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What Was it Like Responding to Hurricanes in Puerto Rico and St. John Island?

Red Cross Emergency Response Vehicle providing relief after Superstorm Sandy.
“It was incredible to be able to see the difference we were making in people's lives every day,”

Cyndi Dahl, Executive Director for the Central Oregon Chapter of the Red Cross Cascades Region, recently returned from a month-long deployment to the island of St. John.  Dahl aided in disaster relief, in the wake of two historic hurricanes that hit the U.S. Virgin Islands late this summer.
 
Dahl was hired in 2015, but has been a Red Cross volunteer in some capacity for more than twenty years.  She was part of a team from the Red Cross of Oregon and Southwest Washington, that deployed to the U.S. Virgin Island response in September. From the moment the team left the mainland U.S., the journey was an eventful one. Our responders took a flight from Portland to Atlanta, where they then departed for Puerto Rico. Upon reaching the island, the plane circled for two hours, waiting for favorable landing conditions amidst troublesome weather conditions. The plane eventually had to land in the Dominican Republic for refueling, before it later landed at the Puerto Rico airport.  It still took a number of days to secure safe passage by ferry to the island of St. John. Then the real work began.
 
“My role focused on external and community relations,” said Dahl. “I was responsible for communicating and facilitating collaboration with partner organizations and community resource agencies, and then relaying relevant information to residents of the island.”
 
 
 
 
While conditions on the island were far from ideal, Red Cross workers were greeted warmly by locals and had everything they needed to bring supplies and services to residents in need.
 
“Red Cross workers were housed in a hotel that had no power, no internet connection and no cell service,” Dahl said. “But the space was clean and nice, and the people who worked there took good care of us, making sure we had coffee every morning. We had everything we needed to do the job we were sent to do.”
 
 
Every day, Dahl worked closely with community and partner organizations to assess the island residents' greatest needs, and how to meet them. By far, the greatest needs were for water and food. Several times each day, Dahl and other responders drove across the island delivering water and home-cooked meals for people who needed them. At least two local restaurants stepped up in a big way, each providing 1,000 meals per day that Red Cross responders then delivered to residents across St. John. The residents of St. John were beyond grateful.
 
“It was incredible to be able to see the difference we were making in people's lives every day,” said Dahl. “Aside from being able to provide meals and water, just knowing the Red Cross was there was a massive comfort for the residents of St. John. The moment they saw our red vests, they knew everything would be okay. The feeling of being able to bring people that amount of comfort and hope will be with me always.”
 
 
 
The severity of damage that St. John endured from Hurricanes Irma and Maria was breathtaking. Few places had power, and those that did ran on generators for limited duration. Fuel was hard to come by. Responders and residents had no means of telecommunications for weeks following the disasters.
 
“The only way to communicate with people for a while was to take a walk until you found them,” Dahl said.
 
For Dahl, readjusting to her normal life following her deployment was surreal.
 
“It was challenging to put things back in perspective after working nonstop in such an urgent situation for several weeks,” said Dahl. “Once I was back home, even though I went back to work right away, it took a while for anything to feel as urgent as it had before.”
 
 
 
 
Despite its many difficulties, Dahl's deployment experience was unique and one she likely won't be forgetting any time soon. In fact, she's open to returning to the disaster zone if given the opportunity.
 
“It was a life-changing experience.” Dahl said. “I know our relief efforts will be long, and I would go back in an instant.”
 
Recovery in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands will continue for many months, but the process has begun, and Red Cross responders like Cyndi Dahl will be there as long as there is a need. To find out how you can help, visit our volunteer portal at volunteerconnection.redcross.org.