pregnant women from Puerto Rico who gave birth in Atlanta. “They arrived all on their own.  Usually, with new babies, you think of baby showers and joyous relatives.  That didn’t happen.  I think it’s very tough for them.”

For Innes and her team, the work was tiring but fulfilling.  New medical evacuees were continuing to come in. As many as 10 self-evacuees were calling every day.  The team was helping the self-evacuees with immediate health and counseling needs, or referrals to partner organizations.  Those with health issues also qualify for emergency financial assistance.

The team remains busy and would welcome new volunteers who apply at www.redcross.org and are willing to be trained. The Red Cross also welcomes new financial donations at www.redcross.org (or at 1-800-REDCROSS) to take care of survivors of these storms – and those to come.